“Natalie, why do you do this to yourself?” Do what to myself, voice in my head? “Why are you going back to a game that you remember disliking when you played it 5 years ago?” Because I always felt that I should actually like this game, and wanted to give it another shake. “Even after re-reading your original review?” Well, I tried to. My writing was just awful back then. “You know, you sometimes have a really bad tendency for self-destructive behavior.” I know voice in my head, I know.
Darksiders Warmastered Edition Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One, Wii U
Developer: Vigil Games and KAIKO
Publisher: THQ Nordic
Anyways, the Darksiders series follows a particularly loose interpretation of the four horsemen of the biblical apocalypse. So it should be no surprise that the story starts off as one of the horsemen, War, is sent to Earth and ushers in the expected apocalypse. Only to discover that it is a premature one, ultimately resulting in the death of mankind, mass destruction, and a war between angels and demons that ultimately resulted in demons taking over the planet. Because of this little whoopsie, War’s bosses, who I guess exist to maintain the balance of the universe or something, send him back to Earth in order both prove that it is not his fault that Earth is positively ruined and do some tidying up while he’s at it.
It is a rather simple goal that is quickly put on hold the majority of the game as War is forced into doing favors for a big demon man who tells War to get four hearts from four bosses who are conveniently hidden in four themed dungeons. Only after that is War able to find somebody to give him some answers about what happened to summon him and the story can tumble its way to a cliffhanger ending that the series will likely not answer until the fifth game.
There certainly is story here, but so much of it is needlessly spaced apart, vague to the point where I could not tell if I was overthinking certain things or if the game was just that poor at explaining itself, of just wrapped up in a predictable affair, right down to the twist about who ultimately causes the apocalypse. This is the kind of story that could have been greatly improved through the introduction of a glossary or codex to describe the story behind the characters, locations, and general mythos of the world, but such a feature does not exist. The developers even went to the trouble of highlighting relevant words, as if there are definitions of them, but there are not.
This lack of attention to world building is incredibly apparent to me in the environments, a collection of primarily grey landscapes that depict an urban metropolis that had been demolished and mutated by a demonic presence and as a result, began transforming into a more fantasy oriented environment. While that concept does work, and can lead to some interesting set pieces, it results in the game being comprised of rather dull grey urban set pieces and fantasy environments that make me scratch my head when thinking about their origins.
Why is there a labyrinthine cathedral that was made by humans and placed in the middle of an American urban center? Why would anybody ever design a train station like a with 100 foot tall ceilings dungeon? Why is there a graveyard with a notable lack of graves that looks to have been placed in an awkward location based on the layout of this city? Why is there a giant desert filled with sand worms and demons? While I can often dismiss these questions like these, the more serious tone of the game’s narrative and the realistic origins of the setting make doing so far more difficult.
I suppose that this was more of a compromise for the visuals of the game, which do depict an interesting series of locales that walk the line between fantasy and reality in order to creates something appealing. It is at its best when mixing and matching elements of both in the same environment, and does manage to execute this premise to great effect when it does so, but the collection of environments that stick to a more grounded interpretation of a post-apocalyptic Earth, which house the beginning sections of the game, are far less interesting.
Still, the game does have a strong art direction, not surprising considering one of its most prominent developers was a famed comic artist, yet the general design work on display is very busy. With War in particular looking like a player created character with copious amounts of mismatched loot attached to his body without much cohesive or striking about his design. There is also a strange tendency for the game to gravitate towards more dull color schemes, with the best examples being the game’s five dungeons, which consist of a stone cathedral, a concrete train station, a pale desert, a blue-grey spider lair, and a dark blue castle. They all have some interesting architectural elements, yet all of them are marred by their dull color schemes and a sense of being overly designed that honestly made me gloss over them in spite of the level of detail the artists clearly put into crafting them.
As for describing the gameplay and all things associated with it, Darksiders is an action adventure game with hack and slash driven combat with a simplistic combo system, an explorable overworld with a variety of upgrades strewn throughout it, and various sub weapons that range from combative aids to puzzle solving tools. Along with occasional third person shooter sections. While that description is accurate, it would be more honest to say that Darksiders is a hodgepodge of various game mechanics and structural concepts that were popular during the time in which it was developed, as the game draws very liberally for inspiration from a variety of titles, most notably The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.
