Game Pile: Darksiders

I could just write down that Darksiders is Ocarina of Time for boys who are too nervous to be seen playing something with bright colours, or to be even more glib, Twilight Princess 40,000. There’s formulaic, and then there’s whatever it is Darksiders does, a black-tinted funhouse mirror that shows everything old in grim, doleful colours. There’s nothing in this game that isn’t derivative; you can cut the game in half and be given a fascinating list of key elements from videogames from the past.

You don’t have to do something new provided you do what you do well. This maxim is written, I think, somewhere in the design document of Darksiders, possibly scrawled in blood and stamped signed with a cloven hoof. A maxim well-learned, and while I may beat the meme to death when the time comes to discuss the game’s weaknesses, I cannot fault it in the story department.

The story begins with depictions of modern society getting all done fuck’d up by the arrival of demonic hordes, who are then met in turn by the arrival of angelic hordes, and what ensues is a general-myth argy-bargy, in which we are introduced to General Abaddon and the astoundingly attractive Uriel. Your character, War, is thrown into this mess to be one of the four horseman of the apocalypse only to find embarrassingly that none of the others have shown up, and you’re also wearing last year’s fashions. You get in dreadful trouble for this from some Council of Ashes that I don’t remember reading about in any translation of the Bible ever, stripped of powers, given a smarmy handler who serves as your exposition and hint fairy, and thrown back to earth, a hundred years later after all the really difficult-to-animate stuff is gone, and expected to sort shit out.

What follows is a journey to a bigger exposition fairy who first introduces you to the basic elements of getting around, a fast travel system, and the game’s desire to load you down with cool-looking unnecessary piffle. Despite this, during the time you meet characters, you find almost all characters have something about them that isn’t quite obvious, that characters change their opinions based on new information, that some even have nobility to them. In hindsight, it’s genuinely surprising how many characters are well-explained and fleshed out, and surprise you with how they choose to behave. There are unexpected developments, but they aren’t treated as world-spinning twists – the plot simply unfolds in a sensible, coherent way.

Mind you, this doesn’t tend to hit War – he doesn’t change much throughout the story. The closest you can get is discovering more about him, revelation rather than evolution.

Another strong point Darksiders has in its favour is that it’s visually completely dedicated to its style. It sounds almost tautological, but there’s nothing in this game that doesn’t belong in it, visually. Even the smallest details are rendered in the same ornate fashion. It also doesn’t limit itself in palette; enemies are menacing in a whole host of colours, and War himself stands out in the middle of the screen thanks to his bright splash of red colour that defines his head and shoulders.

Every single thing in this game is about hitting things, one way or another, or solving puzzles that get you further in and let you hit things. Many puzzles are solved by hitting things, too. Indeed, all the boss fights are basically a puzzle that asks ‘How can I stun this guy long enough that I can hit him?’

War can hardly be accused of a lack of focus in his work, and in order to keep pure genocide from being too boring, the game is broken into a variety of setpieces, including long fights where you’re given a ridiculous superweapon you can use to abuse larger-than-ordinary packs of bad guys, or flying around on the back of a goddamn griffin. There’s another set-piece where you’re in competition with a Glaswegian giant, on a timer, an arena fight – and even a stealth section where the thing you’re hiding from is a worm the size of a double-decker bus. None of these segments overstay their welcome, though – making them interesting breaks in an otherwise repetitive process.

Special mention amongst these setpieces and boss-fights go to the mini-bosses in the Black Tower, which are sort of experiments in what would happen if God Of War’s Kratos was given a portal gun. Very fun, and, importantly, not too long.

Capping the Black Tower is Straga, a boss who has three different modes of attacking you, and who looks like he’s wearing a goddamn cathedral. I felt a little sad when he was finally revealed, in that he was a demonic, dog-like man wearing a building, rather than a gigantic, demonic building – not to let that detract from his sense of flow and pace. Straga is huge – Straga towers over you and you only ever see half of him. He’s so big the puzzle about fighting him is navigating to the point where you can attack him in a meaningful way. The rest of his experience, though, feels crisp and fair – when Straga hit me, I knew there was a reason, and I knew what I had to do to prevent it happening again. In a game that can be cut into ‘puzzles,’ ‘killing random things,’ and ‘boss fights,’ Straga is a great example of filling in that third section – and he’s not even the best boss fight.

