I picked up Vigil Games’ Darksiders II for Wii U on a recommendation from Mases, a good friend and owner of both our network – Dungeon Gaming – and our sister sites, Zelda Dungeon and Darksiders Dungeon. The game’s been oft-compared to The Legend of Zelda series, the franchise that turned me into a true blue gaming enthusiast – Mases even called it “the best Zelda game since Majora’s Mask” – so I figured it’d be right up my alley.
What I didn’t expect is just how soundly Darksiders II demonstrated how much room there is for Zelda to grow. I’ve only played about nine-and-a-half hours so far, and cleared four of the game’s required dungeons – which according to the Darksiders II Walkthrough over at Darksiders Dungeon is only about a third of the way through the main story – but already I’ve spotted lots of game mechanics that would fit right in with Nintendo’s legendary franchise.
#1: Tons of Optional Dungeons
This one stuck out to me immediately: there are dungeons everywhere in Darksiders II. I said earlier that I’m about four major dungeons in to the main story, and as it turns out I’ve come across at least as many optional ones. They’re not as large as the story quest levels, nor are the puzzles as intricate or the battles as fierce (so far), but it’s a gesture that made the game world feel much larger and that much more alive. And getting through them is rewarding, too – you’ll often find rare loot or fill up your purse in the process.
What impressed me the most was how well these side levels were integrated into the main experience. Often they’d lie down a side path on the way to a main story objective, meaning that if you’re a thorough adventurer and don’t just move from waypoint to waypoint you might just find an extra dungeon for your trouble. Other times there’d be portions of these levels that you have to move through on the way to your next goal, while the keenest observers might notice passageways leading deeper inside, where the real secrets and treasures lie.
It’s not hard to see how this approach could be used in the next Zelda to flesh out some of those more interesting side areas. I remember finding the amphitheater overlooking Lake Hylia in Twilight Princess and wondering what it’d be like if there were more to it. Now I’ve gotten a taste of what that more ambitious approach to expanding the game world can be like, and I’m hungry for more – this time, from Nintendo!
#2: Sidequests Involve Fewer Fetch Quests, More Extra Bosses
In recent years, Zelda sidequests have typically boiled down to some kind of mini-game or fetch quest of some sort. Deliver a bottle of medicine to the stranded girl on the island; find the baby’s Rattle and bring it back to Daddy; go get back my prized bug from that insect-loving weirdo. These are the most common kind of sidequest in Skyward Sword – but frankly, they also represent the laziest and most boring approach to additional content in an action-adventure game.
Darksiders II doesn’t really use fetch quests. Instead, it focuses on optional monster fights – and these bosses are often just as tough or even tougher than the ones on the beaten path. As one might expect, these secondary bosses are often hidden within the aforementioned optional dungeons. As an example, the last sidequest kill I performed had me return to an area with a new item so I could move deeper into a fire-based side dungeon. There was a fiery bird circling the area, so I figured I’d need to use the bird somehow to traverse the dungeon’s chasms. I couldn’t have been more wrong – it turned out the bird was a boss fight that triggered the moment I grappled into the middle of the room!
This approach is particularly nice because it deeply interconnects sidequests with the “core” content of Darksiders II – overworld and dungeon exploration and combat. And speaking of combat…
#3: Truly Intimidating Combat
A couple weeks back, I explored Skyward Sword‘s best combat moments and realized that they both shared something in common: instead of putting out a small group of enemies that players have to dispatch one at a time, they sent large mobs consisting of both typical grunts and more elite foes. These were rare exceptions to the rule in Skyward Sword; in Darksiders II, they’re a lot closer to the norm.
At first, I was a bit worried because as I moved through the first couple regions in the overworld, enemies tended to be scattered and easy to dispatch. But once I reached the dungeons, that’s when things started to heat up.
You’ll often face groups of four or five enemies, all of whom are attacking you at once – not just standing there waiting for you to make a move – forcing you to switch your targets frequently to stave off attacks and avoid damage. If you’re fighting a boss, whether it’s a mini-boss or an end-of-dungeon- boss, there will usually be groups of smaller enemies battling alongside it that can whittle down your health if you don’t pay attention to them.
It’s a steep challenge, but a satisfying one. Now that I’ve gotten to a point in the game where I’m able to foray into areas that I’m not quite ready for, I’ve come to realize that a lighter difficulty curve isn’t just a consequence of the necessary changes to Zelda‘s combat system that accompanied its shift to 3D worlds – it’s the result of an attitude of accessibility that, instead of making Nintendo’s games easy to understand but difficult to master, focuses on just making them easy to master.
