Darksiders II PC Review
Few games out there combine wide-open adventure with dungeon-crawling like the Zelda games do, but Darksiders is one of those franchises that manages it very well. The first game surprised players with its excellent art style, exploration, and action with just the right balance to keep people on task while still making them feel like they've got the freedom to do what they want. With more than two years since the release of the first Darksiders, the guys at Vigil Games have taken their time with Darksiders II. This sequel may start off with a familiar look and feel, but it very quickly diverts from that path to be bigger, more ambitious, and just altogether more fun to play.
The first Darksiders was all about War, one of the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, bashing his way through hordes of demons trying to find out who prematurely started the apocalypse and blamed him for it. As Earth was being invaded by the forces of hell, he found few answers, and his ongoing punishment by the heavenly powers that be didn't help him get to the bottom of things. In this sequel, we play as his brother, Death, who is quicker and more athletic, in a somewhat parallel storyline with the objective of helping War. The adventure is quickly derailed, though, and Death winds up having to deal with many of his own problems before he can even start dealing with War.
The adventure usually plays out with a main-story quest sending Death to an old castle or dungeon that's been abandoned by its original inhabitants and infested by corruption, demons, and various monsters. He's got to clear out the place, solve the mysteries that lay in the ruins, solve it to bring it back to life, and collect lots of loot in the process. The game relies both on combat and puzzles with Vigil's good sense of pacing dictating when the game switches back and forth. While Darksiders II doesn't quite have the massive visual scale of the God of War games, it still depicts worlds that are large and sprawling, and there are plenty of side mission-type areas where Death can find some new loot or level up and become a little more powerful before facing the next big challenge.
The creation of a much more agile character comes through in both Death's combat moves and in his ability to jump, shimmy, and climb when exploring, so you'll see a good mix of fast ground attacks, aerial launchers, and acrobatics as well. Death's got a rather nasty sickle-wielding Reaper form that he can transition into in mid-fight, but this form will also pluck him from a nasty fall and drop him back on the nearest bit of solid ground he was last standing on. But I want to point out that this is not easy-mode platforming like the latest Prince of Persia game - Death takes a good chunk of damage each time he falls, and while the player has easy access to life-replenishing attacks along with health potions he can swig at almost any point, falling into pits or lava over and over will result in his death.
The last thing that makes Death a more movement-oriented character than War was is the removal of the ability to block - and the addition of the ability to dodge. Tapping RB will send Death backflipping away from danger, and holding a direction on the left stick and tapping it allows him to roll in a particular direction. Death is not entirely invincible during this animation, so you still have to concern yourself with the whole path of your dodge move and what might be hitting you during that time, but at some point players will get into a bit of an Arkham City-style rhythm of attack and defense. Of course, Death doesn't have a "counter-attack" button, nor is there a big flash or icon to tell you when an enemy is about to hit you, so if you want to stay away from enemy attacks entirely - something that'll be absolutely necessary to survive harder difficulty levels - you're going to need to learn the attack patterns and animations of the game's many monster types.
There is one thing that you'll notice immediately when playing Darksiders II: its presentation is excellent. The world is lovingly blanketed in textures that ditch stark realism and give everything a bit of a graphic novel vibe, and everything animates and moves nicely. On all three platforms, texture quality is solid and consistent, while the hand-drawn backgrounds and dungeon designs make you feel like you really have been transported to another world. Throw on a great soundtrack by composer Jesper Kyd and some excellent voice work for Death as well as the supporting cast, and the game comes together in a cohesive style that is kind of a rare (but welcome) thing nowadays. Many Japanese developers get this kind of thing right nearly every time, while western developers often struggle to bring all these artistic elements together to create one "feeling" in the player, but Vigil Games got it right.
But back to the game itself. The developers have introduced several new action- and RPG-themed systems for this sequel, but possibly the most interesting one is the inclusion of a Diablo-styled randomized loot system. Death's always got a pair of small scythes as his main weapon, but those can be replaced with better versions, while his secondary weapon - used at any time by simply tapping Y instead of X - is one of many types. You can use claws or gauntlets to unleash an even faster attack than the scythes, or equip a hammer that's nearly bigger than Death himself, and just properly time the huge, slow slams that come out. You can beat pretty much any monster or boss with any weapon type, but there are times when you'll only have a split second to attack, so having fast attacks at the ready is usually a good idea. All of these weapons deliver varying damage based on their quality and required level, and they have additional properties like increased crit chance or crit damage, so it's inevitable that you'll be swapping weapons out at least occasionally. On top of these weapons, Death will also be grabbing armor pieces that improve his defense, although most of the focus is on weapons, where you can even get a few special "cursed" pieces that are improved when you sacrifice junk weapons to, well, feed the weapon. Finally, Death also manages to borrow his brother's gun, but it's mostly used as a handy ranged attack for puzzle-solving rather than a combat weapon.
Despite playing through the game on the console review copy I was sent, I decided to barrel through as much of the PC version of the game as I could in the short time I had and make a PC-oriented review. While Vigil Games' PC port of the game works fine and is graphically the best out there (as long as you have a decent gaming PC to run it right), it lacks detail settings almost entirely, and other configuration options you usually get are missing. So while you can play with the brightness, disable or enable Vsync and change screen resolution, there are no detail options at all. When looking at both the PC and 360 versions side-by-side, I do think that texture quality does seem to be mildly better on PC, but you can't reduce or increase it in any way. What's frustrating, though, is that while the PC version of Darksiders II supports both a keyboard and mouse and a gamepad-based configuration, the mouse does not rotate the camera around when Death is riding his horse, Despair. There's a boss partway through the game that would be very difficult without being able to slide around the camera while riding Despair, so I am considering this game at least partially broken on mouse and keyboard. There is a key configuration option, but it's actually buried in the game's character menus rather than the main menu - press F1 while in-game and poke through the menu icons to find it. Strange place to put this menu and it's a pain to reconfigure keys, but it does work.
Luckily, Darksiders II is not an aim-based action game, so unlike with many PC ports of console games, there's really no absolute need here to use a mouse and keyboard. When using a 360 controller, everything works as it should with proper labeling of buttons and, yes, the ability to rotate the camera when riding Despair. Still, I recommend you use a 360 controller if you're going to buy the PC port, because at least with the version of Darksiders II released on launch day, the mouse and keyboard controls can and likely will be a pain. I've been told that Vigil is working on a PC patch to clear up some issues, and hopefully that include additional detail settings as well as making mouse and keyboard controls fully usable.
Even with these issues, Darksiders II is better than its predecessor in pretty much every way: it's slick, polished, smart, beautiful, and most importantly, fun to play, giving you plenty of freedom and adventure with exciting combat and some excellent art and music to go along with the solid voice acting and interesting plot. Without the technical issues I'm finding on the PC version of Darksiders II, I would be able to heartily recommend it to all PC gamers, but for now, I can only recommend it to those that are happy with using a 360 controller to play and don't mind having almost zero tweaking options. If you need the things that this port is missing, then hold off and hope that Vigil issues a patch.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a digital PC version of the game provided by the publisher, THQ.