Darksiders

Most reviews seem to fall into either ‘this game is excellent; get it now’ or ‘this game is atrocious; don’t bother with it’, because no-one really finds a mediocre review that interesting. Just as well, then, that Darksiders is hard to describe without resorting to taking any word, adding ‘ing’ on the end and following it with ‘awesome’.

Darksiders is an unashamed rip-off of God of War (itself something of a blend of Devil May Cry, Onimusha and Prince of Persia), with a few elements ‘inspired’ by Zelda and Portal. Yes, Portal; Darksiders’ portals are even blue and yellow. In fact, it seems as though THQ were either calculatedly trying to pick out all the aspects of these games that make them enjoyable in an attempt to create a bestseller-by-numbers, or trying for an homage and hoping to escape ‘derivative’ status with immunity through excess.

Whichever it is, it works. There may be nothing new in Darksiders, but what it does do it does very well (with the exception of the storyline, which is pretty much an excuse plot). You’re War, you’re after revenge, and woe betide any angel or demon who stands in your way. War is nothing if not an equal-opportunities destroyer; he answers only to the Charred Council, who are a band of universal arbiters keeping the kingdoms of Heaven, Hell and Man in check.

Yes, that’s War as in the Horseman of the Apocalypse. (Though disappointingly for someone who is being constantly addressed as ‘Horseman’, for over the first half of the game you’re on foot.) Due to a cosmic administration foul-up, the Apocalypse has been called too soon – before the Kingdom of Man is ready for it – resulting in Darksiders taking place in a literally post-apocalyptic world, whose few human survivors exist only as zombies. The game world consists of ruined human cities punctuated by lava-filled castles, jungly ruins and ash-filled deserts.

War fails to be a very likeable character, both in terms of aesthetics and personality. His armour is suitably tank-like, but his hair is long and not tied back, and his head-wear is a cloth hood, neither of which strikes this reviewer as practical for a warrior. Furthermore, his face is that of a normal human man’s, excepting his glowing blue eyes. Surely a fiery red would be more appropriate for War? While his lines aren’t quite as unsophisticated as Hulk-speak, they’re pretty plain-spoken, lacking the badassery of characters such as Kratos, without going far enough to be appealingly beige prose.

Overshadowing War’s character design is that of the Watcher, a servant of the Charred Council to whom War is bonded. He acts as your exposition provider and occasional helper (hold down your select button to hear a hint from him), and while he resents having to babysit you he delights in tormenting you. His acerbic personality combined with his sinister and ethereal appearance have the odd effect of making this reviewer like him and yet be hugely pleased when War finally breaks free of his hold and wrenches him limb from limb.

Darksiders follows the Devil May Cry/God of War pattern of fighting baddies interspersed with solving environment-based puzzles (including the classics ‘redirect the energy beam with mirrors’ and ‘activate a bunch of switches in logical order’). Like both these games, it includes some pretty amazing set pieces: riding a griffin with what amounts to a holy machine-gun in its mouth; riding your flaming horse, Ruin, while you shoot a giant sandworm in the face with a bloody big handgun; portal-jumping onto a huge robot’s head; and racing a giant to see who can slaughter the most angels. Aren’t you interested already?

Combat is pretty simple to get the hang of: to begin with, you have only one attack button, with which you wield your blade Chaoseater. Another face button is later assigned to your secondary weapon; a choice between a scythe and a slow but powerfully punching gauntlet. On one of the shoulder buttons is your currently-equipped gear: either a giant shuriken-like boomerang, a Zelda-esque grappling hook, a portal-making device, and a couple of others needed to open doors and see hidden structures. You can change any of these on the fly by assigning them to the d-pad, but as there are only four slots it can get a little annoying in the more puzzle-y areas, which will necessitate frequent re-assigning. Another on-the-fly menu is opened by a shoulder button and the d-pad, to which you can map items and War’s wrath abilities. As you have only four slots, this too requires juggling if you use all four wrath powers and are a frequent item user.

Despite its simplicity and relative ease, combat manages to be fun in the same way a B-movie is fun, and it’s pleasingly graphic without going quite as far as the grotesquery seen in God of War. And being able to pick up and throw cars at baddies is always a plus. The boss battles manage to be fun in part due to their sheer over-the-top-ness, and all require a bit of ingenuity. How can I hit that giant angry bat? Throw a sticky bomb at her, then throw your crossblade (shuriken) through one of the flaming torches to set it on fire and onto the bomb. The lack of health bars is a gripe, as the bosses take a while to down, leaving the player wondering if it’s actually working.

Along your adventures you’ll find, buy, and win enhancements for your weapons. Each weapon can have one enhancement equipped, and you can swap and change these at any time. Such effects include increasing the weapon’s power, the speed of its levelling, the speed at which your chaos meter fills up (the game’s beserker mode), or number of blue souls acquired (the game’s currency, coveted by the merchant Vulgrim – who also provides quick transport around the world by letting you teleport between his shops). It’s a nice little piece of customisation, though you’ll likely be slightly annoyed about having to choose which three you want the most.

As well as enhancements, you’ve also got hidden pieces of armour to find, in addition to health- and wrath-bar extenders, and demon artifacts you can sell to Vulgrim. While those who hate exploring and collecting will be glad to hear it’s feasible to progress without these, those who enjoy exploring game worlds will find that Darksiders’ excellent map system makes this a pleasant break from the action.

Darksiders is derivative and its lead character makes a bland avatar; its graphics are unobtrusively good – you won’t be jarred by pop-up but neither are they anything to write home about; and its environments are varied but fall just short of being properly atmospheric. But the gameplay experience itself is grand, and so much plain unputdownable fun that the game’s negatives feel unimportant. Oh, just get it.

Originally published July 2011, written sometime in 2010.