I avoided Vigil Games’ Darksiders for a long time after its 2010 release. Maybe it was the angry, musclebound Horseman of War as the main character, or maybe it was comic artist Joe Madureira’s art direction, but something about it just didn’t sit right with me. It struck me as the Book of Revelation as told by Mountain Dew, a little bit too X-treme™ for my tastes.
That turned out to be a mistake. Once you peeled back a few layers of adrenaline-fueled 1990s-era hype, Darksiders was a legitimately worthwhile endeavor, a long overdue multi-platform answer to the kind of sprawling adventure game that somehow always seems to end up exclusively tied to Sony or even (gasp!) Nintendo’s consoles.
Which brings us to Darksiders II, a game which evoked the exact same initial response, one that I thankfully suppressed before I erroneously put this one on the back burner, too.
Darksiders II is a parallel sequel, a “meanwhile” instead of a “next” that fleshes out what one of the other big names in Armageddon are up to as the events of the first game are simultaneously unfolding. While Darksiders’ War is busy being imprisoned for inadvertently bringing the end times to Earth (whoops!), Death, sensing treachery, sets out on his own to prove War’s innocence and to find out who tricked him into heralding the end before its appointed time. (Famine and Pestilence presumably didn’t get the memo.)
Dissatisfied with riding his pale horse through only one apocalypse, Death goes on a plane-hopping journey to gather clues, only to find that no matter where in the cosmos he goes, the task of for which he is named is already largely done. The worlds of Darksiders II are all falling into the abyss, with several ends occurring at once, and Death is forced to become a strange and sometimes unfamiliar restorer of cosmic balance.
Think of Darksiders II as the Danzig to Darksiders’ Henry Rollins. Both can be very brooding, very angry experiences, but where Darksiders’ War seethed with rage to the point where his heart pumped equal parts lava and testosterone, Darksiders II’s Death is from colder, darker places. War may be the biggest guy in the pit, but when it’s time to shut the party down and turn off all the lights, Death’s the one that makes the call.
Darksiders II is vast, easily more so than its predecessor. Perhaps not strictly in the way that Elder Scrolls or Grand Theft Auto is vast, but a single huge block of real estate wouldn’t contain DSII’s narrative anyway.
Instead, Darksiders II’s setpieces tend toward massive self-contained mazes of the kind found in a latter-day Legend of Zelda or God of War, two series from which the Darksiders games borrow liberally. It sets a more fluid pace than one might expect from this layout, with action areas and hub zones bleeding together to form wholes that, if not seamless, are at least better paced than the standard fare.
It’s no less silly for all that. You won’t be making your way through the demon-infested ruins of the once-proud human race as you were in the first Darksiders, but the realms that Death explores approach preposterousness in their own special way. The first few levels are hyperbolic enough, with their dwarven/Nordic hybrid gods of the anvil fending off their own little Ragnarok, but once Death makes it to the lands of the dead themselves, this crazy train goes right off the rails.
Towers of skulls jut from their skull-strewn plains, above which float skull fortresses adorned with skull parapets atop their skull battlements. Behind its skull gates sits the Skull King on his throne of skulls, a corpse monarch resplendent in vestments made of only the finest skulls. If Ronnie James Dio was still alive, Darksiders II would be giving him album cover ideas.
And that silliness is just fine. It’s kind of the point, really. Like its prequel, Darksiders II shows us that you can get away with all kinds of extreme heavy-metal bombast if you build it over a solid enough framework.