Imagine a game with the rapid, responsive combat of Devil May Cry, the bloody brutality of God of War, the intriguing intellect of Portal, and the exciting exploration of The Legend of Zelda. That would be pretty incredible, right? Somebody should make that game a reality, right? Well, Vigil Games certainly thought so, because they’ve attempted to do so with the creation of Darksiders. It appears to be a “greatest hits” of sorts; a celebration of all your favorite action, adventure, and puzzle games rolled into one perfect package; that, at least, seems to have been the aim. Unfortunately, Darksiders not only fails to replicate the brilliance found in the aforementioned titles, it also brings with it many of the annoyances that have plagued the franchises which inspired it, in addition to having its own unique problems.
Darksiders puts you in control of War, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who is summoned to Earth in order to stop a conflict between the forces of Heaven and Hell. Upon arrival, War realizes that his fellow horsemen haven’t shown up to aid him in battle. Later, he is accused of causing the entire confrontation, which has laid waste to humanity and left Earth in ruin for a hundred years. Thus, players must guide War on a journey to clear his name and find out the truth behind the destruction of Earth.
It’s not a particularly engrossing narrative experience. The dialogue isn’t very interesting, despite some decent voice acting, and the whole story unravels in a very linear fashion. The game does not offer many surprises or interesting twists to keep you on edge. Darksiders merely creates several contrived barriers to your final goal with what quickly become monotonous fetch quests and uninspired puzzles. The animation and overall presentation during the cut-scenes doesn’t help to alleviate the lack of excitement, either. This is an action-adventure game, which usually allows the gameplay to take precedence over the story. If the gameplay is of high quality, it enables players to forgive an underwhelming narrative. Unfortunately, it is not.
Let’s start with the combat, which, regrettably, isn’t particularly impressive. This is a real shame, considering that it is a huge portion of the game. War’s combat just feels stuck in between two very different action games. It’s trying to incorporate the slick, stylish sword swings of Devil May Cry’s Dante, and combine them with the merciless savagery of God of War’s Kratos. War, however, doesn’t even come close to competing with either character’s combat prowess. He lacks the responsive touch you remember Dante for, both when jumping and attacking, and his execution moves aren’t going to impress Kratos any time soon.
The combat is designed so that, for the most part, you’re only using one button to attack, which doesn’t give you much to work with when trying to chain together impressive combos, even after purchasing all of the additional moves on offer. The semblance of variety comes via the use of War’s secondary weapons and equipment, which you will discover throughout the game. A supernatural pistol called ‘Mercy’ (reminiscent of Dante’s Ebony and Ivory) can be acquired, as well as more traditional action-adventure related equipment, such as the ‘Abyssal Chain’ (grappling hook) and ‘Crossblade’ (lethal boomerang). However, these additions to War’s arsenal do little to improve the combat. It would be preferable to have less emphasis on collecting lots of different toys with no real depth and more attention paid to the core gameplay mechanics. War simply lacks weight and a responsive flair that is crucial for the combat to remain enjoyable throughout what is quite a lengthy campaign.
Now to highlight some of the aspects of Darksiders that will really harm your enthusiasm towards it. First of all, this game took roughly fifteen hours to complete. That being said, this game could be half that length, and would be better for it. This game is crammed full of laborious and repetitive tasks that serve no purpose other than to extend the game’s duration. It is infuriating to see developers attempt to artificially extend the length of a game with insulting tasks that feel like chores you’d ask a child to deal with. At its core, Darksiders is about collecting whatever item the character you’re currently speaking to tells you is important at that moment; it’s as simple as that. Darksiders isn’t the only game guilty of this design strategy, but it feels so blatant from an early stage, that by the half-way point, War’s journey becomes an unwanted burden. The excessive length of Darksiders contributes to a crucial lack of effective pacing. Stripping away all of the unnecessary tasks that artificially lengthen the game would allow Vigil to refine the game’s peaks and valleys, and make a much more enjoyable experience.
