It's time to arm up for Armageddon. The horseman of the apocalypse called War is about to live up to his name and visit devastation upon a ruined earth, rumbling with both grotesque demons and angelic upstarts. Combo-crazy combat and puzzle-littered dungeons are the derivative elements that light the way to the dark side. Will this potent combination curdle or converge?
War is set to hit up earth on the eve of the Apocalypse; that's just his sort of thing. Too bad he acted on a false alarm. Blamed for kick-starting the end of the world, War is stripped of most of his powers and bound to a charred council which seeks to find the delicate balance between heaven and hell. Unsure if his new role is that of pawn or patsy, he must unravel a conspiracy while under the constant gaze of the Watcher, an agent of the balance that's full of sound advice and ominous putdowns, voiced by Mark Hamill. It's hard not to geekily gush over the distilled plot, but it's in the telling where Darksiders falters, buckling under its own hermetic hegemony. There's an internal cosmology that may glom from the gospels, but for the most part, is its own beast. The end of the world is an intriguing place--it's just that the background politics should take a backseat.
First impressions puts up War's war as a by-the-books action game, where spamming buttons, attempting mid-air pummelings, and sweating a combo counter is the order of the day. Near-demolished demons offer up obvious contextual clues, but quick-time events are few and far between. The ability to pick up and throw automobiles ekes out a slither of novelty. This first impression is also a long one. You'll be battling through a linear barrage of sequences for awhile before the curtains are raised. Beneath Darksiders' combat-core is an unabashed riff on Zelda, complete with an overworld, dungeons, puzzles, and bosses both mini and big.
The questing is as traditional as the combat. Certain areas are off-limits to War until he obtains the necessary items and skills found in dungeons. It's a well-tempered formula, and Darksiders sticks to it, apart from a few original flourishes. One dungeon isn't even a dungeon, taking place entirely in the overworld, spread across a vast desert instead of the confined interiors that constitute the norm. In all, there're four dungeons to conquer and a handful of varied overworld locations to traverse, dotted with story events. True to form, Darksiders also borrows the most reviled of game-lengtheners: a late-game backtracking scavenger hunt.
There're also a few subsystems that allow War to unlock and level-up moves and powers, buy healing consumables or even a scythe, and purchase enchantments. Intriguing at first, it ends up feeling shallow. Yes, you can buy the scythe, but that's the only other weapon you can buy. A few moves have noticeable effects, but leveling them doesn't result in good feedback and there're really a paltry amount of enchantments to experiment with. Trophy and achievement hunters may spend more time with this element of the game, but it's ultimately underdeveloped.
If you play games with any regularity, Darksiders offers an air of déjà vu without that fuzzy, nostalgic feeling. The amusing scenarios never fully approach the sources that they ape.
War may spend the first leg of his journey in seemingly endless one-button combat, but it really opens up with items that can do more than solve puzzles, like a throwing glaive and massive gauntlets. Combat also gets easier as War regains his abilities, especially his Chaos form, which bestows a few moments of invincibility and immense destructive power. As the questing shifts into focus, challenging combat starts to step out of the limelight, with even the bosses relying on more involved take-down solutions than brute force. Dodging and blocking can feel unresponsive, and that's where the finishing moves come into play. Ending enemies with a finisher grants momentary invulnerability as the animation plays out and is often the key to surviving the mass melees, making War's best defense an overly aggressive offense.
Delving into the dungeons supplies plentiful puzzles, which are numerous if not very taxing. They tend to rely on the item you found in the given dungeon, with the best occasionally asking you to think outside of the box. There's nothing in the main quest that will make you race for a walkthrough, but expect some nonessential chests to hold onto their goodies as you rip through the dungeon in search of the boss.
When you do slow down enough to notice the particulars, some things are arbitrary placed, like little blue hovering orbs that give you lift dotting the path of your travel but making little sense in the context of the area. Likewise, there are plenty of puzzles placed merely for their own sake, plus monsters that teleport into battle and summon locked doors to impede your progress seemingly at random. Lots of games do this, but here it's a little more transparent. Still, most of the time you'll be too busy vanquishing and breezing through puzzles to notice. Simply put, other than its bookends, Darksiders has great pacing.
The demonic troops and splotchy wastelands come from the mind of one Joe Madureira, the artist who drew the Uncanny X-Men in the mid '90s and created Battle Chasers, the popular comic that cemented his distinctive style. That Heavy Metal junior look returns. War, his weapons, and his foes, could easily cameo in a Warcraft raid. The style is very consistent, so while enemies look good, they never really differentiate themselves. Even bosses only really stand out due to their size, though the bouts with angels do change up the palette.
There's some screen tearing, and a few of the little flourishes that the game musters, like newspapers blowing in the wind and temporary craters resulting from big jumps, come across as lackluster. The animations, like the plentiful finishers, capture the comic-book feel: they're big, bold, and bloody.
The expected atmospheric music and hammy voice work round out the audio, with kudos for the pleasant chime when mowing down parking meters. The game plateaus from the get go, and with that being the Armageddon, we'll allow some concessions, though the "wow factor" never really materializes, unless by "wow" you mean World of Warcraft.
Darksiders has a lot of staples in its stable. And, yes there's even a horse. And a flying section. And even some gun segments. They're all fun, but nothing to blog home about. It's able to emulate its idols very well, so whatever War is doing, it's bound to be enjoyable. But anyone who's attracted to this sort of game, or action games in general, is going to feel more familiar than floored.
Reviewed on Microsoft Xbox 360.