Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Review: Darksiders II (PC)


The Apocalypse has served as the backdrop for countless stories, usually ones focused very intensely on one or two individuals as they grimly make their way through the End of the World.  But the Apocalypse is a pretty big event.  The end of all things certainly offers the opportunity to cover the breadth as much as the finality.  While Darksiders covered the story of War, Darksiders II covers the story of Death, explaining what the Grim Reaper was doing while his brother was busy in the ashes of Earth.  It ties in nicely with the first game in the series, which kinda weakens it when you look at it on its own.

I'm of two minds on the visual elements of Darksiders II.

On the one hand, the visual style and character designs are unquestionably epic.  One might be tempted to joke that Joe Madureira forced Casey Jones from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles into an unholy union with Rick from Splatterhouse in order to produce his vision of the Pale Horseman, but there's no denying that this incarnation of Death looks suitably sepulchral for all but the most jaded of gamers.

The more medieval and traditional design of Death does make brief appearances, particularly when performing special moves or during the kill cinematics of boss creatures, but even this looks pretty damned good.  Monsters are nicely varied and otherworldly in their appearances.  You might see the real world analogues for a lot of them, but at the same time, you're far more interested in the actual creatures and trying very hard to slaughter them.

The weapon models got a lot of attention to detail, and rightly so.  There are very few uninspiring weapon designs in this game.  I particularly liked how the artists captured the feel of locations with the visual effects rather than just slap some particles together and call it good.

It's the other hand that irks me so much.  Originally, there was an issue where if you turned the resolution up beyond the default, the inventory screen looked like crap.  It wasn't a show-stopper, but it did make a poor impression, as well as reminding players that they were dealing with a console port.  The environments which look great as a general rule fall victim to an occasionally poor camera control which clips things at the weirdest points.  More importantly, however, are the points where the camera is locked while you have to drag yourself out of a “chimney” of some sort.  It's just another reminder that we're playing on a port.

The musical score is serviceable, but it doesn't quite have that “must listen” feel that a truly excellent soundtrack contains.

The sound effects are likewise serviceable, but nothing overly spectacular.  The monsters growl and hiss, but there's nothing that really gets us hooked in with them, nothing to give us any sense they're anything but objects for us to bludgeon until they cough up loot.  Even the voice acting is uneven.  Michael Wincott (Halo II, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) gives Death the right mix of surliness and gallows humor that you'd expect from a Horseman of The Apocalypse, while Phil LaMarr (Futurama, Pulp Fiction) plays the demon merchant Vulgrim with deliciously evil sleaze.  The rest of the voice cast, however, isn't that memorable.  They range from decent to downright forgettable.  None of them is quite at the level of Wincott or LaMarr in terms of characterization.  Even the usually excellent Simon Templeman just doesn't quite reach “great.”

There aren't a whole lot of issues with the gameplay, but what's there is sufficiently bothersome as to put a crimp in the score.

Much like you'd expect from a console port, the controls in the game are not what I would call tight or intuitive.  Moving around is easy enough, but remapping controls is just a pain in the ass, mainly because there are so many different functions possible and each one has a specific assignment.  What might be contextual with an Xbox or PS3 controller is a spaghetti mess with mouse and keyboard.  It doesn't help that even moving around can occasionally prove frustrating as your character resets his facing to a direction you didn't want to go.

Several of the various puzzles in the game are not entirely intuitive, either.  The puzzles where you're expected to push a lever “forward” in order to raise or lower objects in the environment often end up with you having to “rock” the lever till you find the right combination of directions to make the thing complete a circuit.  Some of the places where you're expected to pull a wall run do not always have the path clearly marked, the distinctive textures lost by just the right sort of lighting.  If it was a hidden or secret area, I could understand that, but just to advance the game is a flub.

Combat seems overly complicated and overly simplistic at the same time.  Basically, it boils down to clicking the left mouse button in a certain pattern at a certain time.  You can buy combat moves which unlock slightly different patterns, sometimes adding a directional button to the mix, but otherwise, it's a money sink which ultimately doesn't really serve the game in any meaningful fashion.  In the same fashion, the skill tree for your abilities seems like the developers wanted a Diablo-esque character build system but they had a weak system in place which they tried to bulk up, confusing quantity with quality.  I will say that the random item drops are kind of neat, particularly the upgradeable “Possessed” weapons.  But I also kinda think they missed an opportunity to play on that concept and expand it further.  Possessed by what?  We don't know.  Only that it's hungry for items.

I think my biggest problem with the game is that it's called a sequel when it's more properly a side story.  A proper Darksiders sequel would advance the story that ended with the first game.  Call it a “stand alone expansion.”  Call it a “side story.”  But it's not actually a sequel.  A genuine sequel has to walk a line between advancing the story set forth in the previous instalment while at the same time being a coherent and functional story on its own.  I had not played the first game, though I was aware of the basic plot behind it.  I wasn't going into this game totally blind, but for somebody who is, the game just doesn't stand on its own very well from a story perspective.  You know enough to be aware, but not enough to care, and if you're shooting for a big multi-part epic that may be culminating in a roll-back of the Apocalypse, that's just a damned silly thing to do.

At the end of all things, Darksiders II is a deeply middling sort of game.  Too much to be a mere expansion pack, too little to be a full blown sequel.   There's probably been enough interest to justify giving us the stories of the two other Horsemen, and finally resolve whether or not there's going to be war between the Horsemen and the Charred Council, but Vigil Games needs to set better expectations with the next instalments and do a better job of making the PC version an enjoyable experience.

- Axel Cushing

The Good:
- Consistently excellent visual design
- Great voice work by Michael Wincott and Phil LaMarr
- Moody lighting and visual effects

The Bad:
- Numerous difficulties in the console-to-PC port process
- Unsatisfying story and characters
- Half-assed systems

Score: 7.5 / 10