There’s also the character of Uriel, who is a female angel and agonisingly hot. Immediately, one expects chainmail bikini, but no – Uriel has a very sensible character design that completely covers her skin and still looks incredible. Without giving away too much, though, Uriel’s place in the story is both respectful and egalitarian. One character ever slurs her with a gendered insult, and there is a subplot about feelings she had for someone, but at no point is a dramatic event made of her being weak because of anything that could connect to her gender.

Uriel is serious, honourable, a completely legitimate combatant, carries herself with dignity, and manages to lose not one but two major fights in the game without ever feeling like a non-entity or ‘the chick.’ Yes, she is defeated at one point to raise the stakes – but that loss occurs off-screen. It is not important to see how she loses, it is just important to know that she is not a factor in this immediate battle, let it be joined. I found this refreshing; while the story follows a familiar path and features one female character who certainly fills familiar tropes, none of how she’s handled is disrespectful. It reminded me of Saints Row The Third, where somehow a story handles light-hearted prostitution. In this game, Uriel had every opportunity to be pathetic, and yet isn’t.

Sad that that’s actually a high water mark for this style of story.

One of the things they do to make Uriel meaningful is that she’s a boss you fight twice. The first time, the battle is interrupted – she has to leave and promises a rematch. You rematch with her after you’ve had some time to gather power – and she is even harder the second time. Most remarkably , though, Uriel is the only completely fair boss fight in the game: you can counter and block her, you can dodge her, she is hit by all your magical effects and she reacts appropriately to all your moves. She dodges and blocks you just as you block and dodge her, and none of her abilities rely on an arbitrary ‘do X or die’ mechanism. It’s also barely scripted – while she has moves she telegraphs, it isn’t a sequence of events you have to respond to in order, as you do with the other bosses. In essence, Uriel is the boss who tests how well you can play the game, not in how many times you can repeat a trick the game has taught you.

Finally on the note of Uriel, at the end of the game, she has a major role to play, where she takes initiative, makes a plan, and saves the day. It shows respect to her as a character, and does so without any qualification. It’s part, I think of why I love her so much as a character – you can see a clear character arc that has a list of priorities.

Now, of course, Darksiders is a massively derivative videogame. No review can go without mentioning it, and I suppose it’s worth the practice. When I played it at first, I thought ‘Oh, I see what they mean,’ and figured I’d hit, as it were, Peak Ripoff. Then the game introduced more and more elements until I started looking for a goddamn checklist of what it was going to do next. I mean, you get a portal gun.

After saying that the game is great at maintaining its visual style, as a gentle cool hand pressed the forehead, I have to offer the immediate backhand that its coherent and consistent visual style is a pile of ugly rubbish. War looks like he was launched out of a cannon through a cosplay accessories stand, with multiple skulls and faces adorning his exceptionally ugly frame, with his tiny little head and his ridiculously huge, lopsided arm. It’s all clearly been done on purpose, but it’s a horrible look. The figures that look the best in this game are Uriel and The Watcher, characters whose heads are clear and distinct and whose colour palette sticks to about three base colours.

This excessive visual style becomes an enormous, chaotic mess in combats with even only one or two enemies – especially with the huge, splashy decals of blocks, deflections, health and energy pickups. One fight that kicked my backside until I could sit down inverted was so difficult purely because you had to block attacks from two opponents who faded in and out of existence – and damn if it wasn’t almost impossible to see what they were doing as soon as a single ‘block’ image came up.

It deserves special mention that Uriel and War do look like they belong in the same universe, and are generally the same species, even while Uriel has a more normal set of proportions and a larger head.

