Whenever a new piece of Nintendo hardware is released one of the first things fans ask is “when is a Zelda game coming out?” In the case of the Wii U, the answer is simple: it’s already out, it’s just called Darksiders II.
Like the original Darksiders, this sequel wears its inspiration on its sleeve. You’ll ride a horse across wide open plains. You’ll traverse lots of dark dungeons solving puzzles in order to open locked doors and defeat giant bosses. Heck, a chime even plays whenever a puzzle is completed. Darksiders II is more than a mere copycat, though, and carves out a very distinctive personality for itself. In all honesty, there’s a lot on offer here that the Zelda dev team could be paying attention to.
The game stars Death (who looks like a cross between He-Man’s Skeletor and Casey Jones from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. He's out to clear his brother War’s name, who was accused of causing the extinction of mankind in the first Darksiders. Despite his name, Death is actually a very likeable character in his interactions with other characters; all are delivered with stellar voice acting, resulting in some very amusing exchanges. His sense of humour is dry, he’s sarcastic and he isn’t shy about mouthing off to ancient peoples over twice his size. Death knows who he is and plays by his own terms — a silent protagonist he is not.
Combat in Darksiders II is incredibly fun, with many options presented to the player allowing them to choose how they play. Death’s standard weapon, a pair of scythes, is supplemented with a variety of secondary weapons like claws, hammers and staves. This two button combat system allows for tons of combo potential and makes fighting off enemies an exciting experience every single time. Barring a single piece of equipment there's no defence to be spoken of, so Death has to acrobatically dodge and counter attack, which keeps the action frantic and fast-paced without being bogged down by tedious patterns of block-attack-block. Z-Targeting is still the order of the day, and while there’s the occasional hiccup where the camera gets stuck on walls, it works beautifully.
As Death levels up, skill points can be assigned to one of two skill trees. Harbringer beefs up his physical abilities, whereas Necromancer naturally allows him to raise and command the dead. Both are useful in different situations and players will undoubtedly find a load-out that works for their play style. New abilities can be augmented by going further down the skill tree, such as bestowing extra health and fire damage onto summoned corpses and having them explode when defeated, which definitely provides the advantage of sticking with one tree over dabbling in both — though mixing and matching is also a viable option.
Death, not content to wear the same attire for an entire game, has other pieces of customisable equipment in the form of different armour pieces that can be found in chests or are dropped by enemies. Having stats in a game of this nature is actually a lot of fun, and as the armour actually shows up on Death in-game you get a lot of visual variety as well. Loot follows the standard MMO “colour codes”; green, blue and purple items with special stats and abilities drop on occasion for your collecting pleasure. The most remarkable of these, however, are the red “cursed” items, that can be “fed” other, lesser items in order to level them up and attach large stat and ability bonuses to them. Not having a stock character who never changes is quite refreshing and definitely gives you a closer connection to Death than you would have otherwise.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Darksiders II is the scope of the world. The sense of scale in the beautiful setpieces is breathtaking, making not only the enemies but also the locales seem imposing. While there are load times, different areas are not separated by invisible barriers; everything is one continuous map. When walking through the door of a dungeon there’s no camera fade-out before you suddenly find yourself in a new place; you open the door and you walk right in. On top of that the overworld allows for fast travel – even from inside a dungeon, which conveniently places a checkpoint for you to return to – so getting around never feels like a chore. Death also has a useful companion, a raven named Dust, who can help point you in the right direction if you ever get stuck.
The dungeons are fun to explore, with typical Zelda-style puzzles strewn about with things like debris to be blown up with bombs and giant stone boulders that must be pushed about to trigger gates. Death is an agile spelunker who can wall-run and climb ledges, which allows the designers to come up with some pretty imaginative paths through the dank corners of the game’s world. You go back and forth through dungeons quite a bit, but due to the aforementioned “seamless” nature of the game it never feels cumbersome and gives a lot of the dungeons a more natural flow than some of those found in Zelda games. We're looking at you, Water Temple.
There are some problems with the story's balance, however. It's a front-heavy adventure; the first two areas are huge and full of content, while the final two are much more stripped back. There are fewer side quests and less dungeons past the halfway point, which is quite disappointing after such generosity in the first half. The third act also hosts a terrible shooter level that's at odds with rest of the game and doesn't fit in particularly well. This segment aside, the quality of the dungeons remains consistently brilliant throughout; it's just a shame that the content is spread thinner in the later stages.
The game’s aesthetic throughout is a treat. Despite its protagonist being the personification of death, many of the locales are startling cornucopias of blues, greens and purples, all cool colours that invite the player to explore and inspect the nooks and crannies available, while later dusty bone lands and autumn-touched worlds impress in different hues. While character designer Joe Madureira’s style can come off as a bit over-exaggerated at times — huge, hulking characters with biceps and hands that eclipse their heads — it all fits together quite well and, when combined with the palette, evokes similar notes to Blizzard’s World of Warcraft.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the game’s stellar soundtrack. Jesper Kyd’s masterful work is the perfect aural cherry on top of the delicious sundae. Calm, serene tracks flit about in the more beautiful and spacious areas while faster, hard-hitting tunes amplify the tension of combat. It’s so good that you’ll often find yourself taking the scenic route to your next destination just so you can spend more time with the world.
The game supports off-TV play, allowing you to play the entire game on the GamePad. It looks just as good on the small screen as the large one – however, there are common problems with screen tearing in this title that are exacerbated when playing on the GamePad, as the visuals are much closer to your eyes. It’s not a deal-breaker, but the first few times it happens it pulls you out of the experience a bit.
In addition to the game’s lengthy story and abundant side-quests, the Wii U release comes packed with the Argul’s Tomb extra that was a DLC offering on the other HD systems, adding even more to a game already packed with things to do. There are also several bonus packs of weapons and armour available from an in-game mailbox, giving players an extra boost early on as they learn how to play.
Darksiders II is very, very good. In paying homage to the Zelda series — while adding its own unique flavour — the team at Vigil has crafted a game that will appeal to those looking for a grittier take on the action-RPG dungeon crawler, while helping Nintendo fans scratch that Hyrulian itch for the time being. It wouldn't be fair to label Darksiders II as just a Zelda substitute, though — it’s a stellar game in its own right that is absolutely worth playing.