Darksiders borrows a similar structure to that found in a typical Zelda game, where players must conquer various dungeons, defeat bosses, and acquire weapons and equipment to help them tackle the next set of obstacles. There is a particular area, in the final quarter of the game, where Vigil displays its love for Portal by presenting players with an elaborate collection of puzzles that need to be solved with the help of a replica portal gun called the ‘Voidwalker’. Some may enjoy the obvious nod towards Valve’s puzzler, but like the other games that Darksiders draws inspiration from, it does a mediocre job of emulating what makes them so fun.
In that same area, Vigil decided it would be fun to treat players to a boss fight not once, not twice, but three times. Three times you must repeat the same tedious strategy in order to defeat this insipid boss, with only a small environmental variation. It’s difficult to understand why they felt the need to overuse such an uninteresting boss. A possible explanation for why Vigil made this decision may be because each time you defeat the boss, you complete a part of the huge Portal inspired puzzle area, of which they may have already designed three puzzles and wanted players to have something to kill in between. That, however, isn’t a valid justification for mindless repetition.
By the time you arrive at the Portal inspired section, you will have already been playing for a long time and it will really feel like the game is due for its climax. However, Vigil decides that War hasn’t done enough chores yet to complete his journey. Players are asked to complete one last errand, which amounts to collecting several pieces of a very important object that will allow them to proceed to the end of the game. It gets better, too, because these pieces are scattered all over the game, in places that you have already been to. Yes, there is a fast-travel system, but it still requires you to back-track through several areas to collect the pieces. This is another example of terrible pacing; why on Earth would you ask players to go on an Easter-egg hunt throughout all of the locations they’ve already seen, right before the game’s climax?
Certain players won’t take issue with many of the problems highlighted here, but just ask yourself, “Why is a game asking the player to perform a particular task?” In Darksiders, it’s usually because the narrative has contrived arbitrary obstacles that enable the designers to keep players on a constant treadmill. It keeps them one step away from their goal, and when they think that they’ve arrived, the game creates another barrier. Many games do this and still manage to be enjoyable, but Darksiders never causes you to forget that it is merely a game – leading you by the nose and not enabling you to discover anything independently or gain satisfaction when progressing through its plethora of puzzles.
A minor illustration of this meddlesome game design appears when travelling through one of the game’s ‘Serpent Holes’, which are shortcuts that War can utilize. These pathways are literally created as you run across them, so you have to be careful not to fall if a gap in the path appears. That’s the mentality you would expect to have, anyway; in Darksiders, this is just another example of the design ruining the fun. You have a mini-map that shows you the fully formed paths, immediately nullifying any risk of falling. Vigil could correct this rather easily if they simply animated the path being created on the map simultaneously.
Finally, this review wouldn’t be complete without calling attention to certain issues regarding the platform it pertains to (PC). Very early on it becomes clear that adequate time wasn’t given to effectively port this game over to the PC. The game crashed after only two hours and upon relaunching it, the save file wouldn’t load, because it had been corrupted. This left no alternative but to restart from the beginning. Therefore, don’t trust the auto-saving in this game; save often to avoid having your time wasted. Even when the game doesn’t decide to corrupt your save, it still frequently crashes, so just be wary if you plan to play on the PC. Furthermore, some of the Steam achievements that should have been unlocked don’t appear to have registered. It’s unclear whether this is a Steam error or an issue with the game itself. If you’re interested in achievements, you may want to look into this before you buy.
Darksiders is a game that has a lot of appealing qualities, but with all the talk of it taking inspiration from so many great games and implementing their mechanics effectively, it was genuinely dissatisfying to play through. It can be a fun game at times, but those moments are rare and squashed between large periods of frustration and tedium. With Darksiders II not too far away, hopefully Vigil have learnt from their mistakes and can offer a more refined and well-paced experience that features less imitation and more innovation.
This review is based upon the PC version of Darksiders for Steam, developed by Vigil Games and published by THQ.