Saturday, March 14, 2020

Darksiders Genesis

As a longtime follower of the Darksiders franchise, I await the day when all four Horsemen finally have their own games and then one final game to tie everything together. That plan was delayed by the struggles of THQ, but now that Darksiders III seems to have been successful, I have renewed faith in a future with Darksiders IV. In the meantime, Darksiders Genesis has come along to help bolster the franchise with a new game without another long gap between sequels, as well as offer a new gameplay style and a story that takes place before the original game. With that in mind, I had a lot of fun with this game, more consistently than Darksiders III, but there are still some things Airship Syndicate needs to fix.

From the Nephilim, beings created from the union of angels and demons, four of them pledged themselves to the Charred Council and became Horsemen. However, the Horsemen were then ordered to slaughter the rest of their kind on Eden, the site for their bloodbath. Still reeling from their actions, two of the Horsemen, War and Strife, are given another assignment by the Council. Lucifer, the demon king, has been plotting to upset the balance by gathering the forces of Hell. War and Strife hunt down Lucifer to end his plot, but get involved in a tangled conspiracy in the process.

Strife (left) and War (right) are tasked with
stopping Lucifer from disrupting the Balance.

As far as story goes, Darksiders Genesis isn’t the best thing ever written, but it’s still engaging and I liked how it fleshed out the Darksiders universe and laid the groundwork for the later games (chronologically). I also liked the banter between the characters, especially War and Strife, as it gave us an insight into who they are while still leaving room for a good amount of humor. The more important moments are presented through gorgeous comic book-style cutscenes, a move that makes sense for what seems like a low-budget game. What would’ve helped, however, would be if the subtitle text was timed better during both these cutscenes and dialogue exchanges in the field.

Darksiders Genesis uses comic book-style cutscenes.

The most immediately noticeable thing about Darksiders Genesis’ gameplay is a shift from the more traditional Zelda-like RPG style to a top-down Diablo style, a shift that is fortunately fun to play. It seems that Airship Syndicate made this choice to better incorporate the new Co-Op function, which allows two players, on- or offline, to take on the roles of War and Strife or one player to swap between both characters at will. While the Co-Op mode is not required to beat the game, as I managed by myself, it’s a welcome addition to the series, especially as the differing gameplay styles between War and Strife require true cooperation to conquer multiple combat scenarios and complete certain objectives. Playing alone also isn’t as daunting as it sounds, since the game has a gradual learning curve, though one boss admittedly added a steep, frustrating difficulty spike. I personally tried to play as Strife as often as I could, since I could play him for the first time, but I adapted when Strife’s focus on ranged control with guns and various ammo types wouldn’t work, but War’s more close-range melee focus with powerful elemental attacks would.

As per tradition for the series, there’s also a Metroidvania element that encourages replaying missions to try and obtain hidden items or complete optional objectives for additional rewards. Naturally, certain equipment you earn in later missions can also help with opening new routes or finding some more elusive items when you take them into earlier segments. Another tradition is the ability to transform the Horsemen into more powerful versions of themselves after filling up a meter through combat. War’s Chaos Form makes a return here, but Genesis also features Strife’s Anarchy Form, which enhances his playstyle with a Gatling gun and bombing system, for the first time in the series. These transformations are worth the effort and can often turn the tide of battle, especially against more difficult bosses.

Strife's Anarchy Form is awesome to play.

Unlike many other RPGs, War and Strife don’t get stronger through gaining EXP. Instead, you collect Creature Cores that enemies occasionally drop and place them on a grid, where they provide new abilities based on whether or not the type of Core matches with the type of grid slot. As Cores are placed and linked on the grid, War and Strife’s base stats, including Wrath and Strength, increase, making enemy encounters easier to overcome later on. Obtaining more of the same Creature Cores also levels them up and increases the potency of their abilities. Grinding for Creature Cores for this purpose is normally accomplished by replaying missions, but an Arena function allows players to fight waves of enemies to gather additional Creature Cores for most enemies instead. Obtaining a number of Conqueror/Outlaw Health and Wrath shards also respectively increase War and Strife’s maximum Health and the number of times they can use their Wrath abilities at one time.

