Set for release across Europe today, January 8th 2010, THQ and Vigil Games’ Darksiders has been a long time coming. Original unveiled at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) back in 2007, and then known as Darksiders: Wrath of War, the game has slowly taken form through a number of artistic revisions and playable outings. Through each of the many opportunities to see Darksiders in action Electronic Theatre has previously benefited from, the title has remained a ray of hope in the current-generations’ well-trodden line-up of First-Person Shooters, Role-Playing Games and Racing titles, and now that the game has finally arrived with us, we finally have the opportunity to see whether the game can live-up to the potential of it’s promising premise.
Eons ago, seven seals were created and have since been governed by the Charred Council, in order to maintain the balance of the three kingdoms; heaven, hell and that of man. Once mankind had become ready the seven seals would be broken and the day of judgement would come, and each of the three would do battle. The four horsemen would be called to enact judgement upon all, but not all has gone according to plan.
After only a brief introduction, the player is cast into the shoes of War, one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Battling against both angels and demons, War is uncertain as to why his three brothers are not with him. Soon falling under the might of his adversaries, War comes before the Charred Council only to be blamed for bringing the day of judgement before mankind is ready, and as an act to prove his loyalty, requests that he be sent back to Earth in order to find those truly responsible. The Council agrees to give War an opportunity to prove his innocence, bound to a Watcher, with the likelihood that he will fail and that hell’s demons would bring about his punishment. And thus begins the real adventure.
Returning to Earth more than a century after the premature apocalypse, the decaying mass of browns and greys is less inspiring than the sun kissed cityscapes that featured throughout the introduction. The revelation of new mechanics here also belies that of the latter part of the adventure, presenting a formula that seems less cohesive than it’s decade-old genre forerunners. It soon becomes apparent however, that this is simply the result of maintaining the balance in the pacing of the game, rather than poor design decisions. Once having past the first two or three hours of the title, Darksiders reveals its’ self as the truly compelling Adventure game that it is.
From the time of it’s original announcement, the combat has been one of the areas of Darksiders which has received the greatest amount of attention. Frequently related to God of War – which in itself is a justifiable comparison, though certainly undermines the greater sum of Darksiders’ parts – a single face button provides basic attacks, while a second grants players the option to grab scenery items in the surrounding area, and use them as weapons. The combat is never less than fluid, and War has quite a selection of acrobatic manoeuvres in his arsenal despite his particularly chunky stature. Weaker enemies can be destroyed with a single attack, and most others can be taken-out with a final, particularly gory, blow after having been weakened. This is perhaps the closet reflection of Sony’s aforementioned critically acclaimed scrolling Beat-‘Em-Up franchise, with cinematic finishers resembling those of Kratos’ boss takedowns. However, Darksiders remains entirely devoid of Quick-Time Entry (QTE) sequences, and is all the better for it.
A huge array of weapons and power-ups are available throughout the game, so many that it could in fact be considered somewhat arduous to find the required item in the later stages of the game due to the somewhat cumbersome inventory system. Each new item available to War is unlocked whilst progressing through the puzzle laden dungeons, which gives us the first nod towards Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda series. Once a new item is gained, it’s more than likely that the remaining puzzles in that dungeon will revolve around using that item. Sometimes the objective is obvious, and sometimes the answer can elude you for longer than most would wish, but none of Darksiders puzzles ever feel unsolvable. The game retains a sense of empowerment throughout, taxing and rewarding the player in equal measure.
There are further challenges beyond the combat and those associated with newly found weaponry however, incorporated into simply reaching your desired destination or attempting to secure hidden bonuses – of which there are many. War is equally as flexible outside of combat as that when faced with multiple enemies, scaling walls and clambering across ledges with ease. Which is just as well, as in the devastated Earth realm there are plenty of areas in which a player’s ability to navigate difficult terrain will be tested. And here lies another reference to the hugely inspirational The Legend of Zelda series, and in particular, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Darksiders features an expansive HUB world, from which mission areas lie as bespoke lands in various different locations, and when venturing across the terrain War will have access to his trusty steed, Ruin. Ruin behaves very much like Link’s Epona, allowing for both distances to be travelled quicker and horseback combat, and the thrill of mounting your steed and setting-off into the world to uncover a new location, and face a new challenge, never fades.
Throughout all of this, there are numerous other nods to tried-and-tested videogame mechanics, both good and bad. Souls spewed from fallen enemies and chests fulfil the requirements of currency, health and the recharging of your Wrath meter, which allows for special attacks. The Watcher behaves much like Navi from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, summoned by holding the Select Button and refreshing the player’s mind of the task currently at hand, and the radar showing the location of your next suggested destination is a modern invention born of laziness – few long time gamers would argue that the map itself is insufficient for plotting routes to new and previously visited locations. Less engaging are the occasional set-pieces that can outstay their welcome, such as the clarion rides. While cleanly breaking the momentum with an altogether new direction, they can often prove less of a respite than an irritation. Darksiders also frequently falls foul to the kill-every-enemy-to-continue mechanic that so many games of its’ ilk rely upon.
Visually, Darksiders does little to disappoint. Incredibly brutal and full of character, the game features some of the smoothest animation yet drawn from current-generation systems, both during cut-scenes and in-game. The tiresome greys and browns of a post-apocalyptic world soon give way to some vivid and stunningly crafted environments, with the tapered colours flowing into a hard outline of each object – identifiably the work of the comic book artistry hero Joe Madureira, who has frequently been noted as the creative director throughout the later stages of the game’s production. The soundtrack is suitably verbose, with thundering rock and faint orchestras meshing together in a seamlessly flamboyant score, and the voice work is never anything short of convincing, despite the occasionally long winded scripting.
While many will question Darksiders’ mass market appeal, especially when compared to the likes of God of War and Devil May Cry, Vigil Games have created a videogame production of the highest calibre. The few issues that exist fail to impede the game’s greater charm, with near every inch of the adventure being as compelling as the last. To say that Darksiders utilises many ideas and gameplay mechanics from other titles would be a gross understatement, but the fact remains that, much like Visceral Games’ Dead Space, it borrows from some of the best titles that videogaming has yet to offer, and melds them into a consistent whole that is greater than the sum of it’s parts. Suggested to be the first release in a new franchise from THQ, perhaps the best surmise would simply be that we can’t wait for the next instalment.