Darksiders 2: More Prince of Persia, less God of War
19th Jul 2011 | 16:00
Of all the games out there being buried by big name franchises, the lack of attention Darksiders got last year disappointed us most.
Seeing Vigil Games' expertly crafted action-adventure dismissed as just another hack-and-slash Devil May Cry clone was truly a shame. It was so much more than that.
With a structure inspired by Nintendo's masterpiece The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, as well as influences from God of War, Portal, Panzer Dragoon, Castlevania and many more, it was a love letter to gaming that brought together a multitude of themes and ideas, creating a kind of greatest hits of modern day game design.
That's all water under the bridge to developer Vigil, which has walked away with glass half-full attitude and draws optimism from having established a name for itself as a developer and Darksiders as a franchise - even if it is in the minds of a select few.
With Darksiders 2 it's aiming high, working to evolve the series into one that's much more than just the sum of its influences and from what we saw at a recent preview event the sequel might just catch the attention of a few more eyes.
DON'T FEAR THE REAPER
For those who missed the first game (grrr!) here's what you need to know: War, one of the four horseman of the apocalypse, is summoned to Earth during a battle between the forces of heaven and hell to restore order. Upon arriving he finds the other three horsemen haven't arrived and he is accused of prematurely kick-starting the apocalypse, wiping out mankind in the process and is imprisoned for his crimes.
Darksiders 2 takes place concurrently to the events of the first. Players take control of Death, who makes it his mission to exonerate his brother by restoring mankind. How's that for a bit of irony?
Our demo opens with a visual introduction to Death. While War lugged around in a hulking suit of armour and was a sluggish mover because of it, Death's simple, armour-free frame reflects his nature as a lighter, more agile character.
Surprisingly, Vigil has opted not to adopt the 'ghostly apparition' image of death that he's usually depicted as in pop culture as his main form, swapping out the hooded robes dangling on a skeletal frame in favour of a muscular body, long flowing black hair and a mask that looks like it's been pinched from Casey Jones. However, the boney specter of death does make the occasional appearance from time to time.
Death's first order of business is to dig up information on how, where and what he needs to do restore mankind. To get clued up he must speak to 'The Lord of Bones', a gatekeeper which Vigil describes as "the air traffic controller for souls".
Given the eight odd billion human souls that have clogged up his runway, we're guessing the Lord of Bones probably isn't going to be happy to see us, but off we go anyway. The Lord of Bones resides on an airship patrolling the skies over the Abyssal Plains, to summon him we must ring the bell atop Serpents Peak.
To travel there Death summons his loyal steed Despair, a dark, ominous horse that he raises from the ground beneath him and leaps upon. Since the world of Darksiders 2 is much larger than the previous game players will be given access to the Despair early to cut down the monotony of traveling long distances on foot, a problem which the first game faced in the early stages.
Shortly after ringing a bell a huge airship arrives pulled by two giant snakes - that explains the Serpents Peak name then - and we're treated to a short movie of Death leaping onto the flying fortress and riding along its surface on Despair.
EYES OF THE BEHOLDER
At this point Vigil takes the opportunity to emphasise that all cut-scenes are in-engine and in real time. This isn't meant to be a boast of its visual prowess, it's a tease of the effect the new loot system will have on the way Death looks. Although Death starts off quite plain looking, enemies drop loot when killed so player's can equip new bits of armour and weapons, which are reflected on the Death's character model.
While we're on the subject of visuals it's worth mentioning that from what we've seen so far Darksiders 2 won't be a huge visual leap, since it seems to run on a modified version of the same engine. But that doesn't mean it looks bad; the game's retained the same colourful, comic book-inspired art-style from the original and Joe Mad's character designs have a chunky super-hero-esque level of coolness that usually only Blizzard can pull off.
The ship serves as a playground to show off Death's maneuverability, which compared to his brother makes him a much scrappier character in both combat and traversal. Less Kratos and more Prince of Persia. His agility allows him to scurry up walls, which means he's able to navigate vertical walls with ease, while War would have had to find a higher area and glide down.
Reaching the side of the ship we find our progress halted by a rather lag gap, and since we're cruising through the skies one wrong move would see even a horseman of the apocalypse reduced to a stain on the dusty ground.
Fortunately Death is in possession of an item called the 'Ghost Hook', which functions in the same way as War's Abyssal Chain in that it can be used to swing over large gaps. Leaping off the platform Death quickly attaches himself to beams sticking out the side of the ship, traveling between them and landing safely on the other side.
Most of Death's abilities are available to him from the start. This means Vigil can stick to the Metroidvania formula which usually involves quite a bit of backtracking but make it much easier and fun to get around.
After swinging, scarpering and shimmying our way to the top of the vessel we find that the flying fortress is also a town. Darksiders 2 is built up of four major zones and Vigil promises that like all good towns each will have NPCs flogging items, dishing out quests and providing nuggets of information and back story on the world. Apparently each zone will also feature as much dungeon content as the entirety of the first game. Ambitious stuff.
