Darksiders Genesis continues the series' penchant for switching up its central gameplay style and influences, this time settling on a Diablo-esque camera angle for its hack-and-slash antics. At first glance, it may seem far removed from the third-person romps that make up the rest of the franchise, but, rest assured, once you jump in and find your rhythm this is very much the Darksiders of old; a non-stop kill-a-thon with plenty of secrets, puzzles, platforming and upgrades to keep you busy over its roughly fifteen-hour running time.
A prequel to the 2010 original, the story here sees you take control of returning favourite War and newcomer Strife as they set out at the behest of the Charred Council to have a stern word in Lucifer's ear. He's been upsetting the natural balance of things, you see, granting his demonic hell pals all sorts of powers and generally being a big red nuisance, and it's now up to your mismatched duo to take these bad-boys down with a little help from returning series stalwarts Samael and Vulcrim.
It's a pretty simple setup that throws you straight into the action with a story that never boils down to much more than getting sent on a bunch of errands that slowly bring you closer to revealing the big L's location. However, there's plenty of fun to be had with the pairing of the stoic War and wise-cracking Strife. Let's be clear, this isn't a comedy classic by any stretch of the imagination, but the writing is generally amusing enough and by the end, we had grown quite fond of the strained relations between our two leading horsemen.
Differences between the two don't just come down to opinions or worldly outlooks either. On the battlefield, both play satisfyingly differently. War, with his comically huge sword, is very much the up-close and personal type, dodging at close quarters and smashing enemies to pieces with his raw power; "you are ended!" he'll cry as he tears the arms and legs off some hapless imp or horned nasty. Strife, on the other hand, is much more effective at range, keeping big enemies at bay with his guns and then nipping in nimbly to sort out smaller problems with his curved daggers.
Combat in Darksiders Genesis is satisfyingly meaty stuff from the outset that, especially on harder difficulties, will force you to utilise all of your skills and ensure you're switching between your two heroes constantly if you're to stand any chance of surviving the pretty relentless onslaught of hellspawn. Things are kept fresh along the way by a constant supply of upgrades, unlockable skills and attacks that see your arsenal swell to enormously satisfying proportions by the end stages of your adventure.
Indeed, both War and Strife have a ton of tricks up their sleeves. Some of these come in the form of various tools which unlock new means of traversing levels – feeding into that classic Zelda-style backtracking to earlier locations to reach hitherto locked secrets and areas – while others are passive upgrades that see you leave a trail of lava behind you as you dodge around an arena, or perhaps conjure up a hellhound to fight by your side temporarily.
Both protagonists also have several unique abilities to help guide them to victory. Strife can call on his exploding caltrops, World-Ender attack and ability to clone himself to confuse enemies, whilst War makes use of fiery spikes that he can summon from the earth around enemies, as well as a ghost hook, rampage attack and a bevvy of tools such as his Vorpal Blade, the latter of which, like Strife's Void Bombs, sees a ton of action in the game's many puzzles. As well as all of this, both characters have the ability to transform into an 'Anarchy' form of themselves once they've filled their battle gauges by attacking enemies. A quick press of L and ZR together unleashes this temporarily gargantuan state, which is perfect for causing massive bereavement during tough boss battles and other sticky situations.
There's just so much going on with the combat here, lots of tiny little details and touches. We love how you can finish enemies off when you've dealt them a certain amount of damage by moving in and pressing A, and that finishing them like this deals AoE damage to surrounding foes so you can start moving from one to another, chaining these finishers together as your chosen protagonist mouths off. We love how Strife has a ton of different ammo types for his gun and how hammering your attack constantly sets you up with a temporarily overpowered version of that attack on a gauge. We haven't even mentioned the fact you can trot around more open areas of levels on your trusty death steed by having them materialise/de-materialise with a quick push of the shoulder buttons.
If all of this wasn't enough, there are also a bunch of new combos to unlock at Dis's shop to add to your already swollen array of skills and then, the real star of the show in terms of upgrading in Darksider Genesis – and the thing that gives it legs way beyond your initial playthrough – is its delightful Creature Cores skill system. As you play through the campaign and defeat various types of enemy for the first time, you'll pick up lots of Creature Cores. These cores come in two colours: purple being minor cores and orange the major variety that you'll only grab off bosses and mini-bosses. Cores can then be slotted into a branching set of nodes and each one plugged in will awaken the empty nodes around it. In order to set a major orange core, for example, you'll need to set enough minor cores to run your energy to the orange core's bespoke node in order to bring it online.