It’s honestly bizarre how many things Darksiders borrows. Everything from the Gale Boomerang equivalent, the occasional trips to the “Shadow Realm”, the pace at which items are distributed throughout dungeons, and the general way that dungeons are constructed. Health is segmented and upgraded exactly like hearts, War has his own Midna analog, there is a section where War needs to traverse a giant desert before breaking into an enemy camp, who are the same enemies who stole his horse.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially considering how Twilight Princess is one of my favorite Zelda games, but the number of comparisons I was able to make while playing combined with how blatant they are really does scratch my head as to how the developers thought that they would avoid direct comparisons to a game that, at the time, was only three years old. Oh, but that is only the biggest comparison that I could draw, as there are other startlingly similar mechanics and concepts thrown in from other games, most notably the inclusion of a device that shoots vortexes that allow War to teleport himself and other objects between two set points. Or to be less pedantic about it, a portal gun.
I would be willing to dismiss these overt comparisons if the game were able to takes its various ideas and execute upon them as well as the titles that influenced it, but that is not really the case. The puzzles feel elongated and overt, certain sections drag on for too long, the collectibles are not distributed as well as I would like, and the combat is… frustrating to me. Darksiders adopt a combo and dodge centered hack and slash approach, verging on character action but never quite getting that far, and while it is all fully fine in concept, there were a few regular issues I ran into while playing the game on its normal difficulty setting.
Enemies feel a bit too strong, being able to cleave through health bars at surprising speeds. War’s starting attack power and movelist are rather lacking and takes quite some time to evolve. One of the three main weapons, a pair of gauntlets, is surprisingly difficult to use, making it borderline useless in my opinion. The dodge system can often get hung up on how the dodge button is the same as the block button, and the dodge is notably less useful and reliable when locking onto enemies.
Then there is the health system. Unlike many of its contemporaries, Darksiders does not have enemies drop health upon being defeated or have regular health pickups available for the player to use. Instead, it takes a page from God Of War’s book by introducing chests that contain health. These chests are placed sensibly in some circumstances, but often they are either too close or too far away from one another, or the chests are placed in a way where I was not sure if I was intended to put them aside for later or use them right now.
Now, there are admittedly healing items that may be bought, but they are so expensive that I could never justify ever using them. Instead, I went through the entire game constantly hoping to find the rare enemy that drops health upon being defeated or trying my hardest to preserve health throughout the game. It is something that I can be very anal about in some games, maintaining a full health bar as much as possible, and due to health refills being such a scarcity I went through the game with a constant undercurrent of anxiety.
Well, I went through 90% of the game with that sense of anxiety, but near the end of the game, after the final dungeon, it gets absurdly easy due to the optional upgrades that I, naturally, went out of my way to collect. Thereby giving war a massive health capacity, weapon enhancements that boost damage dramatically, and a set of armor that both has greater defense and allows War to absorb a tiny bit of health with every other hit. All of which are not made available until the final stretch of the game, during a backtracking fetch quest after the final dungeon that leads directly to the final boss.
That is just one of many fairly minor yet nevertheless perplexing design choices Darksiders makes. Why is it more austentatious to do combat from horseback due to war’s increased attack power per hit? Why does the fast travel system require War to walk through a dull series of assembling platforms, ala Bastion, when there are no hazards in them? Why are two items hidden in these fast travel sections and how is anybody supposed to find them? WHy is it made so difficult to grind for souls, the game’s currency, when the player is unlikely to purchase every move upgrade in a normal playthrough? Why does the game sometimes arbitrarily restore health after certain sections? Why do certain specific enemies give off health upon being defeated while others do not?
It’s all such a shame because behind these issues there is a really solid game. The combat, while a bit simple and button mashy, is enjoyable at its base level. The puzzles, while a bit obtuse at times, are methodical thought practices that break up the combat nicely and regularly introduce new ideas. And the exploration, while a bit hindered by how the only way to see overworld chests is tied behind an easy to miss item, portrays some good world design and can be rewarding in itself.
While I understand the game does have a pretty strong following, I just find Darksiders to be less than the sum of its parts. It is an impressive or at least quality title on paper with a good list of influences and clearly some talented people working on it, but when everything comes together, I found the game to be thoroughly average. It is a collection of little things that bog it down, minor hangups that honestly turned the game into something that I had to force myself to finish.