War doesn’t really run, he trudges. Dodging gives you a brief spurt of speed in a direction, followed by an arrest, keeping you from using the dodge as a form of sprint. You do eventually get a horse to address the slowness, though it’s not that useful most of the time. When you’re fighting through enemies and exploring new areas, I found the slowness no real problem. The game divides cleanly between ‘times you are solving a puzzle’ and ‘times things are around to fight,’ and in the former times, sometimes you can waddle around quite a bit of distance trying things out. I suppose this is also deliberate – War’s pedestrian plod kept me within a room to solve that room’s one puzzle.

This game is long. Long. Helped not at all by War being a sluggish bastard, Darksiders is broken up into world-exploring, then dungeon sequences; dungeons tend to be about finding a basic trick, then using that trick three or four times. This formula should be familiar, but in most cases, Darksiders takes a little too long at each of these tasks. If you really enjoy the experience of solving the puzzles, Darksiders gives you plenty, but for me, it felt like busywork and repetition.

Did I say repetition? I did indeed. Well, on that topic, War has only one or two execute moves for certain enemies, many of whom attack in packs. To maximise rewards from each fight, I executed every single enemy, which often made fights last twice as long, while I went through an identical lengthy animation for each foe. There’s a trio of bosses that take this to the extreme, where an execute is a full blown cut scene – and identical for all three bosses, and unskippable.

The repetition is exacerbated by the imprecision in the game. That is, the game of Darksiders is chunky. Not just in how the environments feel like large lumps that are stuck together, with improbable terrain stuck to other improbably terrain, but even down to the enemy designs and War’s own interaction with it. War has a hit box that’s bigger than it looks like it should be, and reacts a little slower to the controls than I want, making precision blocking (to counter) very challenging. Catching onto walls feels like throwing honey at a wall, and the small number of precise timing or jumping puzzles are equally awkward. There’s also a jarring distinction between each zone; you go to zone A to get item A, which lets you access and kill the boss of zone A, and then you get to zone B, where A is more or less immaterial – increasing that ‘chunky’ feeling.

Like the SNES-era JRPGs, Darksiders is made up of nearly uniform square blocks, and then tries to convince you that it is composed of elegant lines.

As a test, I started counting the number of hits it took me to kill a mid-range target in the end-game areas, which were clones of enemies I had been fighting for some time, with the same weapon. It’s about 60-80 hits for a single enemy. At the conclusion of the game, you backtrack and find the same enemies you used to fight in the same area, who fight more or less exactly the same – and take as many hits to fade. Remember, weapons level up in this game!

This devotion to recurrence, imprecise controls and weak-seeming hits all come together at the games’ nadir, the spider boss Silitha. There’s no real spoiler here – she’s a teleporting spider the size of a bus, whose attack pattern includes teleporting over you to drop down, giving you a moment to react and dodge away. In between these segments, you need to engage with her face, which is always a little further away than you think. After a certain number of hits, she teleports up to the ceiling and a final puzzle ensues to kill her. On paper, this fight seems very simple and sensible – when executed, it’s nightmarish.

First, the number of times you have to hit her seems damn near random. It doesn’t seem to be about how hard you hit her or how many times you hit her, but rather in how many repetitions of the teleport-dodge-close cycle the game wants to do. When she teleports over you, she does so facing a random direction, obscured by purple mist at first, and if you dodge in one of the four possible directions, you will get hit anyway by her fat butt’s fat hitbox. If you dodge to one of the other directions, though – and it’s not consistent which one – you stop, stuck, under her legs, and can whale away at her until she teleports again.

Killing Silitha is a matter of luck and patience, when the whole fight feels like it should be a matter of skill. It was the only boss fight I searched for help to finish, because I simply could not work out what I was doing wrong. I wasn’t doing anything wrong – Silitha just takes about four minutes of semi-random trial and error, repeating her attack pattern over and over again to ensure you know what you’re doing.

