As you can probably tell from the sorts of games I rate highly, I’ve never been one to shy away from a game just because it looks childish.
Quite the opposite in fact. I’m a strong believer in the idea that if you take any two games from the same console generation, you’ll often find that it’s the one with the more child-friendly graphics that has better stood the test of time.
Mario 64? Dated but functional. Goldeneye 64? A blocky mess. On the Gamecube, there were two Zelda games released: the cartoony Windwaker and the more realistic Twilight Princess. Despite the fact that the Windwaker was widely criticised at the time of its release for looking so ‘kiddy’, it says a lot about the timelessness of its graphics that it’s this game, rather than the more realistic Twilight Princess, which received an HD makeover last year. A makeover, I might add, that most people said wasn’t needed.
Games like this will always look good
In fact, there’s so much evidence that good graphics don’t equal a good game that it kind of boggles my mind that developers continue to plough as much money as they do into making their graphics so bleeding edge. Massive draw distances, 1080p textures and millions of polygons seems to be the raison d’etre of developers these days. Go onto any gaming forum and you’ll find literally hundreds of people arguing for hours over the tiniest difference in graphical fidelity rather than, you know, talking about which game is actually the most fun to play.
Maybe it’s the Nintendo upbringing in me, or maybe it’s the fact that I’ve spent the last six years playing exclusively on a Wii, but I can’t help but wonder why developers even bother, especially when the result of such high budget graphical spending is little more than a glitchy, buggy mess of a game, with a frame rate that regularly drops into the single digits, screen tearing all over the place and a disturbing tendency to crash my entire console at least once an hour, requiring a hard reset of the system.
That’s a description of Darksiders II by the way. Suffice to say, I don’t think we’ll be looking back on this game in 10 years time and marveling at its beauty. To be honest, I doubt most people will even remember it exists.
Beautiful, yes. But watch it in action and you’ll quickly lose your love for it
A launch title for the Wii U and one of the last releases from THQ before its untimely shutdown last year, Darksiders II is an example of a studio playing it safe. “It’s the next best thing to Zelda!” some random forum member told me a few months ago in a conversation which convinced me to give the game a try. “If you can’t wait for the next installment of Zelda, why not give it a go?” And yes, I have to admit that both games share a lot of similarities. Both have dungeons to explore, for example. Both have giant bosses to kill, items to collect and puzzles to solve.
But that’s where the similarities end. For where a game like Zelda asks you to step back and analyse your enemies before exploiting their weaknesses, Darksiders II plays like a side-scrolling beat ’em up. Button mashing is the order of business here and dear God is there a lot of it. Literally every button on the Gamepad is used at some point during combat — often in combination with one another and usually to a specific animation-based rhythm. Battles in this game are less about picking your moment than they are trying to remember the correct button combination to activate your special ability.
It gets tedious very quickly and it doesn’t help matters that the game is damned hard. Not so hard that you’re not going to make progress, of course — there are checkpoints all over the place and the game kindly gives you unlimited continues — but hard enough that you’re going to find yourself dying with frustrating frequency and, usually, it’ll be because you forgot how to activate your health potion during the heat of the battle or because you didn’t quite press the right combination of buttons at the exact moment you should have.
Maybe it’s just me and my years of Zelda training but I don’t find that sort of combat fun. It’s certainly not intuitive. There is a steep learning curve involved in this game and even after spending more than 50 hours on the game, I still don’t feel as though I’ve mastered it.
Alright so it’s L2+B for the spin attack, right? Or is it X, X+Y? Oh damn it, I’m dead again
Also different to Zelda is the weapon system. Defeated enemies periodically drop weapons and armour on the ground, which you can swap out instantly for the one you’re currently using. The Gamepad is used to great effect here, as you can instantly switch things around in real-time. Some weapons have the ability to level up, too, giving a nice feeling of choice and progression to proceedings. I particularly like how any change you make to your weapons or armour is reflected on Death’s character model.
