Darksiders II (WiiU Rerelease) Review: Death Lives

Darksiders is one of my favourite new series of the last few years. It’s very easy to sell the series to anyone; it’s Zelda for grown-ups. Complete with a rich cast of characters and a fantastic, post-apocalyptic narrative in which one of the four horsemen is tricked into kick starting the apocalypse several thousand years early.

So when THQ filed for bankruptcy early in 2013, sold off the rights to all of their franchises piecemeal to various publishers and removed their games from sale both at retail and digitally. I was worried that Darksiders was going to be confined to the annals of history.

Luckily, Darksiders has found a new home at Nordic Games. So after almost a year’s absence, Darksiders II has returned to the WiiU eshop.

Having previously played the game on the 360 when it was released way back in August of 2012, I thought now would be a great time to give it another whirl on WiiU. Two years later and it’s still a joy to play. What’s more, I’m inclined to say that the WiiU version is the definitive one.

In Darksiders II you play as Death: the skull masked, ramshackle brother to the first game’s protagonist, War. Set during the same period as the original Darksiders, whilst War fights to clear his name, Death is on a mission to restore humankind, wiped out during the conflict between Heaven and Hell that his brother unwittingly started.

7121DarksidersII_MSFT_MakerElderIn order to do this, Death must go on an epic journey to gain the assistance from the various factions that helped assist with humanity’s creation. His first stop is the Forge Realm: home of the Makers: an ancient race of artisans and craftsman that guard the Tree of Life and helped in the construction of the universe. However, all is not well, as mysterious corrupting force has started to seep into the roots of tree and if left unchecked threatens to wipe out the whole of existence. Therefore Death must help the Makers save the Tree of Life before he can save humanity and in the process save his brother.  Got it? Good. Clear, as mud. Oh. I’d better not mention what happens afterwards in the Realm of the Dead then.

Death’s adventures in the afterlife still look lovely. The game’s beautiful character designs by Joe Madureira (Uncanny X-Men) and cell shaded art style coupled with the increased draw distance of the WiiU version gives the game a richness that is lacking in the other console versions and makes it look like moving painting. But be warned the screen tearing issues from the PS3 and Xbox 360 still persist on the WiiU, even when playing on the gamepad.

Accompanying the game’s lush visuals is a wonderful, sweeping score and some very solid performances by the game’s principle cast. In particular Michael Wincott (The Crow) as Death, whose gravely, sarcastic, yet menacing tone brings a strange kind of warmth and charm to a character that by rights should be easy to hate and difficult to relate to.

Darksiders-2-5One of my chief complaints about the original was that for a game in which you were cast as on one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse you didn’t spend a lot of time on horseback, and even when you did, one brilliant boss fight against a colossal sand worm aside, it felt almost superfluous.Thankfully this has been rectified in the sequel. Death’s skeletal steed Despair is available from the off and can be summoned at any time when you’re not in a dungeon by hitting the L+R buttons. It’s a good thing too, because the sheer size of the open world environments in Darksiders II makes riding essential if you want to get to the games numerous dungeons before the rapture starts.

In many ways, Death’s voyage is a lot like his brother War’s, once again a heady mix of combat, open-world exploration, puzzle solving and dungeon crawling. However, it no longer sticks so slavishly to the Zelda formula as its predecessor did, instead introducing light RPG elements and placing a greater a greater emphasis on exploration and looting.

As such, the games numerous dungeons won’t always contain a new gadget or gizmo, instead rewarding players with a stronger weapon or a new piece of armour or accessory to bolt onto Death’s ramshackle frame.

7306darksiders-ii-online-wallrun-540x334Death is much more acrobatic than his brother, able to run along walls and leap from pillar to pillar in a manner similar to a certain Persian prince.  As a result, simply traversing the game’s dungeons feels like trying to solve one giant puzzle at times. Often, you’ll find yourself in a room with a chest on a high shelf or the exit will be on the other side of a gaping chasm or lava pit. Finding the path through isn’t always as simple as it initially seems and the game’s environmental puzzles increase in complexity as you unlock new equipment like the portal gun-like Void Walker. This allows Death to shoot portals at pre designated areas enabling him to reach preciously unattainable levels and hurl himself through the air at great speed in a similar manner to Valve’s classic puzzle game.

In Combat, compared to Wars hulking mass and heavy sword based attacks, Death is much more fragile and lithe. He cannot block, instead ducking and diving around foes before countering with flurries of strikes from his duel scythes and heavy blows from secondary weapons such as axes and hammers that can be equipped to the Y button.

Half the fun is finding the right tool for the job. The other is bashing the crap out of everything you see. Borrowing elements from genre greats such as God of War, and Devil May Cry, combat is balletic, brutal, a hell of a lot of fun, and, thanks to the games levelling system, incredibly rewarding and addictive as each kill gets you closer to a minor stat boost, a sharper pair of scythes and the ability to unlock another ability on the skill tree.

guardianAlthough, assaulting the rank and file is a lot of fun, to the point that you’ll happily dismount to attack the games roving trash mobs of mindless automatons for precious loot and XP. The same cannot always be said of the game’s boss encounters which are a mixed bag. Some are little more than larger grunts to pummel away at until their health bar depletes, whilst others are closer to the fantastic set piece that punctuated the end of each dungeon in the original.  For example, the final fight in the Forge lands against The Guardian: a colossal golem that the Makers constructed to protect their homeland from the corruption that unsurprisingly falls victim to the one thing it was supposed to guard against is particularly epic. Cue a multi-tied fight on foot and horseback, in which you tear the bastard apart piece by piece.

As you would expect, the WiiU version also has some simple but well implemented gamepad features such as inventory management and a real time map on the second screen and virtual surround sound via the gamepads speakers. Off-TV play is also supported although turning it off and on via the game’s options is a little fiddly.

Put simply, If you haven’t played Darksiders II by now and you own a WiiU, you owe it to yourself and your game’s collection to grab a copy as soon as possible. It is without a doubt one of the finest third party games on the system.