GAME OF THRONES
Making our way to the throne room we're greeted by a hooded, frost-white figure standing between us and his master, who sits on his throne immobile in a stasis-like trance. While War was a chess piece trying to figure out his place on the board, Death's knows his objectives and comes across as much more of an assertive, driven character because of it. He demands to speak with the Lord and after a bit of verbal jousting with the demonic minder is told the Lord of Bones' body sits vacant while he attends to his realm, a place beyond even the eyes of the horsemen of the apocalypse.
"Nothing is impossible", Death interjects, forcing the servant to reveal the existence of the Gilded Arena, a battleground where mortals are given a chance at earning their freedom as well as an audience with The Lord of Bones. All that's required is the head of the champion, and with that we're whisked away, magically transported to the entrance to the arena.
The first Darksiders had a very linear structure, although it required players to backtrack and explore a number of hidden areas it was always in service of the main quest. For the sequel Vigil says it's loaded the game with optional side-quests, each with a unique dungeon created specifically for it, so you won't be seeing the same places over and over again a la Dragon Age 2.
The hallways leading to the arena are very narrow, gothically stylised with dark walls and ledges adorned with flickering candles. Approaching the doors Death's reaper form momentarily appears, his large boney hands pushing up against the metal doors and forcing them open. Death's reaper form functions in the same way as War's Havoc form, but instead of being limited to combat Death is able to momentarily channel its energy during normal combat and in some cases traversal and puzzle-solving.
Our first puzzle is a simple one; a large statue in the middle of the room holds a lantern, its light is projected onto a generator above the door we entered through and on the other side our exit lacks the power to function. Death gets a grip on the statue and rotates it, shining the lantern's beam onto the generator pad, granting us access to the next room. A quick wall run later and we find ourselves in the coliseum. Time for some hacking and slashing.
Before we throw ourselves into combat the camera focuses in on the central element of the dungeon, an altar that is missing a horn. Obviously we'll have to recover it and replace it to summon the champion, but before that we've got a few waves of enemy grunts to cut through.
Death's weapons of choice might not be as intimidating as War's oversized blades but they're equally as deadly. He dual-wields two small scythes which deliver a flurry of damaging but lightning-fast combos. He can also combine the two together into one larger weapon and deliver heavy blows. The Ghost Hook adds an additional layer to the combat by letting Death pull in smaller targets and quickly close the gap against heavier enemies, giving combat a smooth flow.
Darksiders 2's shift towards role-playing driven mechanics over pure action is most evident in its combat. Each attack results in a corresponding number showing us how much damage we're inflicting and, as is par for the course, enemies drop tiered loot in the form of secondary weapons, chests, shoulder and body armour, gloves boots and talismans, which can be used to buff stats.
Along with the loot system Darksiders 2 also includes a full skill-tree mechanic where players spend points earned from combat learning new abilities. Vigil makes it clear that it isn't possible to purchase everything in a single play through, even if you grind and reach max level. This means strategy and planning is required to progress through the skill tree.
In order to be effective in combat it's important to creating a synergy between weapons, armour and abilities, all of which support the usual archetypes of magic, damage and ranged.
In our demo Death's secondary weapon is a comically large hammer, although it dishes out serious damage it's slow start-up animation leaves him vulnerable to enemy attacks. However, using an ability called 'Feast of Crows' we're able to unleash a number of pesky birds that, while won't do much damage, will keep the enemy tied up long enough for us to swing the hammer.
We make our way across the coliseum and to the other end of the dungeon battling our way through pockets of enemies and locating the missing horn. Death momentarily channels his reaper form, which grabs hold of the horn and drags it back to whatever dimension he's holed up in when not doing Death's bidding.
Back-tracking to the main area of the dungeon we replace the horn and the champion, a snake type creature that burrows underneath the surface, shows itself.
It quickly moves around the arena, flanking Death and attacking before retreating underground. Death's combat style is much more offensive than War's and relies on speed. As a result Death doesn't have a block move and instead possesses a wide range of tools that let him quickly dodge and exploit the enemies weakness.
In this mini-boss battle we take the patient approach, waiting for the snake to taunt Death and striking before he's able to retreat. Eventually the beast transforms into a golem, with a body formed out of the bones of fallen warriors. His movement may be slower in his form but he is able to pull off his head and spine to use the snake form as a flail for long-range damage.
Using our Ghost Hook we latch onto his head, slamming it into the ground and leaving him stunned long enough for us to wail on him for a bit. A few minutes of rinsing and repeating and the monster stumbles, which is more than enough time for Death to summon his reaper form and decapitate the champion, securing its head and an audience with the Lord of Bones.
Darksiders 2 seems to be cleverly building on what it did very well in the previous game. The role-playing mechanics pave the way for a much deeper, personalised experience that allows players to create their own unique version of Death, kit him out and develop skills to match their play style.
However, the quality of the dungeons will make or break the game. The first Darksiders is proof that Vigil knows what it's doing, and with the promise of optional side-quests as well as unique dungeons we might be in for something very special indeed - and the the series might finally get the attention it deserves.