The hack n’ slash genre is back in force this year with the first quarter playing host to Bayonetta, Dante’s Inferno and God of War III. Amidst the hype of these three big names Vigil Games have been pretty quiet promoting their effort Darksiders. Turns out keeping their heads down and getting on with it has paid off as we have our first surprise of the year.
You are War, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, feared by Heaven and Hell alike. Someone has triggered the Endwar early though, tricking War into turning up on his own and the human race being wiped off the face of the earth. With Heaven and Hell blaming War, he is stripped of all his powers and tasked by the Council with finding out who really broke the treaty.
Robbed of your powers, combat starts off a little bland as you only have the square button for sword attacks and circle for throwing cars, lamp-posts, barrels and parking meters. You should buy the Scythe secondary weapon as soon as possible to avoid getting bored with hammering square constantly. The Triangle button is used to attack with secondary weapons rather than the genre-staple strong attack. You can use both mid-combo but there aren’t any dedicated combos for this. There aren’t many combos at all really which may prove a little off-putting.
Blocking is done by pressing R1 and you can perform a dash move by pressing a direction at the same time. This causes a few problems when you just want to stand still and the slightest twitch results in you zooming off.
The lock-on function zooms the camera in and adds a cool cinematic widescreen effect. Sometimes it’s too close though and you can’t keep track of where other enemies are, particularly annoying when they’re nailing you off-screen. For one-on-one or boss fights it works well though. The combat manages to stand up well against multiple opponents without having to use the lock-on all the time though, so it’s not a major issue.
Upgrades and new moves can be bought, but are very expensive so you’ll want to choose wisely. There are some collectibles that can be slotted in to enhance a weapon with extra damage, extra currency, health regeneration and so on. It’s worth retreading old ground on the chance you’ll find one of these.
Wrath attacks can be activated by holding L1 and pressing the assigned face button. The first one you get is the good old ground spike and there are three more to find, some defensive some offensive. These moves consume Wrath Energy which you gradually earn from defeated foes. It takes ages to fill a bar so you’re best saving them for bosses and last resorts. As you can see, the shoulder buttons are used a lot and can become a bit of a mess of blocking, locking-on, and accidentally activated Wrath powers.
Around five hours in you can also activate your demon form which looks like the fiery Balrog of Moria from The Lord of the Rings. You can do this whenever you fill a meter by hacking away at enemies. It builds up pretty quickly compared to the Wrath attacks.
It does seem to take ages to unlock the cool weapons and gear. You’re about half way through before you unlock the gun and still won’t have met your horse, Ruin by this point either. Ruin is worth waiting for though for the Tremors-like level.
Enemies are very generic, with grunts, stomping demons and flying bats and so on. The boss fights are the exception that require a bit more thought than twat it with square.
The game is open-world in the loosest sense. A few hours in you can fast-travel between areas, most of which are self-contained corridor environments. The way that you might retread old ground is similar to the way it’s done in Arkham Asylum, with new found abilities allowing you access to new areas. Most backtracking is done for extra items, so it’s pretty optional if you just want to plough through the story, but the increased health capacity items will come in useful.
The world is made up of shattered modern cities, overgrown jungles and a lot of underground tunnels. None of it blows you away, but it’s far from ugly. The voice work is top-notch with War’s suitably deep tones, Samael as scary demon number one and The Watcher as voiced by Mark Hamill of Arkham Asylum’s Joker fame. They’re all well animated and designed too.
Early puzzles are standard block pushers, levers and a bit of platforming. Once you unlock the Crossblade, a huge spiked throwing star, the puzzles step up a gear. With multiple targeting you can set it on fire then get it to detonate sticky bombs to blow up obstructions. It’s like the Glaive in the game Dark Sector, but with auto-aim instead of manual flight controls. Your battle-ravaged thumps will appreciate the temporary change of pace.
In fact, late on in the game the puzzles take over with Portal-esque brainteasers. It’s a brave design decision to change direction so late on but ultimately an excellent one with some of the most rewarding puzzles the hack n’ slash genre has seen.
There’s no denying that most of the positive things about Darksiders have been seen before. But at least they’ve decided to borrow good things. If there’re two main criticisms it’s that many of War’s weapons and abilities are unlocked too late into the game and the combat isn’t especially deep, which for some players will make it feel a little stale. Which is why the change of gaming style into more puzzle-based levels towards the end arrives just in time to save the game from becoming the year’s first casualty.