The level of difficulty in Darksiders II feels natural – and what’s more, it feels like it hits the action in a way that Zelda should have been for the past decade.
#4: RPG-Style Character Progression
Zelda hasn’t embraced a heavy RPG character progression structure since The Adventure of Link for NES, which used experience points alongside additional items and Heart Containers to track the player’s strength. Darksiders II, on the other hand, combines a loose experience-based skill tree alongside stats-based items and equipment to provide a much more customizable experience – all the while without detracting whatsoever from the core action-adventure gameplay. By this I mean that, from a controls perspective, Darksiders II could have left out its RPG-like progression system altogether and come out with more or less the same feel to the combat and exploration.
That these kinds of deeper customization options don’t get in the way of its clear Zelda inspiration at all speaks to just how unnecessary the resistance to these kinds of elements is. All adding this stuff would do for Zelda is give players more stuff to collect should they have the itch, more options in terms of how they choose to play, whether it’s a weapon-heavy approach or a magic-heavy approach, and bit of a difficulty buffer for struggling players. The combat and exploration would remain pretty much exactly the same.
As an added bonus, the level-based skill upgrades are easily the best means of satisfying the widespread demand for the return of the Magic Meter. Building up your character’s repertoire of magical abilities just makes more sense when you’ve working within a tiered skill tree and the spells accumulate in a kind of logical way.
Choosing to unlock character-buffing spells naturally leads you to more powerful buffs and debuffs down the line; focusing on healing spells adds in more sophisticated regenerative powers as you follow that branch; with every offensive skill comes multiple possibilities for added effects later on. I haven’t seen a more effective implementation of a magic meter system in an action-adventure title in a very long time.
It wouldn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to make a similar structure work in a Zelda game. We’ve already had various “categories” of magic, like sword beam attacks, magical arrows, and so on. Those could easily be adapted to a kind of tier-based skill tree system, with those who choose to unlock archery skills able to build up a more powerful magic arrow repertoire, while those who use swords can sharpen their blades, extend their reach, and unlock various kinds of sword beam powers. And those are just the ideas I’ve cooked up in the last couple minutes – I’m sure the Zelda team has many more good ideas behind them.
#5: A No-Nonsense Story that Carries on the Strengths of the Classics
Nintendo’s been adamant about keeping the story on the lighter side of the spectrum in The Legend of Zelda in order to keep it from getting in the way of the true meat of the games: the actual gameplay part. However, Darksiders II manages to outdo the Big N at their own game – it’s almost startlingly light in the story cutscenes department, while still delivering a rich, descriptive world in the realm of optional dialogue trees.
Of the nine-ish hours of gameplay I’ve enjoyed so far, maybe about twenty or so minutes have been pure cutscenes. Yet the dialogue I’ve encountered in those optional conversations has been incredibly rich. For one, the writing style seems to suit the game’s setting and characters perfectly – something I can’t necessarily say for Zelda, where the characters often bring in oddly contemporary expressions that seem anachronistic in the game’s world. But on a deeper and more important level, I feel as though Darksiders II‘s story delivery is supremely time-effective, cramming lots of quality into fewer, shorter scenes.
This time-effective approach to story extends to the gameplay progression as well. I wouldn’t necessarily call the game tutorial-free, but instead of bogging you down with an hour or two of “intro,” the game pretty much dumps you right into a mini-dungeon and delivers the key gameplay info in silent text boxes as you progress. It’s very much like the NES and SNES classics in this regard: it respects the player enough to let him or her get straight to the fun stuff while feeding info at a slow and steady pace, but one that doesn’t bog down the game in the process.
I’ve still got a long way to go before I can deliver a final verdict on the game – like I said, I’m only about a third of the way through, with a lot of optional stuff to go after – but from what I’ve played so far, Darksiders II actually manages to take on Zelda‘s home genre better than Nintendo themselves have done in recent years.
While it doesn’t quite have that magic Nintendo spark that makes it instantly accessible or nearly as appealing on the surface, if you’re a Zelda fan and you’re willing to expand your horizons a bit while you wait for the next Wii U installment to roll around, I definitely recommend checking out Darksiders II and giving it a comparative look-over.