Finding items and collecting Creature Cores are, of course, not the only way to get stronger. War and Strife can receive upgrades or speed up the item collection process by collecting Souls from chests and fallen enemies, along with collectable Boatman coins, then presenting them to a shop. The traditional shopkeeper and soul collector, Vulgrim, can help with getting new items, which include Creature Cores and Shards, and upgrading health potions while series newcomer Dis, Vulgrim’s associate, can upgrade War and Strife’s abilities.

Series newcomer Dis has you covered with upgrades.

Controlling Wrath and Strife isn’t difficult, though the controls, while very responsive for the most part, do take some getting used to. A quality of life addition that helps with managing each Horseman’s abilities is allowing the controls for each to stay on screen at all times, so no memorization required. The graphics are also pretty good, even if you can’t see every detail. Each area feels unique from the last and enemies, especially the major ones, have designs that fit right in with the Darksiders universe. It helps that there seems to be a more direct influence from Joe Madureira’s art style this time around, especially considering Airship Syndicate is his game studio.

This ties in well with the level design, which is fairly easy to understand while having some depth through hidden pathways and out of the way items that encourage exploration. Sometimes the levels feel like a puzzle, since you occasionally have to go out of your way to do something unconventional in order to obtain some of the more elusive items. Most levels also have Trickster Doors hidden within them that allow access to special rooms with great rewards, so long as you have the right number of Trickster Keys. Finding all of the Trickster Doors in the game also leads to an even greater surprise that’s well worth the effort.

The levels all look unique from each other.

With all of that said, some flaws in Genesis bugged me throughout my playthrough. The top-down camera is appropriate for this style of game, but can make specific jumps easier to mess up for one reason or another. It’s also not the best angle for more precision platforming, especially when you try to land on very small surfaces. The levels themselves can have foreground objects that obscure not just breakable objects and one or two items, but also pathways to solve puzzles involving the Aether Spark. The developers attempted to make up for this by casting War, Strife and enemies in silhouette when behind a foreground object, but items, the Aether Spark and enemy health bars don’t receive the same treatment. In combat situations, this means that if you want to actually see how much damage you’re doing, you have to goad enemies into the open, which disrupts the flow.

I also encountered a few bugs the more I kept playing. A minor one that only showed up near the end of the game was that it’s possible for the lock-on targets for the Vorpal Blade, one of War’s unique weapons, to linger long after they’ve served their purpose. A major one, on the other hand, is the behavior of another or War’s weapons, the Tremor Gauntlet. While it works most of the time, the Tremor Gauntlet once in a while will continue to hold its charge, even after releasing the appropriate button, meaning you’d have to press the button again for it to go off. This particular glitch would actually leave War defenseless in particularly hairy combat situations, leaving him with far less than ideal Health.

Combat is normally pretty smooth.

I also ran into a very specific bug where in one room, an enemy that could teleport left the room it spawned in, which I couldn’t leave at the time, so I had to grab it from afar and pull it back in before I could continue properly. I also believe that this specific enemy, the Fallen Husk, is bugged, since it splits into two enemies upon death, but only one of them will properly display a health bar.

On a lesser note, I did enjoy the voice acting, especially when Liam O’Brian and Chris Ja Alex played off each other as War and Strife respectively. Returning voice actors like Phil LaMarr as Vulgrim are also still good in their roles, though I’ll also highlight Keith David in his unexpected role as the villain Moloch. I’ll say here that I couldn’t always fully enjoy the voice acting, since the Void, the main hub area of the game, applies a very noticeable echo to every single line, so some things were hard to properly make out without the subtitles.

Darksiders Genesis is a truly unique entry in the series, but the shift in gameplay style breathes a new life into it that offers an interesting change of pace. The experience wasn’t flawless or completely without frustration, but I enjoyed it for the most part and would easily recommend it to existing Darksiders fans to help hold them over until the next main entry, as well as fans of Diablo-style RPGs. Here’s hoping Darksiders IV doesn’t take too long to come out.

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