Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Darksiders II - The Apocalypse Continues, And It's Still Awesome

Tragedy has struck within the gaming industry. Long-time developer and publisher THQ is suffering from heavy financial trouble, closing down studios while cancelling various projects and narrowly avoiding a NASDAQ delisting. At this point, the company needs to put quality above all else if it wishes to thrive into the next gaming generation, a strategy that they have recognized and have tried to emphasize over the last few months. With both success and failure along the way, they need a hit game now more than ever. Despite a slightly flawed presentation, I greatly hope that Darksiders II will be what gets them back on their feet.

I'll admit that the following premise is something that I couldn't look up in an instruction manual or on the back of the game box for reference and instead had to glean from a couple of websites, since apparently we are in an age where we don't like manuals and the best we can get is a piece of paper (which may or may not fold out) that may or may not tell you anything (this one at least has the courtesy to give you the control scheme): After War is captured for his supposed crimes against the Kingdom of Man, the Charred Council inform the other three Horsemen of it. Death, knowing his brother to be the most honorable and incorruptible of them and would never trigger the Apocalypse early, is enraged by this. Believing it to be conspiracy, he defies the Council and sets off on a personal quest to find evidence that will clear his brother's name. His journey takes him across The Abyss, a place between the three realms, where he seeks the beings that reside there for assistance.

In true Darksiders fashion, the game takes the player through the story by homaging some of gaming's greats. While I still got a God of War and Devil May Cry vibe, with a hint of Portal, I also felt a little Prince of Persia in the mix while playing this time around. As with the first game, I've heard comparisons with The Legend of Zelda, combined this time with Diablo. I haven't played any games related to both of those franchises so I can't really agree with these statements. However, based on what I've heard about the gameplay from them, I can sort of see what they're talking about if not exactly. In any case, the returning elements have been improved upon and the new additions help raise the game to a new high.

Unlike its predecessor, Darksiders II has a heavy emphasis on RPG elements. It is possible now to have an inventory of various items, including primary weapons (Scythes) and secondary weapons (Maces, Arm Blades, Hammers, etc.), greaves, upper and lower body wear and talismans. These items and weapons can be obtained through breakable objects or killing enemies and each item has various stats associated with it depending on what you find. This creates a deep level of customization to suit any and all play styles, which I've found can change depending on what you find to be more practical. For example, I started primarily using scythes with heavy weapons for crowd control, but after a certain point in the game I used a particular set of arm blades near exclusively, emphasizing speed and using scythes to extend my damage combos.

The RPG styling also has two things that come with the territory: shops and a level system complete with skill trees. During gameplay you can collect Gilt, the currency of the Darksiders universe, which can be used to purchase just what you'd expect: items, weapons, health and wrath potions and extra combat moves. The amount of Gilt that can be obtained is infinite, but the rate of collection is surprisingly high. You can even sell off items to afford new ones from vendors, a highly recommended action for many reasons, with the most powerful weapons coming at an appropriately high price. By the time I considered myself finished for my review however I had above 200,000 Gilt on me, which is well more than enough to get by at the end game.

As for the level system, killing enemies and completing quests rewards the player with XP and increases the length of a gray bar present on the HUD. When the bar reaches the end, Death levels up and gains stat boosts and a skill point. Skill points can be spent within two different skill trees, representing his skills as a Harbinger, directly tying into direct assault, and a Necromancer, involving spells that summon forth different beings. Skills gained here can be extremely useful in combat, my favorite one in particular being one that allows you to summon forth flocks of demonic crows to damage enemies and harvest you more health and wrath. It is even possible, through interaction with the returning character Vulgrim, to reset your skill trees and reassign skill points for your personal pleasure. However, I'll admit that once I maxed out all of the crow skills and got raising the dead to a good level, I could easily depend on my summons to take down larger enemies much faster to the point where I almost never took my scythes out.

Combat feels a little different when handling Death rather than War. For one thing, the combat felt faster and more fluid, with an equally fluid dodge mechanic in place of blocking to help emphasize the speed. This gave me more thrills and while actions are still determined by pressing only two buttons for the most part, the various moves and weapons available, including Strife's Redemption gun, offered a different atmosphere. The enemies are still very detailed and stylized, with AI that gives the player a challenge as well, especially when it makes taking down the tougher ones a lot more thrilling and makes the player feel like the pale rider himself.

As with the combat, I noticed an improvement in the platforming abilities of Death. While it's not really platforming in the normal sense, there's still plenty of wall running a la Prince of Persia. It is possible to use the environment in new ways to continue momentum while going to the next spot, including wall posts, wall jumping and posts that require a device not unlike Nero's Devil Bringer arm from Devil May Cry 4. I once again use the word fluid to describe the motions involved in this and puzzles which require these acrobatic feats are challenging enough that you actually feel smart for completing them. Other puzzles reward the same feeling, especially when powers earned later in the game make them increasingly elaborate.

Some of the platforming and puzzles actually involve the returning Voidwalker item from Darksiders, though it only fires blue portals this time around. I felt that it was integrated much better into the gameplay here, including the visual style of the portal-able surfaces and the fact that they now fit behind the entire portal every time. A new upgrade for it also helps a brilliantly designed puzzle level, though I won't really spoil it to keep the surprise there.

