We're only a couple weeks into 2010 but already it's getting interesting. Darksiders, the debut effort of fledgling company Vigil Games, may just be the sleeper hit of the year. At first glance, the game has obvious gameplay similarities to Sony's God of War series but it explores an epic-scale Biblical—as opposed to pagan—theme. Armchair critics may try to dismiss the game as derivative, but as a recent Penny Arcade so astutely put it, the only difference between a derivative and an homage is whether or not you like it.
Darksiders tells the story of unlikely hero, War, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The story begins with Armageddon having somehow having been prematurely started. By the time Heaven and Hell realize they've made a mistake, it's too late and Mankind is utterly destroyed. Someone has to take the blame for this blooper of (literally) Biblical proportions, so the all-powerful Charred Council uses War as a convenient scapegoat. Now War may be a big, thick-necked bruiser, but he's no dummy; he realizes he's been set up and sets out to get revenge.
Before being allowed to search for those really responsible for destroying the Earth, War's saddled with a demonic probation officer, a wraith-like bully called the Watcher. As the Watcher's all too quick to repeat, it's his job to keep War on a short leash throughout the investigation. On occasion, the Watcher offers some helpful advice, but mostly he just hangs around being a nagging pain in the ass. The main thrust of the game (pun intended) is melee combat with some ranged combat thrown in for good measure. Your primary weapon is a huge sword called the “Chaoseater”, and secondary weapons consist of a scythe, a gauntlet, a grappling hook and other supernatural goodies. Ranged weapons come in the form of an oversized throwing star/boomerang called a Crossblade and an angelic hand cannon called Mercy. Gameplay is divided almost evenly between combat and puzzles, which makes for good pacing, in general.
As you can imagine, accidentally destroying the world doesn't make you a popular guy, so right off the bat, War's fighting against all the forces of both Heaven and Hell. Enemies include angels (both Heavenly and Fallen), undead zombie-like fodder units, huge mutated bat-like creatures and a wide variety of demonic entities. They all fight differently but can be handled more or less the same way: by pounding the crap out of them with Chaoseater. You'll generally be attacked by a number of enemies at once and Darksiders' combat system does a really good job of handling multiple enemies. Movement is fluid and you can transition from one enemy to another without stopping. Evading enemies is also fairly easy using dash, although getting the hang of blocking attacks takes a while since it requires absolutely spot-on timing.
The enemies keep combat fresh with their wide range of attacks, and each enemy has a unique insta-kill animation activated by hitting the B button. The game does a surprisingly good job of letting you use this insta-kill and lets you enjoy the death animations without other enemies interfering with you too much. War's an expert at taking on multiple enemies at once and that's good because the more hits you get in a row, the more Chaos you build. Chaos is a force that accumulates in an onscreen meter which when full, lets you temporarily activate your crazy-powerful Chaos form (where you turn into a huge, fiery demon that can beat the bajeezus out of anything). Killing enemies grants you Souls (blue skulls) which are used as currency to buy upgrades, Health (green skulls) and Wrath (yellow skulls) which powers special Wrath Abilities.
You'll find Wrath Abilities to be really useful. You can choose from defensive skills like Stone Skin, which drains Wrath while increasing your armor, or Blade Geyser, which for a set Wrath cost summons from the earth a ring of deadly pointy things that are very effective at taking out groups of hostiles. You can use Souls to buy combos and upgrades from a merchant demon named Vulgrim (who's almost, but not quite as cool as Brutal Legend's Guardian of Metal). Most gamers will find these combos powerful, cool-looking and really intuitive and easy to use, consisting mostly of repetitions of single button presses (like X or X, X or X, X, X).