It's a massively satisfying and addictive way of refining your characters and there are a load of different cores that give you all sorts of perks and little upgrades to health, dodge effectiveness and special ability power that you can plug in and swap out at your leisure. However, the real genius to this system is that, as you continue to pummel enemies out in the game, the cores you've plugged in that correspond to the enemies you're killing continue to upgrade through several levels, boosting their stats as they go.
Creature Cores add a considerable amount of replayability for folk who want to max out their skill tree; you'll need to fight bosses multiple times, for example, if you want to see their core's effectiveness maxed out. To aid you in doing this, you can jump in and play any level you've beaten on any difficulty as many times as you like. Darksiders Genesis also has an Arena Mode – which unlocks midway through the campaign – that sees you fight through waves of enemies before eventually unlocking an endless battle mode. All of your progress here feeds into the core system and carries the associated perks over into the main campaign. Further to this, you'll also unlock an Apocalyptic difficulty, which really does require you to think about how you've upgraded War and Strife and put all your skills into practice perfectly if you're going to survive. In fact, we reckon this is one game that absolutely benefits from being played on a difficulty higher than normal if you want to get the most from all the systems at play here.
If it isn't apparent already, the combat and upgrading system here is properly good stuff and it's incorporated into these great big stages that contain a remarkable amount of puzzling and platforming. Levels are surprisingly elaborate affairs; labyrinthian spaces that twist and turn and hide a satisfying number of secrets. Indeed, there are a ton of bits and pieces to collect here and most of them avoid being just busywork in favour of being of actual use in the process of upgrading your two heroes.
There are the aforementioned Creature Cores, as well as Boatman Coins and Souls – the two in-game currencies – and Trickster keys, which you'll need to gain access to little hidden bonus rooms full of goodies and new moves. None of this, of course, is in any way original and – as with any Darksiders game – you can spot the influences a mile off, but it's all just so satisfying to play through and solidly put together; proper videogame comfort food that's been cooked and served up by a team who know exactly what they're doing.
There are a handful of things that could do with improving as well, however. The map does a terrible job of showing you where you are in a level, preferring to light up your general vicinity rather than pinpoint your exact location – a pain in the butt when the levels are so huge – and the co-op can be fiddly when played with randoms online. The entire campaign here is available to play in both online and local split-screen co-op and is a doddle to get going if you're playing with a pal, but, with online strangers, there's too much waiting around at Summoning Stones and some buggy elements that make the whole thing a little more hard work than it needs to be.
Then we come to a few more serious problems concerning this Switch port of the game specifically. In docked mode, besides a bad bit of stutter as the camera sweeps across an epic vista in the very opening moments of the first level, the game runs at a pretty solid 30FPS for the most part and looks very close to other versions of the game, if not quite identical. In handheld, however, things are little bit more complicated. The dynamic resolution at work here can, at times, dip down into quite blurry territory from the target 720p when there's some epic background or huge battle taking place.
It's not a game-breaking problem, but it does make things a little difficult to follow at times due to the fact you're already dealing with characters that are quite small on a handheld screen. There's also a little bit more chugging along in the fps department in portable mode. Again, it's not a massive or constant issue, but it does slow down here and there during big fights and, combined with that variable resolution and the sometimes tiny size of characters on the screen, it's definitely a little harder to relax with than playing in docked mode.
However, having said all that, handheld mode is still perfectly playable if you can put up with these issues, and we found ourselves pretty much forgetting about them – especially when we started replaying levels and we knew the layout of the areas we were battling in. Still, it's a shame that Airship Syndicate wasn't able to keep that resolution to a fixed 720p in handheld, as this accumulation of factors definitely deals a bit of a blow to the game's score – this would otherwise be an easy 8 – and we can only keep our fingers crossed that a patch arrives to improve things. Ultimately, though, this is a late-stage, current-gen video game that has been condensed into a much weaker portable platform, so it's hardly surprising that it struggles to hit those high notes consistently; it's more of a surprise that Switch has a version of this game at all.
Darksiders Genesis is, for us, the best entry in the series in terms of its mix of satisfyingly meaty hack-and-slash action and huge levels filled with secrets, puzzles and platforming. With its fully co-op campaign, unlockable arena mode and Apocalyptic difficulty feeding into that addictive Creature Core grinding, there's an absolute ton here for fans of the series – and newcomers alike – to get stuck into. This Switch version may suffer some slight blurriness and FPS hiccups in portable mode but, if you can make peace with these problems, this is a highly entertaining action game at a very reasonable price.