I went into Darksiders II with all the Zelda comparisons I’d heard still ringing in my ears – and it turns out they’re pretty apt. The dungeons, puzzles, special items, and overall progression system reek of Nintendo’s flagship fantasy franchise. Yet, Darksiders II goes one step further and offers more: heavy combat, tons of equipment options, and optional dungeons and bosses galore.
In many respects, Darksiders II manages to come on par with Zelda in the gameplay and content department – then one-ups it by offering more of the core experience in the form of those extra battles and levels. At the same time, it’s clear why it hasn’t achieved the same level of success – the game world simply doesn’t resonate in the same way.
Prioritizing Dungeons, Exploration, and Combat
Easily my favorite thing about Darksiders II was how little padding it contains in terms of main quest progression: it’s all exploration, dungeons, and bosses. After ten years of Zelda games that have added in other extraneous content that involves none of these core elements, like stealth and escort missions, it’s kind of refreshing to play a game that trims away the fat and instead adds more meat into the mix. On my way to the first few dungeons, I actually encountered mini-dungeons on the side, many of them with their own interesting puzzles and battles. It felt like a design approach that should have been the standard all along.
For those who want a deeper story told through character development and cutscenes, this approach might seem like a blow to storytelling. For those who just want to play the game, however, it serves as a boon – there’s no jumping through hoops to get to the next level, just pure overworld exploration along the way.
The combat is largely hack and slash, with a lot of emphasis on combo moves involving both your primary and secondary weapons and dodge moves to avoid enemy attacks and position yourself for a strong string of hits. As a result, there are often a lot of enemies coming at you at once – especially when you’re in the middle of a dungeon. Fights even against grunts can keep you on your toes if their numbers are strong enough. Combat scenarios are also employed rather liberally, with mini-boss fights and wave-based enemy battles scattered all over the place.
As a result, the game has a very “full” feeling. There aren’t so many enemies that just traveling around the world gets bogged down, but in dungeons enemies may actually overwhelm you and could set you back a bit if you aren’t careful. There are plenty of secrets to find, too, both in the overworld and in dungeons, from sidequest collectibles to hidden treasure chests with weapons, gear, and potions. Towards the end of the game, however, the game becomes a lot more linear and offers a lot less in the way of secrets in the final regions. There are still plenty of opportunities to find new pathways in old areas thanks to your new gear, however, plus a New Game + option for those who want to get even stronger.
For Wii U players, the game has inventory and map screen options for the GamePad. The equipment inventory screen is the least useful, since most same-category equipment looks similar enough that you’d need to give the screen a good close look to identify the stuff you want to change out. However, swapping out puzzle-related items is a snap – just hold a button and tap the respective icons. The map screen’s also nice, since it gives you a wider view of the surrounding area than the mini-map provides, so you can just quickly glance down to get your bearings and then set off without a break in gameplay.
Outstanding Level Design
Darksiders II doesn’t have a particularly large catalog of puzzle-solving items, but it manages to get pretty good mileage out of the ones it does offer. There’s a grappling hook-like item called the Deathgrip that can be used to swing across gaps and climb up walls using special grapple points that feels like an enhanced version of Zelda‘s Hookshot, and an object that lets Death split off in two separate bodies to manipulate multiple objects in tandem. Most dungeons have Shadow Bombs that will spawn at certain points and can be used to blow up certain objects.
The designers actually got pretty inventive with their puzzles and traps. Often you’ll use items in tandem with one another – for example, grabbing a Shadow Bomb with the Deathgrip and then chucking it at a far-off switch or using a partner character as a grapple point. There are some particularly intricate multi-step puzzles later on that will involve some decent planning and skillful execution. Surprisingly, these puzzles rarely feel as though they’re designed by rote – a problem that’s plagued many of the recent Zeldas.
If there’s any complaint I have about the level design, it’s that most levels in the same region tend to look a bit too similar in the art department. In the first world, the Maker’s Realm, the developers tried to mitigate this by giving each dungeon a theme, like fire or water, but in the second realm there aren’t quite as many distinctive touches. This is a big factor in the game’s failure to achieve the same iconic charm that Zelda and other mainstream fantasy games have – its world just doesn’t establish itself as well.