In between all the skull-smashing, it's nice to have a breather or two and Darksiders offers a good number of these during its exploration and puzzle sequences. The game's environments are bordering on huge, and are usually multi-leveled so there's a lot to see. You'll want to explore every nook and cranny because hidden throughout the levels (with foreboding names like “Scalding Gallow” and “The Black Throne”) are chests with the usual Health, Wrath and Souls bonuses, as well as special demon amulets and Abyssal Armor pieces. Exploration takes on another aspect too in levels that incorporate underwater areas. Underwater gameplay can be really frustrating if handled poorly, but the swimming controls in Darksiders are really easy and make the whole underwater experience a significant part of the fun.
Sometimes getting from one place to another on post-Apocalyptic Earth requires you to solve environmental puzzles and make no mistake—these aren't your usual “turn a crank to open a door” kinds of puzzles. Sure, there are cranks and doors, but in Darksiders, achieving your objective often requires a measure of planning and the ability to anticipate several sequences of cause and effect. Solutions aren't always immediately apparent either, and force you to take the time to actually think about how things around you work. The game even utilizes a considerable amount of Portal-style gameplay, asking you to figure out when and where to create teleport points to get where you want to go.
Darksiders starts with a bang, and for the first three hours, pulls you along on a fast-moving current. As the game goes on though, especially in the latter half, it encounters some problems that keep it from sustaining the momentum it had at the start. The most obvious culprit here is the lack of waypoints. When a chapter starts, you're given an overall objective and one waypoint for that objective. You don't get any sub-waypoints along the way, and that can be bad in such large environments. It's also difficult to orient yourself on the multi-level maps, since the player's icon is only shown on a single level and full-level maps aren't shown in spatial relationship to one another. True, you can teleport among major areas but that still doesn't give you a clear enough picture of where you are in relationship to other places. This makes for a lot of wasted time running back and forth in areas you don't necessarily need or want to revisit.
Which relates to another problem—the amount of backtracking required. Almost every chapter requires you to go back through areas you've already been through, which isn't necessarily a fun thing to do. The worst instance of this is in the last section of the game where you get bogged down in a three part puzzle that feels endless, kills the momentum and makes the game drag. Worst, when you've finished with a particularly tedious puzzle in that section, you're forced to use it again on the way back through.
In addition to some puzzley pacing-killers, the game has a handful of weird, buggy things that disrupt the fun on occasion. First, the game has a strangely inconsistent auto-save system. Sometimes during a multi-stage sequence, Darksiders will let you start from wherever it was you died. Other times, even during the exact same scenario, it'll force you to start at the beginning and do all the stages over again and there appears to be no rhyme or reason to any of this. Related to this is the way boss battles happen. In a multi-stage boss battle, if you die you have to do all of the stages again, rather than getting to start where you died. This makes a few of the boss fights really exhausting and without a changeable difficulty setting, may even discourage some players from finishing the game. Boss fights also do something strange in that once consumables are used, they stay gone when you die and retry. Meaning, if you use your healing crystal during a boss battle and then die, when you start the fight over again, that healing crystal is still gone, which starts you at a disadvantage.
Aside from the autosave inconsistencies, other miscellaneous bugs show themselves in places, like long pauses that happen before cutscenes trigger and seemingly broken spawning triggers. One arena battle appeared to be completely bugged when one of the mounted combatants got stuck in the geometry and the rest of the enemies just stood around waiting for me to kill them one by one.
On the up side of things, the voice acting in Darksiders is really good and Mark Hamill even makes an appearance here, seemingly channeling The Joker in his performance as the Watcher. The game also looks phenomenal. The character design is really memorable and amazing, especially the bosses (the Scottish-accented blacksmith Ulthane is my personal favorite but the archangel Azrael's a close second). The environments are really beautiful in an Apocalyptic kind of way, and the story totally holds your interest while the ending is both satisfying and makes you want to see more.
Despite a couple of strange mechanical issues and a handful of bugs, Darksiders is a significant accomplishment, even for a well-established company. For a new one like Vigil to pull it off is impressive indeed. Although the game has minor tech problems, it still manages to turn what could be some very dry Biblical themes into one of the most interesting, action-packed games on the market. If Dante's Inferno isn't thinking about Darksiders as competition, by now it certainly should be.