Darksiders 2 review: Scythe quest

Darksiders 2 elicits forgiveness in its weakest moments. There's a lingering sting to every stumble, and a constant yearning for just a bit more polish here and there, but the game's tremendous vision and heartening sense of adventure give it an unbreakable foundation.

The tone of Darksiders 2 is captured best in its opening shot, of a lone horseman carving through snow and inhospitable cliffs toward an immense fortress. His destination seems to teeter impossibly on a sliver of mountain, and the elegant score (care of Assassin's Creed composer Jesper Kyd) suggests this peak is but the beginning of a long, taxing ascent. Darksiders 2 is utterly devoted to the quest.

Astride the horse is capital-D Death, depicted here as a pale bruiser rocking raven hair, a spooky mask, and other skull-based attire that should guarantee him a secondary career in someone's theatrical heavy metal band. Death vows to dabble in irony and resurrect humanity, thereby aiding brother (and fellow equine enthusiast) War, who is unjustly blamed for triggering the apocalypse just a wee bit early. And like War did in Darksiders, Death completes his task by invading dungeons, slaying beasts, solving puzzles and running epic errands.

Not even he, the perpetually grim personification of expiration, is immune to the enthralling effects of a quest giver. "To save humanity, you need to bring me these three things, and to get those you need to kill three demons, unlock three temples and collect three yams – oh, excuse me, the three blight-yams of wretchedness." It's a predictable but reassuring structure, steadily unfurling as Death gains new abilities and ways of traversing previously inaccessible bits of the world.

As before, developer Vigil Games borrows fastidiously from the best of games, turning recognizable patches of Prince of Persia, Diablo and The Legend of Zelda into a comforting quilt. It's derivative in a general sense, but the individual puzzles, exciting bosses and the game's bulky, bold art style are safely removed from plagiarism.

In fact, Darksiders 2 can be brilliant in how it combines its spoils, first in teaching individual mechanisms and eventually merging them in complex ways. The most primitive test is simply in recognizing objects in the environment and correctly associating them with the items and powers you've earned so far – in the same way that ledges and walls are visually distinct when they can be traversed. More advanced puzzles, however, ask that you consider the ways in which your abilities can interact with one another. So, have at it: What can you do with a bomb, a clone, portals and time travel?

The intricate, beautifully elaborate dungeons in Darksiders 2 are worth the cost of admission, and there's no satisfaction elsewhere in the game that matches the click-clack of an ancient door lurching back to life after you've sussed out its trigger. As with most games of this sort, you always have the tools and ideal level layout to succeed in the tasks that developers have set out for you. That clockwork design diminishes the tension, of course, but there's a classic satisfaction in finally turning the key – oh, excuse me, the skeleton key – and taking ownership of a challenge, as if it were custom-made just for you.

Combat in Darksiders 2 requires a little more concentration, though not always for praiseworthy reasons. Attacking with twin scythes and a secondary weapon of your choice, Death is nimbler than his hulking frame suggests, and can dish out significant damage with a growing set of combos, juggles and smashes. Pushing back crowds with wider attacks is essential, mostly because the game's camera does a deplorable job of showing multiple enemies in tight environments. When the floodgates open, Death and his foes can get bunched up in a corner, obscured in a sea of flashy effects. It probably shouldn't be so hard to find Death in all that ... well, death.

Meanwhile, the iconic bonehead is augmented by a formal leveling system, which offers two upgrade paths. One increases his prowess as a swiftly moving melee fighter, while the other focuses on arcane abilities, enabling him to summon upgradeable helper ghouls. Between the two, you'll be able to find a good selection of abilities to suit your aggressiveness and your equipment.

Darksiders 2 has embraced the loot drop, doling out new scythes, hammers, maces, glaives and other painful implements as enemies fall, along with boots, pauldrons (see: dangerous shoulder pads) and gauntlets. Some of these inflict further disabilities, like setting monsters ablaze or shocking them out of attack animations, and a few rare weapons can be upgraded and tweaked by feeding them detritus from your clanging inventory. A couple of effects don't read well at all in fast-paced battle – only the numbers spewing out of a creature prove that your weapon is doing "piercing" damage, for instance – but the additional systems are substantial and enjoyable. It's enough to be a point of consideration whenever you take a trip into the game's clunky menu system (that's how you really know it has RPG elements).

The menu's layout isn't particularly labyrinthine, mind you – the main complaint is that it's slow to load and respond. Its state forms an unpleasant union with several other technical issues that drag Darksiders 2 down from the action-adventure pedestal it could easily have claimed. The framerate is noticeably sluggish, even stuttering when you just spin the camera around, and it can become downright abysmal when Death finds himself surrounded, whether by relentless golems or the fantastic, ever-looming landscapes forged by Vigil Games. Whether we're to blame a lack of restraint or an abundance of ambition doesn't matter, because the engine's performance clearly hampers controls and responsiveness. When the framerate picks up significantly in a later dungeon, it feels like you're playing a different game entirely.

Sadly, there are other subtle signs in the game that point to a troubled development. There's a steady onset of decay once you reach the game's final third, with massive, well-realized environments giving way to progressively more linear realms, and one disastrous detour that has Death shooting his way through dull urban warehouses and sewers. That part of the quest (which, yes, involves collecting three magical MacGuffins) just reeks of filler designed to bulk up the game's running time as quickly as possible.

Darksiders 2 is a series of peaks and valleys, but you find yourself at the top more often than in the pits below. More importantly, you spend even more time climbing and descending, claiming treasures and delving into the most dangerous parts of the world. It's a faithful adherence to the quest, that sense of discovery and mastery that drives us to spend hours in front of the TV, solving problems for people that don't exist and overcoming challenges that aren't necessary. Though you're not required to forgive the game's faults, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel is always part of any near-death experience.

This review is based on a final Xbox 360 version of Darksiders 2, provided by THQ. We also tested the PlayStation 3 version, which seems to perform similarly during the game's first 30 minutes.

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