Saturday, 1 December 2012

Darksiders 2

The Title Screen

Introduction
Developed by Vigil Games, Darksiders 2 is an action-RPG released in 2012; for PC, Xbox, PlayStation and Wii U. It features a Singleplayer campaign only, with paid DLC adding side-quests and gear. It is the sequel to Darksiders 1, but features a new protagonist. A "THQ Online" account can be associated for a few aesthetic perks, but is not required.


The First Thing
If you like the default bindings, or use a game pad, then your first impression of Darksiders 2 will be very different from mine. The game does allow rebinding of keys...but only up to a point. You can not use a binding that is already in use and after each attempted binding (successful or not) you are returned to the top of the list; making the process incredibly tedious. To make matters worse, some abilities appear to be not rebindable. The final annoyance is that you can either interact with keyboard, or gamepad depending on whether the gamepad was plugged in when started. This bizarre implementation did not make for a good first impression.

The Horseman, Death

Plot & Devices
The Nephilim race was born of demons and angels. To stop their murderous rampage, four among them were granted immense power in return for slaying the rest - becoming the horsemen. In Darksiders 1, War brings about the apocalypse and is sentenced to 100 years imprisonment for destroying mankind. Now, Death (You) embarks on a quest to restore the souls of humanity and thus erase the crime. Death must travel through the different realms and reach the Well of Souls in order to restore the balance. However, an old enemy has returned and threatens to corrupt all life. Death must face these new challenges, and his own past, in order to save War and all of Creation.

The plot of this game is continued from Darksiders 1, but comprehensive knowledge of the first game is not required. Darksiders 2 expands upon the basic concept with a deeper storyline and new lore. The plot is exclusively provided in cutscenes or inter-character dialogue. Much information is thrown at the player, but plenty of NPCs are on hand to explain. There are no other 'lore items' to find, but every time the player re-loads their save file a narrator will quickly recap the latest plot event and this helps to keep the story in focus.

"Epona, I've a feeling we're not in Hyrule any more..."

The Game
The word that springs to mind when describing Darksiders 2 is "reminiscent". It is reminiscent of a great many games such as, but not limited to: the Legend of Zelda, God of War and Prince of Persia franchises. To accuse it of stealing is ignorant, but several elements from these games have been taken and adapted to fit together here.

The overall feel is most reminiscent of Legend of Zelda. Large 'overworld' levels explored on horseback and thematic dungeons with plot advancement items hidden inside. Dungeons are filled with monsters, puzzles, smash-able pots and bosses. Doors may have locks on them and keys/dungeon maps can be found in chests (as well as general treasure). The combat is quite different but anyone who has played the recent Zelda titles will feel a sense of familiarity about the structure and general feel; especially the strong focus on puzzles.

It is important to note that whilst it takes the essence of the Zelda franchise, it does not just straight copy. Many subtle changes have been made, in particular the way Death handles. He is very powerful, elegant and quick, unlike Link who is slow and prodding. This coupled with many other small changes, and with different platforming and combat mechanics, make Darksiders 2 thematically similar but a separate game in its own right.

Typical Combat

The combat is reminiscent of the spectacle fighter genre such as God of War and Bayonetta; with a focus on combat that is fast, fluid, and feels powerful. Players are expected to stay mobile and deal with enemies telegraphing dangerous attacks that should be avoided. Quick reactions and well executed combos will definitely feel rewarding. Death's primary weapon is his scythes, but his secondary weapon is interchangeable; with the standard choice of slow/damaging weapons, or quick/light. A low damage gun can be used to deal with ranged, or aerial foes. There are set combos but attacks chain together in such a way that the player always feels in control of events; button mashing is never encouraged.

Attacks will build up 'Wrath' energy that is spent on magic abilities and Reaper energy which when full can be used to transform briefly into a Reaper of Death, providing high damage and resistance. Enemies on low health have a chance to activate an execution opportunity, leading to an instant kill. Limited combat also takes place on horseback, and the horse can charge into enemies for extra damage. Death can carry five potions of two types, Health and Wrath, which can be used at any time. The game offers four 'quick-slot' bindings for the player to choose and these can be used for special moves, or items. Reaper form and summon horse have their own specific bindings. All abilities can be accessed by a radial dial as well.

The gameplay also has a strong focus on platforming, very reminiscent of the Prince of Persia series. There is much wall running, pillar jumping and ledge grabbing to be done, but some of the more complicated ideas are left out. Platforming is quite forgiving and a mistake will allow Death to instantly try again, with no penalty. This is in contrast to combat where death restarts the encounter. Platforming is commonly tied to puzzles, with players having to navigate obstacles to pull levers/push buttons etc. Some of the harder platforming sections are also used to reach hidden chests and areas.

