Darksiders depicts an apocalyptic future where a destroyed New York City is littered with puzzles and traps. You’ll traverse ruined buildings and streets via conveniently placed grapple points and climbable walls, hunting down the next treasure chest in a derelict subway station. It’s a little anachronistic and it’s topped off with a cast of demons who either sound like Cookie Monster or Mark Hamill. But gameplay contrivances and Saturday morning cartoon characters aside, Darksiders’ heavy focus on puzzle-solving and exploration sets it apart from the rest of the “dark” action game crowd.
The story so far: The war between angels and demons has ignited on Earth, taking all of humanity as its first casualty. Who do you call in such a predicament? The four horsemen of the apocalypse, of course! But in a strange turn of events, only one horsemen is sent. You take control of this lone horseman, War, and it’s up to you to figure out why he’s apocalyzing all by himself. This begins a not-all-that-intriguing mystery full of twists and betrayal, told through lots of boilerplate, beefy man-grunting. There’s an interesting character here and there, but the story is mostly window dressing.
The gameplay takes its cues from many classics, mixing character-action combat with adventure puzzle-solving. It’s a potentially potent mix, with one genre focused on thinking and the other based on quick reflexes. Unfortunately, neither genre really shows its strengths here.
The combat is simply pedestrian. It carries with it none of the refinements that games like Ninja Gaiden, Bayonetta, or even God of War have developed. There’s no nuance or sophistication – most fights devolve into mashing on a single button. A store full of new moves and weapons suggests that it will get more complicated, but the standard sword attacks remain the most effective until the very end.
Thanks to some pretty animation, fighting in Darksiders still carries a sort of mind-numbing entertainment value. When the enemies fall all over you like tumbling bags of meat, the game remains simple and inoffensive. This isn’t always the case though – some of the later enemies can be pretty tough, and they do an excellent job of pointing out the combat system’s flaws. Air combos (moves typically used to isolate you from the enemies below) actually open you up to attack, allowing enemies to hack away at your toes while you twirl around up above. The block button is equally useless, as it only works when you’re standing perfectly still. And to top it off, your best defensive option, a dash, doesn’t always put enough ground between you and incoming attacks. This further emphasized the usefulness of non-stop button mashing, since a steady stream of attacks is usually your best defensive option.
Where the combat falls short, the puzzle-solving picks up some of the slack. You’ll spend as much time manipulating the environment as you will fighting in it. There are levers to pull, blocks to push, and doors to unlock. You’ll even find new gadgets along the way like a boomerang, bombs, grappling hook, and even a portal gun. Themed zones divide the game and usually focus on one of these particular gadgets.
When the puzzles start asking you to mix and match your tools, they can be quite clever. You’ll use your boomerang to bring fire from a torch to an unlit bomb, or even toss objects through portals to clear the way. But for the dozens of puzzles you’ll solve over the course of the game, the ones that really push you to think are few and far between.
The dungeon design is impressively intricate – puzzles within puzzles unravel themselves like a Russian doll. The problem is that it all fits together a little too neatly. The level design lacks an organic touch, resulting in challenges that are always very straightforward. It’s a very game-y game – it’s so wrapped up in its rules and mechanics that the world and your place in it loses something as a result.
This is Darksiders’ fatal flaw – there’s nothing to grab onto. Everything about the game is competently executed, enough to be entertaining, but never enough to really stand out. While it’s fun and polished from beginning to end, Darksiders is ultimately underwhelming – it’s an adventure that will be quickly forgotten by all who tackle it.