The environment in this game is much larger compared to its predecessor, giving it a more open world. Death's horse, Despair, can be used to get across the landscape fairly quickly, with a fast travel option to make it easier to get to locations marked on the game map. Everything also feels larger, creating a larger sense of scale. At times this can make it a little confusing to figure out where to go next in an area without an obvious symbol on the HUD map. Fortunately, Death's crow, Dust, can be commanded with a click of the left stick to show you the way to the next location. It's a nice feature, though I've found its effectiveness to sometimes depend on what your surroundings are like.

As I felt with the previous installment, the story, while still intriguing and original, is something I didn't feel completely invested in. While it does expand on the story well and focuses on Death's character in allowing him to question his morality, I still didn't get a sense of how big the apocalypse truly was, since "Earth" still means that one city we saw previously. There are interesting characters however and the explanation for the events, a great corruption, seems to make some amount of sense. It is fascinating to think about how both Darksiders games thus far take place at the same time, which means that an expanded pattern would mean a singular story told in parts, but I still didn't feel that hook to get me truly engrossed in the world and characters. To put it simply, it's like turning an amp that can go to 11 only up to 10; 10 is powerful indeed, but sometimes you need that extra kick and need to crank it to 11.

Before I end my review however, I'd like to talk about codes. More specifically, the sheer number of them this game has. My GameStop pre-order got me the Death Rides Pack containing additional side quests (one); I had to input the code for the online pass (two); The Limited Edition, automatic upgrade, came with a code for the Argul's Tomb DLC (three) which I had to input on another website to try and get a redeemable code (four); I decided to buy the strategy guide under the promise that I would get the Fletcher's Crow Hammer (five) if I redeemed the code on another website to get a redeemable code (six); If you "Like" a Facebook page, you get a code for Rusanov's Axe (seven); Signing into your THQ account before actually starting to play grants you codes for the Van der Schmash (eight) and Mace Maximus (nine).

An Artist's Rendering
Yes, I did actually deal with that many codes to get what I was entitled to. To add to the pain, the system seemed overwhelmed upon release, delaying when I actually got my codes, and when I could access the two sign-in weapons, by up to a day. It is simply crazy when a game like this has that much DLC right off the bat, especially when the player has to jump through so many hoops just to try and get everything they qualified for. If that wasn't enough, I still haven't gotten the code for Argul's Tomb at the time of this writing (a full week after release), which seems to indicate that its not even available yet. Maybe they should cut down on this the next time around so people don't get so exhausted.

At this point, I'd also like to address one complaint that I have about the game: Inventory space. Inventory, while seemingly big, is also very limiting. It may not hit you for quite a while, but at some point you may have no room if you're a gamer like me that absentmindedly keeps it full until the game informs you that you need to remove some stuff (this describes how I've managed to play every RPG ever). This would be alright with me if not for one particular event. A bonus boss exists in the game known as the Deposed King and I lost when trying to fight him while with too low a level to do anything. To that end, I decided to wait until after beating the game before trying again, since I knew I would be a lot stronger then. Well, after a few days, I tried again and after a couple of tries reigned victorious. I was finally ready to receive the Legendary item for beating him, the Scepter of the Deposed King, but then my heart sank when the game told me that I was unable to get it because my inventory was full.

After calming down greatly from the initial frustration of this event, I realized how it could still have given me the item if Vigil wanted to program it with a fix in mind instead of depending on everyone's inventories to be practically empty at the time. Either: The game could tell you to expel some equipment first, meaning that it would buffer the item into the inventory when sufficient room (one slot) was created; they could have made the item a drop in this situation instead of automatically trying to give it to you, meaning that the game would automatically put it in your inventory unless it detected insufficient space in which case it becomes an item you can pick up; they could have taken advantage of the Serpent Tome system to reward you with Legendary weapons and items.

To elaborate, Serpent Tomes are physical locations in the game that work similarly to an in-game email client. Periodically, or when you enter an item code, the game will alert you when a new item has been sent to you. When you go to a Serpent Tome and open a message, the item gets added to your inventory. In fact, if you have an online pass, it is possible to send or trade items with other players. I think that if they also applied this to Legendary weapons as a backup, I wouldn't need to try and get someone to send me their Scepter. Then again, I'm the kind of gamer that likes to have a full set and earn it properly, so at some point in the future, I might try to replay the game through a New Game Plus to try and regain the scepter.

One final minor complaint: navigating every menu is done exclusively with the left analog stick, rather than the more natural D-Pad. This threw me off a bit at first and as I played, I began to think of different ways that navigation could have been handled and yet still incorporate both sticks. For example: D-Pad to navigate and left stick to scroll descriptions on items menus, with the right stick to still search the map screen.

Darksiders II is a great improvement over the original. While the story still isn't completely engaging, plus a couple of other annoyances, the improvements to combat and puzzle solving alone make this game well worth picking up. In a time of financial crisis, I hope that enough people get this game so that THQ may still thrive as a publisher and that Vigil may be able to work on a Darksiders III; this series is really growing on me.

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