The Horseman War faces the Charred Council, who seeks to punish him for bringing the apocalypse to Earth ahead of schedule and causing the extinction of the human race. The Earth lies in ruins, as the brutal battles between the angels of Heaven and the demons of Hell reduce it to smoldering rubble. The end times, it seems, are finally here.
Ironically, War’s fellow Horseman Death seeks to restore the balance, hoping to both resurrect mankind and clear War of the accusations against him in one fell swoop. Thus, he begins his own journey in Darksiders II, which runs parallel to War’s from the first game. Despite the shared mythology and franchise, however, Darksiders II is clearly its own beast, enhancing and improving on the original in virtually every way.
While the comic book/heavy metal album cover aesthetic of the first game is still in full effect in the sequel, the sense of scale has been dialed up about as far as it can go. The slightly exaggerated anatomy of Joe Madureira is still on display, with Death looking less like a gaunt wraith and more like Glenn Danzig cosplaying as Casey Jones at a renaissance faire. The scope and scale of the game’s environments have become positively massive, with wide-open vistas and sprawling plains connecting the game’s dungeons. Summoning Death’s horse Despair is a necessity to traverse these massive tracts of land, although dismounting at times can be beneficial so that you can engage the game’s various monsters in exchange for XP which you can use to level up in the game’s more pronounced RPG-style mechanics.
The RPG system is even more pronounced in the game’s introduction of random loot drops. Death now has a expansive wardrobe of armor and arsenal of weapons dropped not only by bosses, but as normal enemies to buff up your stats and add small elemental enhancements. This scratches the same itch that Diablo and World of Warcraft have introduced, making the game’s frantic combat even more satisfying when an improved scythe or mace gets dropped at your feet. A popup window compares the item on the ground with what you have currently equipped, so a quick button press will either send it to your inventory or allow you to equip it immediately. It’s a small enhancement, but it’s the sort of thing that could benefit games for years to come.
The biggest enhancement of Darksiders II is easily Death himself. The slightly exaggerated anatomy of Joe Madureira is still on display, with Death looking less like a gaunt wraith and more like Glenn Danzig cosplaying as Casey Jones at a renaissance faire. Death is a far less bulky design than War from the previous game, and it carries over to his movement. There’s a greater emphasis placed on navigating the game’s environments, with various fixtures around the world allowing Death to move with a catlike grace across walls and ceilings. There’s a rhythm to the character’s movement that equally feral and acrobatic, and it’s nearly perfect in its execution. Scrambling up the wall to grip a railing, then running laterally from said railing to a jutting peg to leap to a hanging post is easy enough to pull off, but just challenging enough to provide a deep feeling of satisfaction when you pull off a complex sequence of maneuvers. There is the occasional time where the game’s controls go on autopilot (particularly when wall-running from peg to peg) and cause you to fall, but these moments are infrequent enough that it goes mostly unnoticed.
If there’s one issue that Darksiders II has that its predecessor didn’t, it’s the decompression of the story that makes it feel slightly less compelling. Darksiders II boasts almost 40 hours of gameplay, which is an appreciated gesture in an era of 8-hour experiences, but the story doles out its plot points much more slowly than the first game. While the story is still compelling and the presentation is still fantastic—the voice acting alone is worth the price of admission—the rhythm of the narrative just feels a little off.
Despite the slower burn of the story, Darksiders II is still a vast improvement over the prequel. The unique graphics, beautiful and atypical soundtrack, and thumb-crushing gameplay all add up to a first-class experience in the dark fantasy genre.