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Review: Darksiders

Justin McElroy

It's impossible to review Darksiders without the conversation beginning and ending with its influences. Though it's not technically a copy cat, this is a game that wears its inspirations on its bone-armored sleeve. It's a gutsy move by newcomer Vigil Games, considering it's inviting comparisons to some of the gaming's heaviest hitters, but it's one that -- for the most part -- pays off.

You're War, the angriest of the Four Horsemen, and you've just been tricked into starting Armageddon. Now, all the people on Earth are dead and you've been given one chance to travel to the post-apocalyptic planet and take your vengeance on the party responsible, whoever that may be.

Gallery: Darksiders: Wrath of War (9/30/08) | 20 Photos

Stripped of your powers, you find an unlikely ally in the demon Samael who offers to help you in exchange for bringing him the hearts of four bosses demons, which you'll do as you reclaim your weapons like a boomerang and hookshot. If you haven't figured it out yet, Darksiders is basically a demonic take on the story of Link. The Legend of Hellda, if you will.

The similarities go even deeper than what I've alluded to. You'll find pieces of a life bar, four of which will a new container to your meter. There are bomb plants that replenish themselves after you pluck their explosive nectar. There's a horse you can boost a limited number of times before it's exhausted. There are plenty more.

The whole thing would quickly switch from loving homage to grating rip-off if not for two important factors. 1. Nintendo has yet to do the work of actually modernizing the Zelda formula, making Darksiders seem a lot more innovative than it actually is and 2) It's a highly-enjoyable rip-off.

In many ways, it should come as a wake up call to Nintendo: Someone (a first-timer no less!) has taken one of your keystone franchises and given it a modern look and fast-paced, fluid combat and tons of upgrading, both akin to God of War. The result captures much of the fun of the classics that came before it without reverting to outright nostalgia.

Darksiders also manages to rise above its influences in some regards, most notably in the design of its enemies. Each requires a different, and usually pretty satisfying, tactic to defeat. For instance, the giant vampire bats that you can kill with a single button press, allowing you to leap between them in mid-air (there's even an achievement for killing five without landing).

So, why shouldn't Nintendo send Link packing just yet? Well, for starters, the modernization of the setting isn't a complete win. In fact, it's a little closer to a wash. The colorful comic-booky take on the apocalypse is interesting and occasionally beautiful, but it's so aggressively "edgy" that it occasionally pushes even my inner 12-year-old a bit too far. (For instance, I have spent an even amount of time both maligning and celebrating the fact that War's sword is called "Chaoseater.") It's also a little tough getting pumped for War's vengeance when I remember that me and everyone I've ever loved were recently killed in a global holocaust.

More importantly, as good of a job as Vigil is doing replicating the classics, Darksiders has more than its fair share of slip-ups that keep it from reaching the status of a Zelda or a God of War. Far too often you'll be stuck mid-dungeon without a particularly good idea of what you need to do next or, more infuriatingly, you'll know exactly what you need to do but are hindered either by a poor design choice or a technical screw up. (I experienced no fewer that four complete lock-ups and the distracting screen tearing issue on the 360 is well-documented.) There are pacing problems too, with dungeons continuing to milk puzzle mechanics after I'd grown sick of them. (I'm looking at you, portal beam!)

As a first-time effort, this is a well-realized, meaty experience that shows an incredible aptitude on Vigil's part for melding modern sensibilities with a classic structure. I just kept wishing for that extra bit of polish or innovation that would take Darksiders from riding on the shoulders of giants to becoming one in its own right.

Editors' note: This review is based on the Xbox 360 retail version of the game provided by THQ. The reviewer played the game for 15 hours, but not to completion.

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