On the face of things, Darksiders Genesis is yet another example of the THQ Nordic-fronted franchise mixing things up to ensure one more fresh experience for its fans. Developer Airship Syndicate is at the helm this time around with a prequel which ditches classic third-person action for a perspective more akin to Diablo than anything else. That is one of only a few deviations it makes, however, as the spin-off is a lesser undertaking than its counterparts -- complete with frustrating design choices and bugs. Combat remains solid throughout, but the series' crowning achievement this is most certainly not.
What was pitched as an action RPG is actually just as much of a traditional hack and slash title. War makes his comeback alongside newly playable character Strife for a top-down trudge through hell full of frantic button mashing and the sort of light puzzle-solving typically found in the previous three iterations. The addition of co-operative play is a bit of a lifesaver, allowing you and a friend to share in the fun of what it gets right, although those moments are fewer and farther between than you might like.
Speaking of which, the change in perspective is both the title's biggest differentiator and the aspect carrying the smallest impact. It simply doesn't change the way Darksiders is played. In fact, it’s actually a hindrance. The camera sits slightly too close to the action -- providing an advantage when the going gets tough but turning navigation of the game's 16 chapters into a complete chore. Combined with an appalling in-game map that only gives you a vague idea of your location, simply working towards your next objective becomes a challenge and a half. Aimlessly roaming about locations becomes standard practise as the lack of quest markers leaves you guessing where to head next in certain situations.
At least the sort of combat engagements you'll find yourself caught up in are enjoyable. Solo players can switch between War and Strife at a moment's notice with each packing their own approach to conflict. War plays a lot like he did in Darksiders: Warmastered Edition -- a repertoire of slow but deadly attacks that devastate fodder enemies and take a chunk out of even the greatest of foes' health bars. Meanwhile, Strife lands on the opposite end of the spectrum with fast slashes, a dash to quickly get out of the way of incoming fire, and a gun to tackle combatants at long range.
The two styles complement one another to such a degree that it almost negates the loss of navigational instructions by ensuring the fights you stumble upon as you lose your way are of a high quality. What's more, abilities are on hand to add depth as you tire of standard bouts which can be won through a combination of light and heavy attacks. From War's spinning Flamebrand skill through to Strife's World Ender attack which projects a gigantic energy beam in front of him, each and every new ability you unlock is ensured to change the tide of battle in your favour should you choose to unleash it.
What all of this amounts to is a satisfying combat experience designed around the strengths of the two Horsemen in question. Two separate sets of mechanics and features are effectively working in unison to allow you to approach enemies in the way you see fit -- whether that's up close and personal with War or from a distance as Strife. You're probably going to have a favourite by the time the 15-hour campaign is all said and done with, but no matter which one that is, Darksiders Genesis is solid in all the right places.
Puzzles and platforming make up the other half of this apocalyptic franchise -- two aspects you'll spend a good amount of time engaging with throughout a playthrough. However, due to an unreliable camera and the nature of a top-down perspective, pulling off tight jumps and quick-fire leaps becomes all the more difficult. We fell to our deaths one too many times for it to be a coincidence as we struggled to effectively position ourselves in order to line up a sure-fire jump.
On the other hand, environmental puzzles are much more tightly designed. Both characters come across useful items throughout the campaign which can be used to activate switches and levers to either aid progress or open up optional pathways. They're never particularly difficult to solve, serving up a dependable source of upgrade points, but they do make for a welcome break from combat.
Perhaps the title's biggest flaw then is the fact that we've seen it all before. It may be built upon solid foundations and feature a switch in perspective, but it’s not really doing anything different from previous instalments. Because of that, we're suffering from a dose of fatigue. What might have been a genuinely good experience a couple of years ago feels all too played out in 2020 -- making for a title whose saving grace is its combat. However, even that becomes stale the more you progress. It really is a case of been there, done that.
Although, one aspect which does push the boat out is its characterization. An uninteresting story amounts to little more than giving the two Horsemen a reason to venture from one area to the next, completing each set of tasks as they go. You might not get to see too much of that though because the sorts of jokes Strife attempts to crack during the game's static cutscenes will have you reaching for the skip button at record pace. They’re cringeworthily dumb, overshadowing any sort of potential for an interesting plot. Franchise newcomers can take a stab at this prequel with ease, but you probably won’t like what you find.
One way the game attempts to extend its playtime beyond a single playthrough is through Creature Cores. Dropped by enemies and bosses at random, they offer minor buffs when slotted into a skill tree and level up as you gather more of the same type -- resulting in a greater effect. Various branches only allow certain types and ranks of cores to be allocated so it becomes a case of prioritizing the perks you want to take into battle while you search for other cores that could strengthen your lesser abilities.
It's a neat system which gives you goals to aim for outside of simply progressing through the campaign. The game's 16 missions can be replayed at any time and list the sort of Cores you can come across in the corresponding mission, meaning you can guarantee yourself a shot at upgrading either War of Strife every time you play. This then feeds into an Arena mode where you can put your skills to the test against 10 waves of Hell's fiercest opponents.
Darksiders Genesis is, of course, a new PlayStation 4 release, but it has actually already been readily available on PC and Google Stadia for a handful of months now. That extra development time hasn't been enough to iron out some of the title's more technical flaws, however. Enemy models routinely disappear when performing an execution on them, the PS4 version hitches and pauses on a fairly consistent basis, and it is still all too easy to get stuck in the geometry for one too many seconds. Jumping about or switching characters normally solves that problem, but in the midst of combat, it could be enough to result in your demise.
What may have been a solid experience a few years back feels too stale in 2020. Darksiders Genesis is completely competent in its own right, but it doesn't do enough to differentiate itself from previous iterations despite a change in perspective. Combat is a highlight and the Creature Core system provides some depth, however, they're about the only two features we can muster any enthusiasm for.