However, this system is not without its drawbacks. The problem is that these weapon drops happen with such unrelenting frequency that you quickly find yourself with a maxed out inventory and multiple copies of identical weapons. You find yourself having to drop old weapons on the ground to make room for new ones and it all just makes me wonder (again, this might be the Zelda training in me) why didn’t the designers just give us one example of each type of weapon and then have the enemies drop items which allow us to upgrade them?
The ‘hero’ Death. Not exactly the easiest character to relate to
So what about the plot, then? You play as Death — one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse — on his desperate quest to clear his brother War’s name following the events of the first game. Straight away I have to confess that I’ve never played the first game (I’ve always been a one console per generation gamer and my console of choice for the last generation was the Wii) so I’ll freely admit that maybe, if I had played the first game, I might be able to understand more of what’s actually going on in the story.
Because right now, I have to say, I don’t understand any of it.
The way Death goes about clearing his brother’s name has to be one of the most convoluted and nonsensical things I’ve ever seen in a game. It turns out that in order to clear his brother’s name, Death needs to get to a place called the Tree of Life. Unfortunately for him, the road there is blocked by an evil miasma called Corruption. Alright you think, I’ll just have to destroy it then. Right? Well, no. The only way to destroy this Corruption is to first raise one of the giant constructs built thousands of years ago by the Makers and the only way to do that is to first divert a river and then blow up a volcano in order to light the forge that the Makers used to create the Constructs. You’re ten hours into the game before you even reach the bloody Tree of Life and when you finally get there, you’re not in the least bit surprised to find yet another complication immediately thrown in your path that sends you off on another five-hour button mash of a side quest.
It’s just one fetch quest after another with endless combat in between. Find something for someone — make progress. Find something else for someone else — make a bit more progress. There is zero emotional investment in anything that’s happening and, for a game with such a reliance on cut scenes and voice acting, that’s a pretty bad thing.
You certainly won’t run out of things to do in this game. Too bad most of those things are tedious
So what does this game have going for it, I hear you cry? Well, it’s a big game for one thing — much bigger than a typical Zelda game — and there are oodles of dungeons to explore and collectables to find along the way. If you’re the type of gamer who likes going for achievements, you’re going to have a great time here as there seems to be no end to it all.
The bosses are also fantastic. Suffice to say that there’s no such thing as an easy enemy in this game and this applies doubly so for bosses. Bosses truly feel like the leviathans that they are. They fill up the entire screen and are genuinely difficult to take down. Some of the game’s best moments are boss fights where you take on enemies hundreds of times your own size only to grind them into the dust. Its satisfying and it looks cool. They stay with you a long time afterwards.
I also really liked the exploration element to the game. Death runs and jumps around the scenery with a kind of parkour acrobatic grace that outshines Link on almost every level. The puzzles might not be on the same level of complexity as Zelda’s, but there are certainly a lot of them and they are always satisfying to solve.
I just wish there was more of these things and less of the button mashing. I just wish the designers had spent more time on making the plot good, even if it meant making the game shorter, than padding it out with stupid fetch quests that benefit no one. I just wish the graphic designers had spent more time ironing out all the bugs and glitches instead of cramming in all those beautiful HD textures.
With another few months of development, I feel there could have been something really good here. Sadly, in its current state, the words ‘generic’ and ‘lacklustre’ are the first that spring to mind.
Overall – D
Darksiders II does a lot of things right: the atmosphere, the graphics and the huge open world are better than almost anything else you’ll find right now on the Wii U. It’s a huge game and, let me tell you, seeing it all running in full HD after six years of playing nothing but Wii games… that was a mind blowing first few hours right there.
But once all the dust has settled and the plot gets underway, you realise that most of the game is made up of little more than mindless button mashing and pointless fetch quests, through a world made up of some of the most glaring graphical glitches I’ve ever seen.
It’s pretty forgettable and it gets samey very quickly. Its few stand out moments are painfully marred by all the flaws in between and, sadly, it’s just not very fun when you get right down to it. Ultimately the game feels like exactly what it is: the swan song of a dying studio rushing to meet a deadline before its doors were closed forever.