If your brother was imprisoned, accused of a crime that you're certain he didn't commit, you'd probably do everything within your power to clear his name and support his plight. Except most peoples' crimes don't involve invoking the apocalypse and extinguishing mankind from existence. And most people don't have the Grim Reaper for a brother.
Darksiders II takes a less traditional approach to the sequel. The third-person action-adventure's story doesn't continue the events from the first game; it looks at the same tale, of War's apparent bringing forth of Armageddon, from a different angle. Much of the game overlaps the time period when War is held captive for a century in the first Darksiders, putting you in fellow Horseman Death's boots as he tries to prove War's innocence. Well, not so much 'prove' as 'alter the fate of humanity so there's no longer any actual crime to answer to'. They do things differently over there.
The story, more than anything, is a series of excuses to send you galloping and slashing through a big pile of dungeons over four main realms; some sidequests even get their own specific caves to explore. You could quite comfortably hop into it without any prior knowledge of the series, though you'll miss little nods back such as returning characters. It circles more than it perhaps should, sending you on quests that sometimes feel completely pointless, while others are overwrought for the sake of extending the game's length. But ultimately you probably won't mind too much, as the content of those quests, and Darksiders II as a whole, is usually a huge amount of fun.
Darksiders II skilfully combines combat, exploration and puzzles in a way that, for the most part, is well-balanced. As a more agile character than War, Death has the ability to wall-run and hop about in most acrobatic fashion, which means that you spend a lot of your time clambering around the intricate dungeons, cruising around ledges and running horizontally. As you stomp around the worlds you gradually unlock new equipment, such as the mystical equivalent of a grappling hook, that lets you access new areas and open up new types of puzzles.
This is intersected by scythe-slinging a-plenty, Death's gymnastic talents extending to fights speckled with as much dodging as striking. There's no blocking here – unless you have a certain type of weapon – and so skipping about your foes is important. The fighting is crafted extremely well, aside moments when so many enemies and particles are floating about the screen that you lose track of what's going on. It makes you feel all-powerful, and in combination with the character and weapon upgrade systems it doesn't remain just a feeling for long; by the end of the game you can practically make yourself into a boss character provided that you select the right upgrades. Which is a good job, as Darksiders II really likes to throw a lot at you, though it does also mean that things become a bit too easy once you've found your perfect character build.
The first point of interest is the skill tree. Each time Death levels up, or completes an objective in certain sidequests, he earns a skill point that can be used to unlock a new ability. The tree is split in half: one side augments Death's own physical abilities, awarding him new special moves; the other teaches him the arts of necromancy, allowing him to summon up the undead and vicious crows to assault any that stand against him.
Both paths are useful, and it's not possible to max them both out in a single playthrough. Once the basic abilities are unlocked they can each be upgraded a further two times for more powerful forms, and some cases there are yet more additions that can be bolted on top; the crows, for example, can be taught to steal health for you as they strike or dart forward with ice-enhanced attacks. Or both. Everybody is likely to have the same basic loadouts, but past that point there's plenty of room for customisation.
Then there are the items – a lot of them. Death, naturally, wields scythes as his primary instruments of pain, but all manner of hammers and claws can be equipped as a secondary option. His look, and statistics, can be further changed with different items of clothing, armour and talismans. You can buy these from merchants, but it's more than likely you'll have enough choice from all the loot drops. Gold and items pour forth from the corpses of most downed enemies, and from chests, so you never have to wait too long for that next pair of greaves.
The objects you should really be looking out for, though, are possessed weapons. They're rare, apparently – though we collected about seven of them during the course of this review – and represent a chance to really hulk your own Death up into a force to be reckoned with. They boost your statistics yet more, and can also be fed any items that you no longer want to give them additional powers. Want your shiny, hungry new weapon to deal out fire attacks? Feed it a blazing hot item and let the flames appear. You can name these weapons, too, which makes it even easier to grow attached to them. Once you go possessed, you'll never want to go back.
Darksiders II brings more smart additions to the action-adventure genre. Death's crow, Dust, can be sent flapping off to show you the way forward in a way that's completely optional and feels organic without tipping out an obtrusive trail leading right up to your destination. You can fast travel out of any dungeon at any time – aside during fights – and then warp straight back to the point where you left later on; very useful for topping up your health potions before or after a big battle.
But unfortunately, Darksiders II is held back from its full potential by some technical issues and a badly weighted, front-heavy campaign. The traversal isn't quite as full-on as it could be – you can only climb up ledges at certain, obviously marked, points, even if the rest of the terrain surrounding the area is of the same height. There are increasingly intrusive load times between rooms as you creep closer towards the end, as well as a couple of moments of severe slowdown in the last quarter. At one point we fell through the scenery into an endless void that could only be rectified with a reboot; the same solution was necessary when all the voice audio suddenly dropped out during a cutscene halfway through. Big glitches like this aren't commonplace, but they shouldn't be there.
The second 'half' of the game is a letdown, too; we say 'half', because the halfway point is actually somewhere within the second act – of four – by our reckoning. We finished our first playthrough, with a couple of sidequests completed, in 23 hours, 16 or 17 of which were spent within the first two lands. The third act includes a dungeon that hurls away the mechanics built up for the last dozen-and-a-half hours in favour of a flat shooter section, all climbing and melee combat forgotten for some mindless explosions that are at odds with the rest of the game. Though you can always drop the gun and go in for some hand-to-hand, it's clearly not what was intended and is a low point. The final world is essentially a road with a small-ish dungeon and a couple of boss fights. After building up worlds of such gigantic scale in the first two acts, filled with dungeons and things to do, the final two are disappointing – though they do contain their own moments of brilliance in the few dungeons that do inhabit them.
Though this balance is flawed, the art direction and design – the shooter section excepted – remains consistently excellent throughout. Whether they're grasslands, dusty worlds of bones, autumnal groves or the depths of the underworld, each location is intelligently built and has been lavished with such care that they wouldn't look out of place in any fantasy tale. It's just a shame that some of them are so short in comparison to the initial locales.
The quality of the audio also prevails through the entire game, with superb voices and a fantastic soundtrack that is blood-pumping, tense and mysterious at all the right moments. Darksiders II reaches one of its highest peaks at the end of the first act, during a boss battle of epic scale as majestic music pipes in to set the scene absolutely perfectly.
A short second half and some technical issues let it down, but Darksiders II is still a fantastic, ambitious action-adventure that does plenty right. The combat is satisfying, the upgrade systems are full of possibility, and at its high points it not only hits the right notes but slices them clean through. If you're after a large scale fantasy adventure that makes you think as well as fight, Darksiders II is where it's at this year.