Death: the unknowable. The inevitable. The kind-of-negligible.
The horseman of death walks into a room, and says he wants to bring humanity back to life. Everyone around him laughs at the irony of his situation. He hacks them all to bits in return. The Darksiders games have always been something of a niche series, commanding a small but dedicated following who sing their praises while the rest of us shrug and go “yeah, they’re okay.” The first Darksiders was often called a simple, unabashed Legend of Zelda clone, to the point where surely the developers at Vigil Games must surely have realized what they had wrought. Then came Darksiders II, an attempt to expand on what the series could be by adding influence from other series, and expanding the scope of the adventure’s world.
Darksiders II: Deathinitive Edition may be another in the slew of “HD Remaster Play-It-Again” titles that we’ve seen in the last couple of years, but outside of the technical side of things, it’s exactly the same game it originally was. Conceptually, that’s a good thing. In execution, it’s…well, it’s a thing. That’s for sure.
Death has a problem. In the opening moments of the original Darksiders, his brother War was framed for the destruction of humanity, and given the task of clearing his name. While the crimson-hooded warrior is off on this task, his brother Death has a job of his own to do in redeeming his brother. Death rides in search of the Tree of Life, which he plans to use in order to resurrect humanity. Getting to the tree, though, is going to be more of a challenge than even he could have bargained for. Landing in the Forge Lands, home to the Makers who built the first great structures of the universe, Death finds that the road ahead is full of twists, turns, and the creeping vines of corruption.
So, to reiterate, Darksiders was often looked at as something of a Legend of Zelda clone. Its sequel takes steps to expand from that core starting point, but still keeps one foot ion that dusty corner full of breakable pots. The game is very much structured in a series of open spaces, pathways, and dungeons, oddly evocative of Twilight Princess is its overall structure. Unfortunately, these areas are much less full of content than those in the average Zelda game, leading to a lot of spaces that feel empty and unfinished. But hey, at least the stonework is pretty!
Combat in Darksiders II is, luckily, a very satisfying affair. Death’s primary weapons consist, of course, of a pair of scythes, but these can be upgraded and changed numerous times throughout his adventure. He can even find possessed weapons, which will consume other equipment in order to level up and gain new effects. He can wield a bunch of different sub-weapons, from slower hammers and maces to faster claws and glaives. All sorts of weapons can come with effects that will slow enemies down, set them on fire, or do any number of other things.
The resulting combat system basically comes down to two buttons for attacking, with combos for using special attacks and execution moves. The game also has a slightly Bayonetta-ish feel, giving Death a quick-acting dodge roll that makes staying in motion a vital part of gameplay. There’s also a gun, borrowed from Death’s brother Strife, that can be used for ranged attacks, as well as Reaper Mode, a sort of berserker form, that can be charged up and unleashed. The combat feels fast, fluid and satisfying, with hidden combos galore for players to discover. Unfortunately, the enemies being fought against are a significantly less entertaining bunch, with mostly bland designs that sort of just bleed into each other. Personally, my favorite enemies are “animate pile of rocks” and “larger animate pile of rocks.”
Something else neat that Darksiders II: Deathinitive Edition tries to do is introduce parkour mechanics. That’s right; Death is Link, Bayonetta, and a cowl-wearing assassin all in one muscley package. Wall jumps and ledge-scaling are part of the status quo within the level design pf just about every dungeon, and sometimes it all comes together really well. The one big issue is that Death sometimes gets sluggish control-wise when jumping between walls, or when trying to lift himself up from a wall. If there’s one time when a flaw in the physics ointment becomes most clear, it’s the kind that Darksiders II plays host to all too many examples of.
Dungeon design is equal parts intuitive and mind-numbing. Each dungeon in the game uses elements not exclusive to those dungeons, such as bomb plants, lever systems, and balls that need to be rolled into holes to act as switches. These puzzles will get gradually more difficult with time, but rarely more so to provide anything more than the most passive and vague sense of challenge. There is also relatively little to make each dungeon feel unique from the others (although the game does actually feature a really good water temple, a praiseworthy feat in itself). There are points in any given dungeon that appear visually interchangeable with any other, meaning that despite the nice amount of texture detail added to the new Deathinitive version of the game, player eyes will have seen all-too-familiar architecture all too many times.
Also clocking in at “less-than-interesting” is the story, which winds up feeling like a sidequest gone on too long. The fact that the story of Darksiders II takes place more or less directly alongside that of the original Darksiders means that it can’t directly affect too much. Instead, Darksiders II: Deathinitive Edition builds a world of its own, and tries to create a bigger story than what came before. Unfortunately, bigger is not always better, and the story ends up feeling like a drawn-out mess of needless inconvenience. Dakrsiders II tells a story more well-suited for DLC than a full campaign; it’s just not consistently interesting enough to justify its ~20-hour playtime.
The final big question that has to be answered when looking at any game such as Darksiders II: Deathinitive Edition is what it does to deserve the newly-ported version. Death is in bloom, with newly-sharpened textures adding new levels of detail to various aspects of the world. More foliage and other setpiece items have been spread across the landscape, as illuminated by a completely reworked lighting engine. Unfortunately, this new system doesn’t seem to always agree with some of the stuff it casts light upon; I found characters and landmarks lighted with awkward and glaring squares of opacity, instead of the smooth lighting cast on everything else. There are also a surprising number of intrusive moments where the game will halt to load things mid-area; the kind of problem one would expect to be fixed in any enhanced version of a game, be it definitive or deathinitive.
It doesn’t matter how you explain it to your kids, or how many flowers you put on a gravestone; death is death. Darksiders II: Deathinitive Edition touches things up graphically and adds a new lighting system that brings out some new beauty in the lands of the Tree of Life, but could have used more tweaking in control and loading departments. What it does have is a really fun combat system with depth and variety in terms of Death himself; less so with the enemies he eliminates. The story isn’t terrible, per se, but it also isn’t interesting enough to take up the full game that it inhabits; instead, it feels more like a kid trying on their parents’ clothes.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 (reviewed) ; Publisher: Nordic Games ; Developer: Gunfire Games ; Players: 1; Released: October 30, 2015 (Xbox One, PlayStation 4), November 5, 2015 (Wii U) ; ESRB: M for Mature; MSRP: $39.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a Wii U review code provided by Darksiders II: Deathinitive Edition’s publisher, Nordic Games.