Brought to life by comic book legend Joe Madureira, THQ's massive apocalyptic adventure offers a novel and stylish interpretation of the End of Days.
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True to the spirit of its name, Darksiders has been lurking in the shadows a little bit. Unlike the heavily promoted Dante's Inferno and Bayonetta, two other titles clearly "influenced" by God of War, Darksiders hasn't tried to cultivate the same sort of marketing buzz and that will, ironically enough, help it get more attention simply because gamers won't feel obliged to immediately dismiss it as a blatant knock off. It is a blatant knock off, of course, but the word hasn't really gotten out yet, and whether it was done on purpose or not, it was a smart move to hide that fact for as long as possible. Darksiders isn't a bad game by any means -- in fact, it's surprisingly decent -- but it's mimicry of other games is so unabashed that it cheapens its overall quality, to the point where it's a bit hard to swallow. It's like watching a stand-up comedian who has a killer routine composed entirely of trademark jokes stolen from other comedians -- it's entertaining, but most of your time is spent picking out who "influenced" the material.
Darksiders is a mish-mash title that draws deeply from a variety of other titles already on the market; it's like a 'greatest-hits' package of game concepts and features elements of God of War (the biggest influence by far), Devil May Cry, Halo and surprisingly enough, Portal. The Legend of Zelda series was bandied about as a better analogy for the game by one of the designers and while fundamentally the two are the same -- an initially powerless hero visits various dungeons, kills a bunch of monsters, and accrues enough power to eventually take on a final threat -- spiritually, the two are worlds apart. The Zelda franchise has always possessed a sense of child-like wonder and focused on the thrill of adventure; Darksiders, on the other hand, tries to be more "serious" and has an action movie vibe. Besides, the game itself makes no bones about what its influences are so it's a little ridiculous for someone on the development team to suggest otherwise; they might have had that intention but the final product speaks for itself and it's blatantly clear where the inspiration truly came from.
Let's face facts here: the game is basically God of War with enough cosmetic changes to keep the copyright lawyers at bay. It copies the formula right down to the glowing chests full of colored health orbs and as a result, the whole thing feels incredibly derivative. They make clever use of what they borrowed but even a little bit of innovation would have been nice if only to give the impression that the developers did something other than put a bunch of games through a Xerox machine. Darksiders doesn't do anything new, and that isn't a crime so much as it is a shame, especially when you consider the potential of the source material. You'd think that a game based on the apocalypse and one of the Four Horsemen would give the developers some breathing room to try a few things but all they managed to do was squeeze out a long-winded story about betrayal and biblical intrigue that lacks any sense of cohesion or tension. There is absolutely no impetus for the Horseman War's quest and no driving force that gives meaning to his actions; say what you will about Kratos' ill-fated mission, you at least felt like he had a valid reason for being pissed off -- War, on the other hand, gets thrown into the middle of a grand conspiracy but he muddles his way through to the end with no real sense of purpose. The developers tried to build a story with epic implications -- at one point, the entirety of humanity is wiped out -- but there is absolutely no sense of weight or consequence: you move from one level to the next, kill whatever is put before you and keep going until the credits roll.
But as much grief as it deserves for being a copy cat, Darksiders still manages to be worthwhile, mostly because the developers had enough sense to steal from the best. Think about it this way: even though it lacks the cachet and quality of the original, a counterfeit Rolex can still tell you what time it is and Darksiders delivers just enough enjoyment that you want to see it through to the end. The action is spread out over a large, well-designed overworld; you come to possess a wide variety of weapons and tools which actually prove useful; and War eventually gains access to a large number of satisfying combo moves and powers. The graphics are decent and the controls, while unnecessarily complicated at times, are also tight and responsive enough to give you a real sense of command over the action. As I said, it hews true to the God of War template but in an admittedly interesting twist, the devs also drew inspiration from some unexpected sources and implemented the resulting ideas in a surprisingly deft fashion. You get a sidearm that basically turns you into Dante from Devil May Cry; you get access to some portable heavy weaponry that works exactly the way turrets worked in Halo; and towards the latter part of the game, you get the ability to spawn two-way dimensional wormholes that are the key to solving a series of well-designed environmental puzzles. But as clever as these touches are, they're also exact carbon copies of the originals: The way War hefts a turret is identical to the way Master Chief would, right down to the over-the-shoulder camera view, and the portals you spawn are colored orange and blue, just like in Valve's classic first-person-puzzle title.
And that's Darksiders' biggest fault: It completely ignores the opportunity to improve upon what already exists. Rather than try to move the genre forward, they just recycled pre-existing concepts; it's incredibly lazy game design and while it's unfair to expect Vigil Games to reinvent the wheel, it also isn't too much to ask that they contribute something new to the process either, and that was my biggest disappointment with the game: It had enough potential that I was sorry to see it wasted.
I liked Darksiders enough that I'm going to recommend that gamers try to look past the shameless cribbing of ideas and discover the relatively worthwhile action experience hidden underneath. But I also hope that the developers will put more effort into the inevitable sequel and make it something more than a derivative also-ran. The idea behind the franchise has enough merit that it deserves a better effort and it's lamentable that they didn't realize that from the very beginning.
PROS: It's a surprisingly decent repackaging of elements from other games; the use of portals is especially well done.
CONS: It brings absolutely nothing new to the table and as a result, it feels incredibly derivative.