War also is positively buried in toys. Every single arc of the game introduces a new toy into his repertoire, many of which are either redundant with existing toys, or stop being useful immediately afterwards. The great sinner in this category is the totally bitching handgun Mercy, who is only useful for one mini-boss fight and the boss fight that follows. The rest of the time, it either does such negligible damage that enemies effectively ignore it, or they actually ignore it. It’s a shame, too, because the gun in question is very stylish and efficient to use – if I’d been able to use it for even just pushing switches at range, I’d have been happy.

You also have a trio of melee weapons, one of whom seems to serve literally no purpose after it’s obtained, and the other exists to break barriers and damage bosses in creatively compromising situations. Not all barriers, mind, that would be too useful; just a small number of very specific barriers, indicated with a clear colour.

None of these are dealbreakers – after all, the Portal Gun is a device that, effectively, can boil down to ‘press buttons to advance game,’ if you squint at it enough, but every single one of these items could have carried a whole game on their own, instead of being given a very superficial treatment in this one game. You could make the case that this saturation of tools gives you the opportunity to choose your own favourites and focus on them, but that’s not true. Specific weapons have to be used for specific purposes.

We’re not even done, though. There are magical spells you can buy and put in a cast ring; there are potions; there is a full-body transformation you can do when you have a full bar from fighting enough; you have a double jump and a slow fall ability; a store in which you can buy individual moves and upgrades for your existing weapons; and even a time-manipulating mechanics that need a special tool to use.

By choosing to make a game that includes all these elements, not one of the elements is fully explored. Remember that Portal’s portal gun was so deep a mechanic that with proper applications, a game was able to build its whole experience around it. Darksiders on the other hand uses its portal gun for a very per functionary set of puzzles, several of which are repeated. Nothing mechanical in the game has any sense of depth.

This is a game with a generic ‘activate’ button, used for buttons, executions, and doors; there are some very impressive doors that need a specific key type to open. Once you have this key, rather than just make those doors ‘open’ when you click them, you have to pull the key out of your inventory and use it specifically. After the first third of the game, it becomes completely irrelevant to use this technique – letting the item sit in your inventory forever. Another item that doesn’t do much is introduced shortly after – one that reveals hidden bridges, switches and fireflowers in locations you’ve already been, items you cannot interact with until you have it. These items don’t even appear on the metaphorical final exams for their boss fights – effectively, these powers exist as ‘press button to advance game,’ and they use the inventory system to do it, when there was already an existing tool for this – the ‘use’ button.

It seems almost unnecessary a complaint at this point, but remember that I finished this game, with about 21 hours played in total. It crashes about once or twice an hour; not due to any particular stimulus or other program in the background. Once or twice an hour, Darksiders just decides it doesn’t want to work any more, and you have to reload. This rarely led to a loss of progress, but it was irritating, broke flow (obviously) and gave the impression of the game as being very shoddy and poorly crafted – much like the ‘chunky’ complaint earlier.

The final specific complaint is that the game likes its cutscenes (and I do too). It likes them too much, though – there are multiple occasions where you face a loading screen, commit one small action (opening a door, picking up an item) and immediately are given another loading screen – and that’s even worse when it’s action – cutscene – action – cutscene. Not ‘action sequence,’ individual action, like picking up a sword. It really breaks up the game and further diminishes immersion – which is a shame, but not a great loss.

Well, is it any good? It’s hard for me to say. I mean, the game is utterly generic; there’s almost nothing in it you haven’t seen before, aside from a hot angel who isn’t dressed sluttily and handled badly. Even down to the names, characters are rip-offs from elsewhere. Despite this, I’ve left bits of videogames in paper bags for the police to find for slights less vile than being merely bog-standard, and Darksiders is a game I finished – despite complaints that I could have considered deal-breakers. Particularly that crash-happiness.

Darksiders is about twenty dollars on Steam, and routinely plunges down to half that. Keep an eye out if anything I’ve said impresses you – none of the flaws in the game were enough to stop me playing it, after all.