It's Zelda meets God of War meets Tomb Raider meets Soul Reaver. Darksiders appeared to be another hack 'n' slash clone, developed in an attempt to appeal to the God of War fan base, but it's actually an action adventure game far more diverse, offering combat, platforming, puzzles, exploration and a whole heap of collectable items. While this huge variety makes Darksiders something of a rare breed these days, it does come at a slight cost to the quality of certain areas. Still, as a fairly old-fashioned romp through a large world, Vigil Games' post-apocalyptic adventure is something of an unexpected treat.
War might be said to be good for absolutely nothing, but as the lead character in Darksiders he's good for an awful lot of things. As one of the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, War is responsible for sorting out any squabbles between the armies of Heaven and Hell, working for a kind of intermediate group known as The Charred Council. When seven sacred seals are broken it signifies an apocalyptic war has broken out on Earth, and that the Horsemen must be summoned to fight the opposing soldiers.
As it turns out, an epic battle broke out, War appeared, but the seals were not broken. Upon his death in battle, War is returned to The Charred Council, where he is accused of causing the Apocalypse and sentenced to death. Pleading his innocence and pledging to find who prematurely started the apocalypse, it is decided that the warrior be sent back to Earth to prove his innocence. He's not sent alone, though, with one of the Council's keepers assigned to make sure War doesn't stray from his mission. The Watcher, voiced superbly by Mark Hamill, appears from time to time and will offer advice if you're clueless over what to do next.
Years have passed on Earth while War resided with The Charred Council, so on his return the humans have been wiped off the planet and zombie-like mutants roam the land. These creatures, alongside the various soldiers of the afterlife, pose a great threat to War as he wanders the scorched earth, so it's good that he's more than able to hold his own during a fight. While he has been stripped of most his powers by The Charred Council, in typical video game fashion his abilities and skills improve as you work through the game. Still, to begin with you're not exactly useless.
As you'd expect, War has a primary attack weapon (a massive sword) and a secondary weapon (changeable on the fly), each coming with their own range of attack moves. Combat is certainly more button mashing friendly than the hack 'n' slash genre's most revered titles, but it's not a walk in the park, either. Before too long you'll have an abundance of moves at your disposal, blocking and countering to contend with, a speedy sliding dash to evade enemies, a beast-like Chaos form to unleash and Wrath abilities (essentially magic). Although not up to the standard of something like Bayonetta, Darksiders' combat is certainly more accessible to the masses, and more depth is revealed as tougher enemies come into play.
If there's one single aspect of the combat system that lets the side down, it's War's dodge move. The slide War performs simply isn't very good, and doesn't gel well within the fast, almost balletic combat. Where possible it's far preferable to use the block and counter attacks, although the timing of this doesn't feel as instinctive as it does in the genre heavyweights.
The way Vigil introduces new weapons and their uses is one of Darksiders' most impressive achievements. You're never far from getting something new to play with, and the many environmental puzzles require clever use of these new items. The Crossblade, bearing more than a slight gameplay resemblance to the boomerang in Zelda and the Glave in Dark Sector, doubles as a handy projectile weapon and a way to trigger distant switches. It can also be imbued with the properties of other objects, such as flaming torches, opening up other puzzle elements.
Other items of gear War comes into possession of, such as a grappling hook and portal gun, each serve a significant purpose in the game, and often grant you access to previously inaccessible locations in the game world. Combined with some Prince of Persia-like platforming, the latter puzzles are truly memorable and will test your usage of the tools acquired up to that point. In many ways, the game feels more accomplished as an adventure game than it does as a frenetic hack 'n' slash, with War's mountable phantom horse Ruin giving the game yet another piece of the classic Zelda pie.
As in Zelda, the game is partially open-world, but features a number of massive locations that serve as dungeons, each delivering a big reward upon completion. There's a considerable amount of backtracking at times, which is common in games of this type, but might not be what you're expecting if you thought Darksiders was another formulaic hack 'n' slash. Gladly you can quick travel between the main areas in the game world using serpent holes, opened once you complete the game's first big quest, saving you considerable time.
Vulgrim, a monster who serves as the demon version of Resident Evil 4's trader, pops up at set posts around the world, offering rewards for special artefacts and selling new weapons, moves and Wrath powers in exchange for collected souls - the game's currency, released from all defeated enemies and found in special chests. As and when you come across them, weapon enhancements can be applied to each weapon, granting such bonuses as increased damage, extra souls harvested, accelerated weapon experience and more. You're able to customise War to suit your play-style, whether it be enhancing your weapons to earn extra souls and therefore the ability to buy new items and abilities, or going for the more brute force approach, sacrificing some extra souls in favour of being able to take down enemies more easily.
Post-apocalyptic worlds are rarely beautiful, but Vigil Games has managed just that with Darksiders. Yes, the world has been torn apart, but the impressive use of colour throughout (you'll see more than shades of grey and brown here), the vast landscapes, giant enemies and general sense of scale makes for one of the most striking looking games of this generation. It's not as whiz-bang as some other current-gen offerings, at times appearing a little dated, but its style is unquestionably superb.
There's sadly a fair amount of frame rate trouble and some screen tearing, which hurts the presentation somewhat, and War as a character pales in comparison to Hamill's Watcher and the mega demons you encounter, but on the whole it's hard not to be sucked into the game world. Everything is accompanied by a brilliant musical score that conveys the sense of inter-realm war perfectly, being both epic and doom-heavy, and the voice acting is uniformly excellent.
Darksiders deserves attention. As a new franchise it does so many things right and should find a place for itself in a massively crowded market. If War was a more engaging character and the combat more refined, Darksiders would stand as one of the early contenders for game of the year. Even so, it's a highly entertaining, 15 hour plus adventure, with some gorgeous visuals, devilish puzzles and exciting action. Fingers crossed the no doubt planned sequel will build on this very impressive debut.