With anticipation high In the surprisingly release-heavy first quarter of the year, Darksiders was not exactly high up my list. I’d seen very little of Vigil Games’ first title, and read even less. I picked the game up from my local store and brought it home, not exactly chomping at the proverbial bit to play it. However, once I finally tore the shrink wrap off the case and popped Darksiders it into my Xbox, my attitude turned a very quick 180.
The game casts you as War, one of the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who is charged by the Charred Council (a trio of fiery stone skulls who run all existence) with starting the Apocalypse, despite War’s insistence to the contrary. Stripping War of most of his power, the Council sends him out into the now-ruined world to clear his name by finding and punishing those responsible.
The story, to be blunt, is a major sticking point for criticism, often trying to establish its own mythology on the fly. This leads to a sense of disconnection as War traverses the post-apocalyptic landscape hunting for entities that are often removed from the game’s lore just as quickly as they are introduced.
Chaotic storytelling aside it's Darksiders' game play that truly makes its mark. Combining God of War-flavored brawling with puzzling and adventuring that feels like a note-perfect adaptation of The Legend of Zelda (complete with boomerang and hook shot), this combination may sound strange and derivative but actually comes out pleasantly satisfying. The game balances these two elements perfectly, alternating between brutal combat and challenging but fair puzzles often enough to keep the player entertained. For good measure, the occasional mini game will drop in, ranging from creature-back combat to arenas with their own 5-minute rule sets. Again, this does lead to a slight sense of disconnection, but it certainly can never be accused of becoming stagnant.
Tying this oddly paced, varied monster together is the artwork of comic artist Joe Madureira (X-Men, The Ultimates 3); his unique sense of proportion and distinctive bio-organic sculpting translates beautifully to the third dimension. The game’s overly bright lighting breathes life into his cartoony creations, giving them a true sense of dimension and weight despite their firm seating in visual fiction.
In today’s landscape of drab, realistic action titles whose palettes are muted shades of brown and gray, Darksiders' overblown use of color and comic-book styling (think a high-definition World of Warcraft and you’re on the right path) is refreshing and unique for the genre. Even the writing of the characters, despite the story’s shortcomings, is both epic and fun.
War is an overly serious, vengeful brute, playing the straight man for the show-stealing Watcher, a Mark Hamill-voiced wraith bound to War by The Charred Council to keep him in check. The Watcher’s incessant chatter brings a much-needed lift to War’s intentionally overdramatic dialogue, and the two play off each other perfectly.
Darksiders is by no means a perfect game: its story pacing is arrhythmic and its game play nothing new. However, it reminds us just what we game for: fun. From the first moment to the last, the game is nothing less than revelatory in its sense of unabashed, button-mashing enjoyment that the industry seems to have forgotten as of late. It may not strike new ground for the game industry at large, but any game that can return me to that sense of wide-eyed giddiness that got me gaming in the first place is a success in my book.