When both inFamous and Prototype were released within weeks of each other last year it was considered a freak of scheduling, two open-world adventures remarkably similar in tone, structure and even the syllables in their name just happening to share the same development cycles. The start of 2010 brings with it another such clash, but one that owes less to coincidence, and more to the paucity of real inspiration that afflicts the third-person brawler (Bayonetta seemingly the exception that proves the rule).
Both the forthcoming Dante’s Inferno and THQ/Vigil Games’ Darksiders also betray a significant debt to a certain Sony franchise about to make its long-awaited next-generation bow. In this context playing Darksiders feels like one restless prelude, a digestible starter likely to be quickly overshadowed when the main course, an HD Kratos, finally emerges in March. It’s a game that, frankly, only has two months in which to cling onto anything resembling relevance; a pretty depressing prospect for a title that, despite its shortcomings in the innovation stakes, is clearly the work of a substantial budget and a modestly talented team.
The majority of Darksiders’ roots can be traced back to God Of War; from the satisfying physicality of the combat (in which enemies close to death can be quickly dispatched with a QTE), to the treasure chests that offer various upgrades, David Jaffe’s opus casts an obvious, not unwelcome, shadow. Even the prologue, in which lead character War battles angels in the middle of a post-apocalyptic city, nods towards the beginning of the second God Of War: in both games the player starts with maximum power, before being stripped of everything and having to start again.
Darksiders’ plot also shares a similar affection for mythology, and the relationship between Heaven and Hell. Understandably the familiar Greek stories are replaced with the battle of Armageddon, in which you play one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. If I’m honest I was lost within the opening minutes – not so much from confusion but an apathy brought on by a relentlessly hammy approach and clumsy transitions between gameplay and cut-scenes. In all fairness, whilst great lengths have been made to keep Darksiders narrative to the fore, it’s only real purpose is to serve as an excuse upon which to hang a rigid structure that is, in essence, one big fetch quest; it’s also a set-up that seems to go to great lengths to extend the experience.
For example, the game essentially uses one central hub to which you return regularly, while certain paths will be blocked by a cursed rock monster, the seal upon whom can only be lifted by completing four challenge rooms spread around the immediate vicinity. Darksiders is also surprisingly puzzle-heavy. Every door seems to have a key that needs to be found elsewhere, which doesn’t involve backtracking so much as the ability to pick your way through the labyrinthine designs of Darksiders’ levels. The aforementioned challenge rooms take the form, simultaneously, of mini-games and tutorials; they also do an excellent job at highlighting hidden depths within Darksiders’ combat system.
Whereas the first hours play would see the game easily – and fairly – dismissed as the most regressive of button-bashers, by the halfway point the potential has unfurled for something a whole lot more: switching between weapons and sidearms in the middle of an attack, ably supported by all manner of spells and Wrath powers, demonstrates a fluency of fighting that stands up to – without quite matching – the third Devil May Cry. Most weapons collect their own experience points, and it’s this aspect, coupled with the endless switching of abilities, that sees Darksiders enter the territory of an action-RPG.
Visually the mixture of stock grotesque fantasy creations and real-world environments recalls Ninja Gaiden 2, albeit with an identifiably Western approach. There are a few technical rough edges (slowdown, clipping and the unfortunate moment my character became suspended in mid-air), but while it’s rarely arresting or unique, the world of Darksiders is solidly realised, with a cohesion that ensures the journey from one area to another feels organic.
While Darksiders is an undeniably confident package, it’s a shame the developers have fallen back on a succession of barely disguised facsimiles from proven classics to fill in the mechanics of their game. I get the impression that if just a little of this talent was directed at carving a unique niche for Darksiders, then the game would flourish. As it is, the journey that War takes is fun, sporadically challenging and definitely worth playing, but the overwhelming familiarity secludes any deeper engagement. Over to Dante’s Inferno…
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