Thursday, February 11, 2010

Darksiders Review

When Bayonetta was released, it was high on my list of anticipated games for 2010.  Not only did it get very high review scores from both Western and Japanese gaming press, it was also the pet project of Hideki Kamiya and followed closely in the footsteps of his excellent Devil May Cry.

Bayonetta wasn't the only well-reviewed game released that day, though.  A new video game developer released their first game, an original IP from comic book veteran Joe Madureira.  Based solely on the positive press the game was receiving, I decided to give it a try.

Darksiders, a term that's never actually used in the game, is the story of War, one of the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  The Horsemen serve a body known as the Charred Council responsible for maintaining the status quo between Heaven and Hell until such a day that mankind will have grown enough to figure into the conflict somehow.  So when the forces of Hell start attacking the Earth, then the forces of Heaven start fighting the forces of Hell right in the middle of town, War shows up thinking that it's Armageddon time.  Turns out he's the only Horseman to show up, because it wasn't really the Apocalypse after all.  War gets stomped by a big ol' demon and mankind is wiped out it what I guess is some kind of false alarm.

War is saved from death by the Charred Council only to be stripped of his power and sentenced to death by said Council, who believe the whole mess is somehow War's fault.  War argues for a chance to prove his innocence by going back to Earth, which is now overrun by demons.  Figuring that War would probably die in the attempt anyway, the Council agrees.

Back on Earth, War figures that the best way to prove his innocence is to take out the demon he believes is behind it all, the Destroyer.  But since he's be de-powered, he seeks the aid of Samael, a powerful demon imprisoned by the Destroyer.  Samael agrees to help War if War will slay the Destroyer's Chosen and bring him their hearts.  This quest becomes the bulk of the game as War travels to different areas with Zelda-esque dungeons to find and defeat the chosen.  Also like Zelda, War picks up new abilities as he goes along, some of which are clearly Zelda-inspired in and of themselves, like the boomerang and the hookshot.  Other abilities, like the portal gun, borrow their inspiration from other games.

There are plenty of demons, and even some angels, who get between War and his dungeon puzzles, and the combat is brutal.  Some reviewers have compared it to God of War, but I don't think that's really accurate.  God of War allows players to mix quick and heavy attacks to make satisfying combos.  In Darksiders, different weapons are mapped to different buttons.  X (or square for PS3 owners) is only for War's sword, and no other button does sword attacks.  So for the first quarter of the game or so, your only real combat option is to mash the X button.  Later you'll get weapons you can map to the Y (triangle) and R-trigger (R2), only to find that R-trigger items are more for puzzles than combat and the weapons you can map to Y are pretty useless compared to the sword.  So while you'll have other options, 90% of the game is still all about mashing the X button with an occasional dodge in combat.

The Zelda-esque dungeons do help to set Darksiders apart from other action games.  Figuring out how to use War's abilities to solve the various puzzles that he comes across is often much more satisfying than than combat.  They can be genuinely clever and only occasionally involve moving boxes.  They can be occasionally frustrating, though, due to the fact that War controls like a tank.  Honestly, I died less in combat than I did from accidentally falling off a ledge trying to line up a jump.

Darksiders' biggest flaw, though, is its story.  The plot gets very convoluted near the end, with betrayals heaped upon betrayals by characters making drastic decisions on the flimsiest of reasoning.  I might have made more of an effort to follow along, though, if the characters weren't such dull archetypes.  War is a duty-bound warrior with no personality.  Uriel a hothead bent on avenging her leader.  Azrael is the guy who helps the badguy come to power thinking it's for the greater good, only to regret and help the hero take out the badguy.  And Samael is the badguy the hero has to make a deal with because the big badguy is worse.  Samael is actually one of the things the plot really fails on.  You're told from the get go that he's a real baddie; next in line for the throne of Hell until the Destroyer imprisoned him and went to take over Earth.  You spend the bulk of the game killing the guys he tells you to hill, then bringing them their hearts.  He tells you that you need to do this for him to help you get into the Destroyer's tower, but the game is constantly hinting that Samael has an ulterior motive.  When you eventually find out what it is and that he's been playing you, you confront him... only for him to send you on your way to the tower.  And then he's not mentioned for the rest of the game.  I'd like to think maybe he'll have some part in any sequel the developers might make, but nothing's really foreshadowed in the game.

The one thing I would really like to give Darksiders praise for is its art and design.  Characters are detailed and unique.  Bosses are suitably impressive in appearance.  And for an world overrun by Hell, the different areas of the game manage to be visually distinctive and at times even colorful.

At the end of the day, Darksiders is a fun game.  The combat does get a little tedious, but the game does take the Zelda model of dungeon exploration and use it to good effect.  It's just a real shame that such great game design was wrapped up in such a generic story populated by such dull characters.

Final score: B


Anonymous said...

Dear Mike,

The goat-rapers and I have done another vote......we still hate you

Mike said...

That's good to know. If I was beloved by goat-rapers, I'd have to seriously re-evaluate my life to figure out what I'd done to attract such an undesirable demographic.

To recap:
Goat-rapers: bad.
Video games: good.