Like a bout of flu in the office, God of War style gaming seems to be going around the development community. This isn’t anything unusual – when a game gets it right and has great success, it spawns a lot of imitators. Eventually the imitations become so pervasive (see Mario style platforming, for instance) that we forget they are imitations at all. Still, it’s HOW you “re-use” ideas that really matters – you can crib concepts and still present a fairly unique experience. The difference with Darksiders is that they didn’t just lift the combat from God of War, they also appropriated elements from Zelda, Portal, and even Panzer Dragoon. There really isn’t a single original element in Darksiders, but perhaps its originality rests in its unique mix of a variety of game play elements.
In Darksiders you play War, one of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. It seems someone broke the mythical seven seals by accident, or maybe pushed the wrong button, and the gates of heaven and hell are opened and humanity is wiped out. Bummer, I know. It turns out that the Apocalypse came a little earlier than planned, and War is kinda on the hook. He’s miffed that somebody managed to fool him into bringing about wanton destruction, and the ambiguous Council (which consists of talking caves straight out of Aladdin) gives War a chance to figure out who hookwinked him. The story is a bit weak at first, especially considering it’s an end-of-days tale (talk about instant box office), but it does gain momentum as the game goes on and more of the mystery is revealed.
The combat of Darksiders is pure God of War. You start out with a giant, menacing sword that you swing about willy-nilly, hacking apart enemies and causing many a fount of blood. You start off with a few basic combos and can purchase additional moves as you progress. You will also pick up 2 more main weapons along the way, a scythe and a fist weapon. All three weapons have their own little experience bars and gain levels of power through use. In addition to power levels and additional combos to unlock, there are a variety of artifacts you find throughout the game that will enhance or change a weapon’s capabilities. Of course War can also wield a few helpful magic spells, and he even gets the opportunity to “hulk out” into a red demon-o-death form.
I had a couple of issues with the game play. Changing weapons and items in Darksiders is janky at best. Sure, I was able to change quickly, but I seldom really knew what I was changing to. This became a real problem later in the game as there are a couple instances where you need to be able to switch up items while in mid air. This caused me more than one unneeded death. I also took issue with a few of the platforming sections. I’m still waiting for that game that gets 3D platforming right and minimizes cheap, instant deaths.
The secondary weapons and items are where the Zelda influences start to creep in. You’ll find a star that acts an awful lot like a boomerang, a chain to grapple things, a projectile weapon (in this case a gun) and even a ocarina-like horn used to open certain “doors.” Another component of the Zelda influence is the inclusion of many sections, secrets, and entire areas that are unreachable without a certain item. You know the type, the old “come back for this later” chest just out of reach, or the wall of crystal that sure LOOKS like it could be broken. Frankly, I love this type of game design. Call it what you will, I really enjoy making mental notes to revisit old areas in order to loot them of all available treasure. It’s the kind of thing that really makes me want to revisit a game I’ve already “beaten”.
Zeldic influences (yes, I just made that up) also play a part in the overall level design. The story arc of Darksiders sends you on a quest to kill a collection of big, bad demons and gather their still beating hearts. (Ok, that’s totally not Zelda-like, but bear with me.) The world is split into roughly a dozen zones, many of which play a lot like dungeons straight out of Zelda. You’ll cleave enemies and solve various environmental puzzles to progress through the dungeon. Heck, there is even a little musical jingle that plays every time you solve a puzzle and gain access to a new area; every time this happened, I sang “do, do, do do doooh” to myself. Along the way you will find things like maps, keys to open locked doors, and of course new secondary items to help you progress.
Each of the dungeons culminates in an epic boss fight. You fight everything from shining human-sized angels to ginormous, fire spewing demons. Every boss fight basically boils down to figuring out what the gimmick is and how to exploit it (this is true throughout gaming), but I enjoyed every one. Each boss fight plays much differently from the one before, and this was key to keeping me interested. I was also pleased that Vigil Games didn’t feel the need to include long quick time events to take down the big bads. No crazy X, Square, L1, R2, Triangle combinations here, thankfully. I want to make particular note of the last 3 or 4 boss battles, which really did a fantastic job of pulling the various game play elements of Darksiders together.
The overall look of the game is good but not great. The appropriately destroyed environments have a good level of detail and show a lot of variety, each new zone featuring an entirely new aesthetic. My main beef with the look of the game are the character models – most of them have jagged edges and a glassy look, and don’t quite look right on the backgrounds. War himself also has that overly large shouldered, big hand look sort of like a puppy with its too big paws. Everything moved at a consistent clip, however, and I never experienced any significant slowdown or glitches. I would rate Darksiders neither high nor low on the presentation scale, but somewhere in between. I should add here that I hardly noticed the musical score at all, though perhaps the mix was too overwhelmed by the symphony of tearing flesh and spraying blood. The voice work was adequate, but beyond Mark Hamill as your companion and “guide”, nothing stood out for me.
The story of Darksiders is on the weak side overall, which is a shame. If you’re going to destroy humanity, you should be able to do so dramatically, but I found the delivery ineffective. War doesn’t have any real character, he’s just plain angry most of the time. An epic story with Angels, Demons and the Apocalypse should be easy to make interesting, but the weak characters and mostly confusing plot left me muddled and confused. I just knew I had to kill stuff, and I suppose that’s enough. The story does start to get interesting by the time all the threads start to become clear leading up the the finale, and I LOVED the very end, but it took a whole lot of nothing to get there.
What separates imitation from inspiration? When you get down to it, how much out there is truly original? Flower maybe? Even a universally great game like Bioshock took a lot from games that came before. Dante’s Inferno and Darksiders were released in roughly the same time frame, and both were judged God of War clones. Having played both, I have to disagree. Dante’s attempted to mimic God of War almost completely. Darksiders, while aping the combat from God of War, also drew its inspiration from a LOT of different sources. Take the combat from God of War, add the level and item design from Zelda, mix in a little bit of 3rd person shooting and just a dab of Portal, and you might end up with something like Darksiders. Then again, you might not. The point is that even though the elements that make up Darksiders are not original, the game as a whole is. Haven’t you ever wanted to play a non-kiddie focused Zelda game with fancy God of War combat and a good old decapitation now and then? I know I have. Darksiders really isn’t imitating God of War; it’s mixing several excellent elements from some of the paragons of game design, and in doing so Vigil Games has actually created a wholly original experience.