Sometimes the first entry in a series is more notable for its potential than pure quality. Usually they come in the form of B-tier franchises, beloved despite their blemishes. When (or more likely, if) these titles get another entry, it's particularly important to stick the landing on the second go-round. I'm glad to say that in Darksiders 2, Vigil Games has largely made good on the series' potential with plenty of room to expand on it in future games.
The hero of this story is Death, who hopes to make up for the mistakes of his brother War by reviving humanity. He's immediately a more interesting character than his brother, who served as the first game's protagonist, due in large part to a more defined personality. Much of the heavy lifting is carried by voice actor Michael Wincott, who plays the embodiment of the reaper with a pitch-perfect balance between pithy derision and incisive, darkly humorous wit.
Death has a clearly defined goal from the start, and the plot revolves around being promised different items that will purportedly help him accomplish it. Each completed goal simply leads to another character telling you that a new magic MacGuffin will solve the problem. As a result, the plot meanders without real narrative progression. Death's quest shares too much in common with Sisyphus pushing a rock uphill. The game is packed with plenty of genuinely interesting lore and twists on Judeo-Christian iconography. But the fifth or sixth time I learned that the item I just received doesn't really work as advertised, or needs more parts, or is a key for some other place that holds the real artifact, I got tired of the runaround.
The story takes a back seat, though, since it mostly serves as connective tissue for the game's multitude of dungeons. These are where Vigil's creativity really shines, and they're integrated well into the large overworld maps. Unlike most Zelda titles or even the first Darksiders, each dungeon feels like a physical place that could comfortably reside inside the world itself. Each fits contextually, with solid reasoning for both its existence and modern function. While the plot isn't exactly cohesive, the sense of place certainly holds together beautifully.
Many of the game's cleverest moments are in its myriad puzzles. The mechanisms aren't entirely creative -- power-ups like a grappling hook, cloning ability, and portals will certainly seem familiar. But each item has at least a few dashes of brilliant application that I haven't seen before. In the late game, these start to stack and combine into puzzles that sated my brain-twister itch.
The dungeons are punctuated by combat, which felt more precise and aggressive than the first game. Death is quick on his toes, and I preferred to play him that way. For those who prefer a more brutal brand of slow, powerful strikes, a class of secondary weapons accommodates that style. In fact, the emphasis on loot gathering makes for swapping equipment at a fairly regular clip, and keeping a few sets around as the situation demands. The fights can occasionally be a little too chaotic, especially as the camera swings just slightly too low by default, but it was rare that I held it responsible for a lost life.
Not all of the experiments work, however. While the core combat and puzzle mechanics are fine-tuned, sometimes the game gets a little too ambitious and reaches beyond its grasp. One section in particular attempts to ape a zombie shooter, and not only fails to reach the fundamental standards we'd expect from the genre, but then overstays its welcome.
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I also can't neglect to mention some serious drawbacks to the Xbox 360 version. The experience is marred by occasional choppy animations and, in its worse moments, frequent interrupting loads. It attempts to offer a connected world without loading screens between areas, but I'd have preferred those defined loading screens to seeing Death frozen in mid-jump or dash for a spinning "Loading" prompt. I can't speak for the PC or PlayStation 3 versions, but the Xbox 360 certainly suffers.
Despite those technical problems, though, Darksiders 2 represents a marked improvement from the first game, and a supremely satisfying action-adventure game on its own right. My only serious reservations come from the performance issues, which didn't detract from the experience enough to override all of its good qualities. Most importantly, it delivers on the promise of the first game without losing its identity. Give Death a try.
This Darksiders 2 review was based on an Xbox 360 version of the game provided by the publisher.