Prince of Persia style pillar jumping and wall running 

Many elements are in keeping with action-RPG's like Kingdoms of Amalur, and dungeon crawlers such as Diablo 3. Weapons, items of clothing, relics, talents, etc. can all be customised and the player will constantly find loot that comes in the standard flavours: green/blue/purple etc. Each piece of gear has statistics and players will have to determine whether new gear is appropriate for their style of play. Even the smallest creature has a chance to drop an upgrade, but the many unwanted items can be sold for 'gilt' (gold) or consumed to upgrade possessed weapons. Gold is used to purchase gear and potions from the merchants, and new combo attacks or weapon proficiencies from trainers.

Killing enemies and completing quests grants XP and levels, which reward in points that can be assigned to talents; unlocking new perks/abilities for use in combat. Objectives are presented as quests, and there are many side quests that will not progress the story forward, but will provide loot/XP/gold/entertainment. There is limited quest variety, and most involving killing something or collecting three of something.

There is too much gameplay diversity in Darksiders 2 to go into detail. Each realm introduces a new mechanic, or two, that is required for that realms puzzles, and sometimes teach Death permanent new abilities. Many of these abilities feel reminiscent of other games as well, but all have their own unique feel to them. There is a crucible arena where players face ever more challenging waves of foes, and Death can return to a completed realm at will through the Tree of Life at any time. The overworld and dungeons have maps and Death can fast-travel to locations previously discovered.

Aside from problems previously mentioned, this is a good PC game. Visuals are good and there were no real performance issues with the game itself. One of the sky dungeons is very open and only there my frame rate consistently dropped way below 60FPS - but that could be my own system, rather than the game. The graphical style is superb, with much effort placed into the thematic feel of each realm/dungeon. Any reused content is disguised well, which is impressive with a game this size. The music is appropriate, and the voice acting for Death is of good quality (although a touch unemotional), but the voice acting for other characters is a little clichéd. I did not use the keyboard and mouse controls - but what little I did use of the mouse felt fine.

Loot management & Talent Point assignment

Wrap Up & Negatives
The biggest problem I had with the game is the story; it just isn't very good. It is both shallow and hard to get into. I feel the motivation for Death's quest is completely lost. We know Death cares about War because he keeps saying it, but we are never told why he so strongly believes War is innocent. In terms of gameplay the travelling between realms is good, but it makes the story more confusing. Death seems to have no idea why he is travelling to different planes of existence and solving the problems he finds there. There seems to be a conflict with Deaths immense power, and his reliance on following the whims of NPCs - he feels like an all powerful errand boy.

The camera in the aiming mode annoyed me considerably, but will not bother you if you do not invert the X and Y axis. Often games provide different settings for any first person/aiming mode X/Y axis, but not here. It then becomes slow and unintuitive to aim and this is usually fine as there is a vague auto-aiming system, but later on there is an entire level set in the aiming mode which was not fun.

The loot system is also needlessly complex. It is not immediately clear what the statistics actually do and upgrades are not particularly obvious. For example, I have no idea what the difference between 'resistance' and 'defence' is (although I can guess). Given the amount of loot that is obtained, they could have made the interface more user friendly. Quest originality is on the low side, and it gets boring always being asked to collect three of something. Puzzles at times can feel a little repetitive, but much effort is done to keep them original and fun. I also did not appreciate being asked to join THQ Online every time I started the game.


Personally
I have a low threshold for video game enjoyment so, for a change, I wanted to dislike this game; it certainly left a bad impression at the start with the controller issues. But as I played I found that this just wasn't the case: I certainly enjoyed Darksiders 2. It is a long game, requiring about 18 hours to complete the main storyline with no side quests but the story can not support this length. I advise anyone looking for a great story driven experience to look elsewhere.

What I appreciated most was the effort put into making Death a great character, even if his motivation is a little simple. He moves gracefully and feels very powerful. His voice acting is amusingly sardonic, and he is just an enjoyable character to play. I'm aware that I like Darksiders 2 because I like the games that it draws most of its ideas from. I can easily imagine a player who likes the platforming, but hates the combat/loot system, etc. If you are looking for a Zelda type game, then get this as there aren't many about. If you want a puzzle-focused RPG that dabbles in concepts from other games, and you like the franchises I have mentioned then consider this.

A shining example that you can take an idea, make it your own, and provide a polished and fun experience.



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