Drawing inspiration from the story of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the first Darksiders title, from 2010, placed the player in the role of the tenacious roughrider War and displayed an assortment of gameplay styles that ranged from heavy, muscular hack-and-slashing reminiscent of Devil May Cry or God of War to sundry Legend of Zelda-like puzzles and expansive exploration. While the game was far from a subpar effort, it was simply too imitative, lacking the true visual finesse and stable replay value of those aforementioned trailblazers from which it so extensively borrowed. THQ and Vigil Games's parallel sequel, Darksiders II, shakes things up by swapping out main character War for his much more interesting, vengeful brother, Death, as well as ushering in a faster-paced manner of traveling on foot via a polished Prince of Persia-esque brand of athleticism exhibited by the most macabre member of the Four Horsemen. Additionally, the implementation of select role-playing elements (customization, equips), a freshly pervasive narrative, and the fact that graphics, though still sporadically stale, have received some sufficient enhancements make Darksiders II quite the adequate continuation despite a number of vexing bugs and miscues that emerge from time to time.
Darksiders II's central story finds War apprehended and wrongly accused of crimes against humanity. Death, recognizing his sibling as perhaps the most virtuous of the apocalyptic quartet, sets out on a protracted, treacherous quest to clear his kin's name. Along the way, Death encounters dozens of equally contemptible characters and situations, the majority of both being more memorable than the contents of War's interminably bullish enterprises. Though Death's journey through the underworld and planes above is widely derivative of so many other adventurous undertakings, there's an air of appealing dark whimsy that the initial game called for. It's amusing how Death comes across as a much more formidable action hero than War, as if the goth kid and the jock had switched societal positions, the former winning football matches as an accomplished quarterback while the latter sits alone on the bleachers, clad in black, headphones blaring doom metal in the evening shade.
The combat mechanics in Darksiders II are well-structured and generally fun, but rarely venture beyond genre standards. Death controls dual armaments, one slow and powerful and one less damaging but lightning-quick. Advanced, occasionally transformative maneuvers are gained as the tale progresses, but none of them possess as much theatrical panache as they should given the circumstantial scenarios. I was reminded of Capcom and CyberConnect2's unblushingly flamboyant Asura's Wrath, which managed to interchange substance for style in a way that forgave a few of its shortcomings. Darksiders II does this on occasion, and better than anticipated, yet breaks in the chains of success materialize far too often, giving way to overly simplistic enemies and a monotonous attack-and-evade system that eventually feels like you're vanquishing legions of weak foes on autopilot. The sole exception to this is Darksiders II's epic boss engagements, which pit you against several distinct, enormous opponents that don't quite reach Shadow of the Colossus levels of awesomeness, but, with their inventive designs and rhythmic, flowing electricity, comprise most of the game's scattered high points.
Similar to its memorable big-bads, Darksiders II's environments are definitely massive, much larger than those of its forerunner. This is both a blessing and a curse. The leeway these almost open-world settings provide is welcoming and increasingly beneficial to the RPG angles the game opts to endorse, but there's a serious issue of quantity over quality at play here. Stretches upon stretches of terrain are colorless and desolate, giving the appearance of vast sections of core coding that was left unchanged from a beta-testing stage. Every once in awhile, though, an area, usually of the dungeon variety, will come into being that illustrates further attention to detail and a real sense of artistry, yet those instances are veritably short-lived. Darksiders II evidently takes great pride in its underdeveloped hugeness, be it that much of the game is littered with item collection missions, some of which are barely tolerable, that have Death ransacking the bleak scenery for hours on end (the rapid travel system, essentially teleporting, helps with this, but not much). The plethora of prodding defects, such as platforming issues, random lag, sketchy aiming, and unresponsive AI partners, don't help to make any of these complications more bearable. Fortunately, Darksiders II pads such cursory lapses by boasting a terrific musical score and some splendid voice acting to deliver its uncommonly jocular dialogue, providing momentary breathers from an otherwise mediocre, oftentimes taxing experience.
It's telling that, despite its deficiencies, Darksiders II is still a product worth taking a look at. A clear-cut improvement over its progenitor, it steps its game up across the board, assuring fans of the first installment will find much to savor. Still, on take two Vigil Games can't seem to work toward hatching sweeping originality when it comes to reinventing the techniques of its elder cybernated muses, continuing to periodically paraphrase rather than compose its own unique tome.