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Achieving a feat as lofty as saving humanity from oblivion should be difficult. It should be long, unforgiving, testing, exhausting: all those things we want a hero to overcome when realising their towering goals. Epic poetry is full of tales of daring men and women descending into the underworld or embarking on a perilous journey for the sake of something very important. These are characters used to getting things done, even if it takes them many years to actually accomplish their goals. As Valerie Valdes pointed out a while back and others have further explored since, games have been modelling themselves after the epics for some time. Darksiders II very much aspires to reach these same heights of dizzying heroism, and like a mythological journey around the Grecian peninsula – by way of Hades, of course – is really, really, really long for its efforts.
This bracing tale of chivalry focuses on Horseman of the Apocalypse and spiritual caretaker, Death, as he convolutedly attempts to free his brother War from endless punishment. You see: War was tricked into prematurely bringing about the apocalypse, an act which itself was at the mercy of another series of convoluted whims; collectively known as the plot of Darksiders the Original. Like true adventuring types, the Brothers Horsemen throw themselves into their questing like proper good ‘uns and seemingly only accept the very longest of trials. To this effect, most of Death’s perilous exploits take him through a lengthy series of dungeons, with opportunities for talking and shopping strung in between. The majority of the game, then, sees the player running Death around giant buildings filled with enemies and videogame puzzles; the ones that use pressure plates, switches and plenty of metal gates. These obstacles are regularly reconfigured and amended as new tools become available to the player, though no number of elaborate guises can make a lever anything but a lever, or the challenge anything more than getting to and then pulling that lever.
I like both of the Darksiders games on the whole, especially their early parts. They are giddy celebrations of videogame history, regularly providing players with little references to things they may have enjoyed in the past. What’s better though, is that if you don’t recognise a particular reference for whatever reason, the games aren’t going to jump on you, quivering violently, like a clearly enthusiastic fan of videogames might be inclined to do. “WHAT?!?! You never played Ocarinaz? You certainly aren’t a real player of videogames in my book.” they could quite easily say but never do. Instead they always seem more interested in creating chunky, colourful and pulpy fun: the type of sci-fi/fantasy one associates with the eighties, all boobs and giant axes and eroticised two-headed dragons (with boobs).
A quick tot up is in order I reckon, and thus far we seem to have three important bits of information in our possession:
i – Death is on a quest, which is really long – for effect.
ii – There is frequent repetition of (sometimes) barely distinguishable activities to be had everywhere.
iii – It’s all a bit schlocky, in a Conan the Barbarian (1982) way.
Three things (!). Great, we can continue.
It’s really strange, then, that amidst all of this beautifully dumb collaging of cool stuff – and I still mean that in a genuinely complimentary way – there is this need for the games to slavishly adhere to a hackneyed method of unfurling their generous progressions. The entire flow of DS II is, unfortunately, predicated on the questing for impossibly powerful items which have been either lost or discarded behind a series of tests, all conveniently set up to challenge the player’s skill and/or cunning. These tests regularly come in threes as well, which is warmingly quaint at first, what with the wafting airborne saccharine of so many Crash Bandicoot and Mario 64 memories. It’s use is pervasive though, and as such begins to really upset once you’re on challenge two of three only to be told you’ll need to conquer three further challenges to complete the original challenge (which is really only a third of the actual challenge (which is itself only a section of the game as a whole, which is really the real challenge and has been all along)).
Hyperbole aside though, this overreliance on quaint, rigid formality does meaningfully detract from the player’s experience, or at least it did mine. In creating and adhering to such a patterned structure, DS II strips itself of any spatial surprises and essentially signposts its intentions to the player at all times. There is no mystery shrouding any of the dungeons; there can’t be because they all unfold in the same a-to-b-to-c-to-boss fashion. This robs the experience of any tension, leaving DS II an adventure that is strangely devoid of any sense of discovery. While you might not know where you are in a dungeon, you know roughly how far you are through it. Every one is structured in the same way: a central hall with two or three areas leading off it, each with its own little challenges. As long as you take notice of how many doors you’ve been through you know how much of the dungeon you’ve left to tackle. It’s all dishearteningly uniform.
Further to this, the omnipresent structuralism constantly highlights the repetitive nature of DS II’s gameplay elements and the game’s overreliance on reconfiguring them over introducing new ones. This is most noticeable when interacting with the puzzle aspects, most of which boil down to flipping a switch to open a door. Over the course of the game these switches are placed farther from the player and behind added layers of busywork, however, with only a handful of possible combinations of these limited interactions available, the game rarely manages to create something challenging or unexpected. Much of the time it’s a simple case of instantly knowing how to accomplish a task, with the real test being the patient execution of the discrete steps involved.
The further into the game one gets, the greater the feeling becomes that everything is being artificially drawn out for the sake of maintaining the hallowed (bloated) dungeon configuration. Ultimately, it’s in this combination of uncomplicated-yet-fussy puzzle design and the dogged pursuit of structural homogeneity where DS II is the most unappealing. It is, after all, meant to be a game about being powerful in that very particular eighties sense, whereas much of it feels like drudgery and – I’m sorry to say it – going through the motions. Later dungeons are rife with the stop-and-start of forced combat; where you’ll enter a room and suddenly be set upon by adversaries while the doors all lock up tight to prevent your escape. These too, are clearly signalled to the player beforehand, as if the game were at its proudest during moments of padding-by-combat and puzzle repetition.
There’s not a paucity of interactions available to the player throughout DS II; it’s a game with enough ideas, both borrowed and created anew, to give the player a compelling experience. The problem, though, is that it wants dearly to be a journey on the same scale as the epics, while all the time paying homage to the games its developers most admire. DS II unfortunately uses the latter to achieve the former: calling back the most tired design conventions as an easy referential/reverential way of elongating a game that really doesn’t benefit from the added bulk. In creating a lengthy experience the game simply forces its mechanics too far; reusing them until they are long past their best, unable to surprise or excite the player. Games are too expensive to be filled to the brim with good ideas and endless new mechanics; it’s a terrible shame to see Darksiders II’s – wherever they may hail from – spread as thinly as they are for the sake of delusions of, and allusions to, grandeur.