Well, it is crimbo after all; it just wouldn’t be right if I didn’t get some games to play. I’ve been in the mood for some meaty third-person action-RPG… action… for a while now, narrowly staving off another replay of Venetica with my annual festive UT2004 campaign.
I had heard over previous years that Darksiders was supposed to be quite good, and while perusing potential gift ideas I spotted a double pack containing it, its sequel and all their DLC packs — so I made the call to Santa and he dutifully obliged. (Clearly I have been a good boy this year.)
And gosh, Darksiders is meaty. The ham is strong in this one, with every character blessed with giant hands and massive swords, with every move making the screen shake and showering the world with blood and fire. Indeed, “meaty” feels like something of an understatement.
It’s certainly an action game, though fairly light RPG elements are present. Traverse a post-apocalyptic city as War, previously one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse but now disgraced, and tear shit up with ludicrous combat moves — what more could you want? Hold down attack for this, press left and jump and attack for that, press jump and dash for the next thing. Whoooosh.
Combat is mainly based around watching opponents and timing your strikes. Enemy moves are telegraphed with build-up animations and effects, telling you when it’s time to dash the fuck out of there, so it’s not “diffcult” per se, but it requires a pleasing amount of attention. Things get tough when heavy enemies are mixed in with lighter ones, making it hard to pick out the highly telegraphed attack that’ll demolish your hit points in a flurry of doom versus the wash of basic mooks who can hardly touch you, but what’s life without a little stress?
It is, I mean to say, extremely satisfying. Even the most button-mashy of clicks turns into a ludicrous whirl of light that smashes enemies to pieces. When you’re stuck in a melee there are always ways to get some breathing space — send enemies flying, leap into the air and hit them there, dash and flip and and and and and…
For some reason there is a combo counter that appears when you start hacking, counting up the number of consecutive hits you’ve managed to land — a bit like Shadow of Mordor, except your combo count there unlocked special moves and seems to do nothing. Darksiders‘ main advantage over Mordor, however, is that mouselook is out in full force and the game responds to your commands exactly as you issue them — rather than vaguely pandering to the general direction of your intent and then not quite doing what you wanted anyway. This is how melee combat controls should be done.
Continuing the theme of doing other games but better, proper mouselook again saves the day when it comes to the platforming that makes up the rest of the game. Where in the likes of Sonic Adventure you’re constantly fighting the camera to get into position for jumping around, in Darksiders you’ve always got precise and responsive ability to aim for exactly the place you wanted to aim (of course, working out where you actually want to aim for is sometimes another matter entirely).
Yes, the spectacular ruined city must be traversed by climbing and jumping and gliding and untangling environmental puzzles.
Following on from the likes of Tomb Raider, every puzzle that blocks your path has a single solution. These solutions vary in how obtuse they are, but mostly you don’t feel clever that you have improvised some route around an impasse, so much as you get a rush of relief as you spot and execute the precise mechanic the designers wanted you to use.
It is, I suppose, very gamey, doing very little to dress up its puzzles with context other than this is a blocker to your progress therefore you must breach it.
But despite that gaminess (or perhaps because of it?), the world of Darksiders is quite pleasant to traverse. There are monsters, there are ledges and platforms, there are strange barricades that can only be killed by particular items, and the controls are smooth and intuitive such that most of these challenges are a pleasure to indulge in rather than a chore to slog through.
Progress through the main quest rewards you with new items that unlock new avenues through the world. Bombs destroy red crystals, the Tremour Gauntlet destroys blue ones… It’s all very Legend of Zelda, but in this case not quite as good — these new capabilities only open up the way to the next objective, rather than giving you new ways to shortcut through the overworld.
Okay, maybe they also open a couple of extra treasure chests in previous levels, but while you can retrace your steps whenever you like, the game gives you no reason to do so until the finale. There’s a single fetch quest at the end that’ll take you back through most of the world, but even that will not take you past all the old obstacles to remind you that you can now unlock them. Basically, once you get the teleport pads you’ll barely touch any part of the world more than once.
There’s a smashing good time to be had here. Darksiders is appropriately ridiculous but straight-faced throughout, and delivers over-the-top action in spades. Maybe the puzzly garnish sometimes misses the spot, but most of it works just fine and provides much-needed down-time between bouts of blistering melee skirmishes. Maybe some of the bosses have too little allowance for error to stop challenge from turning into frustration.
Overall, though, a fine package and I’ll be well up for seeing where they went with the sequel.