A Satisfying Cel-Shaded Style
The game’s visual style takes on a more realistic approach to cel-shaded graphics. While the characters clearly have cartoon-like shading and features, like something out of a comic book, they’re designed to a more gritty standard – meaning that the cel-shading actually accomplishes its express goal of directly articulating the artwork in the in-game graphics. This doesn’t mean a lack of visual detail – to the contrary, the game’s textures are very detailed, to the point that you can see all the knots in Death’s muscles and all the ruts and crevices in the cliffs and walls of the world.
It’s not the most stunning visual achievement in gaming, to be sure. There are lots of moments where details like shadows will seem to suddenly pop into focus, for example. But – aside from a few incomplete objects here and there – it’s very nice-looking, and a sharp reminder for some remaining skeptics that “cel-shaded” doesn’t have to mean “aimed at children.”
The musical score is pretty good, but not necessarily worth holding up as a golden standard. Worth noting is that the tracks, while ambient and hardly big, loud, and intentionally iconic, all suit the areas they’re assigned to perfectly, from the soothing strings and the occasional flute that form the musical backdrop of the Maker’s Realm to the more ominous drum-beats of the underworld. That said, there was never an off-putting track – the game’s compositions do their best to offer consistent quality and suitability.
Whereas the original Darksiders stuck very faithfully to Zelda-like gameplay structures – life containers, with four smaller pieces per container, and skills that you’ll gain either through ordinary progression or from shops – Darksiders II introduces an RPG-like experience point, stats, and level system.
You’ll be able to spend skill points, earned by leveling up or completing certain sidequests – in a two-pronged skill tree, with one side dedicated to offense and the other dedicated to magic. While you can borrow skills from both trees, the one you specialize in will offer a fair bit of difference in how you play. Choosing to be a Harbinger will give you access to offensive buffs and close-range attack skills, while choosing to be a Necromancer will give you summoning skills and defensive buffs.
Equipment is level-based – meaning you can only equip items for which you have attained the appropriate level – and comes in multiple stats, from attack and magic (Arcane) to defense and resistance to elemental powers and HP/MP (Wrath) boosts or regenerative powers. As with most games, you’ll want to prioritize offensive boosts for weapons and defensive boosts for armor, but adding in regen or health-boosting attributes can’t hurt if you find gear that offers it. Special weapons called Possessed Weapons can be “fed” other gear to power them up, allowing you to get rid of stuff crowding your inventory while offering those items’ unique enhancements as options for your Possessed Weapons.
There are also multiple classes of secondary weapons, from heavy-hitting hammers and maces to fast-striking claws and gauntlets, meaning you can alter your playstyle considerably just based on your equipment. Try out multiple options and see what you like best, both generally and against the enemies you’re facing in the area you’re in. Since all cutscenes are rendered in real-time, Death’s current equipment will be displayed in every event scene, so feel free to deck him out in a way that’s visually satisfying and not just advantageous if that tickles your fancy.
Descending into Glitch Hell
The biggest issue bogging down Darksiders II is that it’s exceptionally glitchy – and often problematically so. Typically glitches will involve game freezes or the controller locking up mid-way, which is usually fine given how often the game auto-saves – occasionally you’ll find that the game won’t let you progress, with a few truly game-breaking glitches to watch out for.
There were three particularly bad scenarios I ran into during my play. One involved a moment where I needed to talk to a character to progress, but the dialogue prompt didn’t appear – I had to restart and try again. Another involved an invisible wall that surfaced to block my progress – yet again, I had to restart. The other was during the penultimate boss fight, where a certain trigger point in the fight failed to activate, both messing up the battle and preventing me from continuing on following the battle – another restart. I imagine that manually saving in any of these scenarios would have ruined my game – be careful if you run into a problem like this and restart your game immediately without saving to avoid getting stuck.