In apocalyptic, biblical literature, Armageddon is usually associated with the end of life on Earth, and is represented in popular media by extreme, blockbuster scenarios. For Vigil Games' and THQ's interpretation, the dogmatic themes of the source material are disassociated from the event, but familiar characters persist in their debut title, Darksiders. In Vigil's canon, the End of Days may be a catastrophic struggle between heaven and hell, but for War, one of the Horsemen of Apocalypse, it's really just a dastardly prank call.
Between a well-executed mix of reminiscent game design and a seemingly never-ending supply of inventory to uncover, Darksiders leads out the strong first quarter of 2010 with a satisfying adventure of revenge. Seemingly, with the gluttonous hype machines of series sequels pervading the consumer landscape in the New Year, it's possible Vigil's premier might fall under a gamer's radar. Any who fancy themselves an action-adventure fan, however, would be remiss to overlook its release.
Darksiders exists as an amalgamation of the games which it so obviously is influenced by, successfully cherry picking elements from video game legacies. While it may not feel as epic as the Zelda series, as brutal as the God of War hack-and-slashers, or as rhythmic as the Prince of Persia platformers, the familiar parts that make up Darksiders are woven together seamlessly to create a unique experience that is anything but contrived.
That being said, we won't dwell on comparisons or emulative characteristics because Darksiders is more than a clone of this or that; it simply uses tried paradigms to create an entertaining game.
Most of Darksiders novelty comes from its premise. Blamed for prematurely initiating the Apocalyspe, War demands the opportunity to clear his name and bring judgment unto whoever was actually responsible for destroying the Kingdom of Man (humanity). When the Charred Council, a trio of ancient omniscient beings, acquiesce to War's plea, he is sent on a mission where he'll cut deals with demons and purge the Earth of any who stand in his way.
The adventure unfolds fairly linearly through a hub world with branching pathways connecting you to the domains of the Guardians: beasts which protect your ultimate goal, the Destroyer. It takes the aid of Samael, a treacherous demon whom even the Destroyer doesn't trust, to progress from one area to the next, but in this setup, you always have the option to re-visit locations to uncover hidden and out-of-reach items throughout your play time. Though backtracking can be tedious with large areas to explore, doing so isn't a requisite to exact your revenge, it just serves as a good game of Memory for any Completionist. Either way, you're likely to spend somewhere around 10 hours tracking down the Destroyer, and plenty longer should you choose to search out every unlockable.
Time spent re-exploring past locales isn't hampered by numerous pauses, amazingly. It's entirely possible to run from one point to another, uninhibited by load screens. It's only when you decide to use one of Vulgrim's (your ghoulish merchant who exchanges souls for upgrades and inventory) Serpent Hole shortcuts, or special tutorial segments where you'll run into a black screen.
Truely, the game's pacing is done exceptionally well with gamers' preferences being well thought out. As you battle through the four Guardians and work out mild puzzle segments, Darksiders unveils itself as a franchise-worthy title. The first hour of play is a bit slow to draw you in, but sticking with the game rewards you with an experience that continually introduces something fresh every time you start to feel complacent with the current challenge and rhythm.
Without a doubt Vigil has created Darksiders with sequels in-mind, and with a host of strong characteristics, we welcome follow-ups. The game's ever-changing, varied construction not only plays well, but is held together with dialogue that may otherwise feel like it was trying too hard if not for stellar voice over work—of particular note, the raucous Ulthane with his Scottish dialect, and the sinister Samael. Similarly, Joe Madureira's art direction delivers an appreciable comic book visualization of the Apocalypse. Violence and desecration make up Darksiders' landscape, but it's done so by never trying to look too real or overly cartoony, and thankfully with a liberal use of vibrant color.
For all of these glowing aspects, Darksiders still isn't without its shortcomings. While there aren't any egregious, deal-breaking problems, there's room for improvement. One of the most foremost concerns comes from abundant framerate issues. By continually loading data from the disc, both the 360 and PS3 copies of the game stutter and can be slow to load at points (Though, note that the PS3 version seems to run a bit smoother.) This is nothing debilitating, it's just more annoying and frustrating. Quick, abrupt transitions between in-game action and cut scenes also pull you from any immersion you develop while in the open world.
Beyond technical issues, there are still some things missing from the overall package, which keeps the game from falling into the same regard as those series that it borrows from. Things like formulaic boss battles with easily recognizable patterns keep concurrent playthroughs from being challenging (even on the game's hardest setting), and a one-two combo system leaves the beat-'em-up gameplay a bit too simplistic. This is made more evident with a hit counter that is nothing but obligatory and only mocks you as fail to string together a limited number of attacks. Also, the control scheme is a bit crowded, with a locked scheme that places War's block, dash, and counter abilities all together on a single shoulder button.
Additionally, the aforementioned accomplished voice over work feels underutilized. Just as cut scene interactions are complete with impressive, flowing dialogue, real-time parlance is deduced to one or two repetitious exclamations, which become excessive too quickly. But it's the lack of a driving soundtrack that really hurts Darksiders, aurally. Key melodies will chime in when you figure out a puzzle or break open a chest, and choral crooning provides a backbone that ties in the action, but none of it actually drives the experience or is exceptionally memorable.
These misgivings, however, come with the realization that Darksiders is a debut project from a new developer. The game has a few rough edges, but Vigil isn't unfamiliar with the business of making or playing games, and what their work shows is they're a group capable of delivering exciting gameplay and deserved of our attention; they've managed to plant a strong foothold with an new product. Darksiders is certainly an IP we'd like to see some numbers or subtitles attached to in the future.
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