Personified in myth and lore, Death is generally regarded as a creature to be avoided. In Vigil Games' interpretation, Death is revered for his taking of life as part of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In their Darksiders universe, he's also a being with a troubled past that shapes his character as a Rider. Unyielding against anything keeping him from redeeming his brother of the world-ending contingent, War, Vigil's Death is more of a loyal companion than grim reaper of souls.
While Vigil's premier introduced us to an apocalyptic fiction influenced and stylized from biblical themes and characters, their sequel uses Death as a way to create a backstory and origin for their version of the Horsemen. Similar to it's predecessor, Darksiders 2 plays like a well-constructed amalgamation of favorite games and franchises, only this time with more RPG elements thrown into a package that's much bigger, and takes a proportionately longer amount of time to complete. Certainly, Vigil have aimed to produce something to quiet a fan's plea asking for more of their successful formula, but in the process of making more game to play, they've also left out the “and then some” part to their delivery.
For me, after putting that shiny case up on the shelf, I came away from Darksiders impressed and one of those fans craving for more: more dungeons, more puzzles, more dynamic boss battles, more unexpected use of colors, more reasons to keep a fun game sitting in the disc tray. On more than one level, it hit the most important notes just right so as not to feel overly familiar or outrageously copycat. Darksiders 2 carries on the tradition, checking off most of the above list with a lithe Death character in the spotlight, but does so with so much of focus on the size of it's game world, it does little to differentiate itself from the first game or complement a bigger map with equally as much to do.
In an adventure that takes Death through four different, open-world realms that can be re-explored whenever the player chooses (but that are only accessible when the necessary tools for environments' traversal are obtained), there's plenty of ground to cover that never appears like a template. With an exception, they make up a comparatively more whimsical setting than the demon-filled Earth in War's story, but the move to a more popularized fantasy aesthetic is deft enough that it isn't confused with other worlds in the genre. Thankfully the expanses can be navigated quickly with a map-based fast-travel mechanic that even allows for teleportation from and back to Death's progression in a dungeon.
Taking up that room on the map are more dungeons and keeps to explore, constructed as environmental puzzles. In each, your final objective might be right behind a door when you first enter, but getting to it is never as easy as shoving open the portal. Instead, it takes winding routes, climbing and some thought to maneuver through rooms that lead to a key, that opens a chest for an item that eventually brings you to a gatekeeper boss. Unlike some developers, Vigil thankfully doesn't create a ton of filler with abusive and tiresome backtracking. Every path is progress onward, but if you do have to get back to a point that originally took to awhile to get to, there's always a quicker route once the maze has been completed.
The lovingly shameless stuffing of more areas to explore, however, doesn't come off as what it could or should have been. After some time spelunking, the rooms start to telegraph their solutions to the player because of only a handful of increasingly recognizable objects to climb on and manipulate. In only a couple of scenarios do Vigil seem to test your wit with brain teasers. Really, some of the only challenges come from timed survival sequences due to awkward camera angles necessitating mulligan efforts.
While the ability to recognize patterns might be dependent on the player, a greater number of varied puzzles could have been achieved with more tools for Death to employ. There's a ton of space to run through but only a few apparatuses available for its navigation. Darksiders 2 is designed as a broken-up, open world where not every nook and cranny has to be explored, but when things start out as fluid as they do, and don't ramp up with or go into much challenging depth, it tempers the excitement a bit.
A greater effort afforded to hack-and-slash action seems to also be affected by the focus on beefing up the size of the world. With an appreciable amount of loot to be found, sold and bought, character and equipment attributes to be buffed, and special moves to be unlocked in skill trees through levels gained, Darksiders 2's refined RPG elements allow Death to be customized strategically. By wielding scythes as a main weapon and interchangeable secondaries suited for different play styles, two-button timed combos make for relatively simple fighting where skirmishes rely on dodges rather than a riposte. It's a functional setup, and can be flashy when mastered, but it's also one that makes the easiest combo almost universally effective—even in boss encounters. Again, only a couple of instances actually leverage the tools Death unlocks; otherwise, once a pattern is discovered, fighting a mob plays out similarly to a battle against a larger, more dangerous brute.
There are just too few toys for Death to play with, and the ones he does get, are underutilized. Call it nitpicky, but these are the kind of cracks that become prominent the longer a game is drawn out. Though many of the same design choices of the first Darksiders transfer over to the sequel, they seemed more cohesive in that rewardingly condensed package.
Looking at what isn't mentioned in the criticisms above, on the other hand, is equally as telling for what's accomplished in 2. It remains an entertaining story voiced and acted well, that's set to an appropriate soundtrack accompaniment. To learn about a Death character who's so desperately loyal it might take adventuring through somewhat predictably structured dungeons and puzzles, but there's still an appreciable sense of satisfaction upon completing them and discovering new areas to explore. Surviving the various realms of such an expansive game with an evident RPG aspect might have created some dull, timesink, fetch-this, and collect-this-many side-quests, but it also made the player's character a malleable fighter who becomes recognizably more powerful as the game moves along.
In the end, I suppose I got what I was looking for: more. It's just I wanted more from that more. Darksiders 2 continues to show Vigil's strengths, but it also demonstrates why only making something bigger doesn't necessarily make it better—though, it doesn't always make it worse, either.
I look forward to hopefully finding that 'more' in a Darksiders 3.
Had time to fight through the premature Apocalypse in Darksiders? What do you look for in an action-adventure game? Death or War? Let us know on Twitter @Gamers_Hell