There's a surreal edge to Darksiders 2, only part of which is down to the story and setting. The words of the Vigil developer demoing the game to us disappear into our consciousness like coins sent clattering down a well.
"This time you're playing Death, another of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. You may remember in the first game that War was gone for a century for accidentally bringing about the apocalypse. In this game you have to restore mankind in order to rescue your brother.
"Darksiders 2 takes place in the Abyssal Plane. At this time in the game, we need an audience with the Lord of Bones. He's kind of an air-traffic director for souls."
By this point in the demo, Death has finished bounding up a stone staircase to a colossal, black bell. In what turns out to be the beginning of a laughably bombastic cutscene, Death briefly morphs into his "Reaper Form" - a fifteen-foot tall angel of death - to ring the bell by cutting it clean in half with his scythe. Death: not totally clued-up on how bells work, then.
Luckily for everyone involved, the bell is positioned over a bottomless pit and clangs massively as it goes tumbling down into darkness. The Lord of Bones has been summoned. On cue a fantastic airship that looks a bit like a supertanker as designed by My Chemical Romance emerges from the fog, pulled by two vast flying serpents.
The Lord of Bones has been summoned, yes, but he has no intention of stopping. Death awaits the perfect moment and leaps, at some point summoning his pale horse from thin air, because now we're watching Death ride a horse down the back of a flying snake. Another leap sees Death arrive on the back of the other snake, and a final leap carries him onto a low-lying platform on the airship, in what turns out to be a playable platforming section that takes in the ship's exterior.
It's here that things get surreal for a very different reason. I realise that the snake cutscene was reminiscent of Nariko running down the rope in Heavenly Sword. We also get our first look at Death's "Ghost Hook", a grappling hook that immediately gives me flashbacks of using the whip in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, and Death's more acrobatic climbing powers nudge him further into territory occupied by Nathan Drake.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Darksiders 2 is very much working the room, which is, of course, no bad thing. Mostly, these borrowed elements represent the best that those games had to offer. Mostly. When Death throws open the door to a room containing a piercing beam of light, a gem at roughly the same height, a locked door and a statue holding a mirror, it's all I can do to keep from flinging my notepad at the screen.
Stranger still are Darksiders 2's new RPG elements. Where the first Darksiders waddled cautiously in the footsteps of Zelda, Darksiders 2 has taken a sturdy interest in World of Warcraft. When Death finally emerges onto the deck of the airship, we're informed that it's one of several "towns" in the game where you'll be able to sell your loot and receive quests, one of which appears as it's revealed that the Lord of Bones is far too busy to see Death. Who's too busy to see death? Death promptly threatens to kill all in his path, a proposition that makes my head hurt seeing as everybody here's already dead, but all is explained by the Lord's hunched, scheming assistant. Seeing as everybody on Earth has so recently died, his master is having a rather tough time of it. Ah.
There is, he continues, one way for Death to be granted an audience. He must travel to the colossal arena where every soul is allowed to fight a champion for the right to continue living, and he must slay that champion. With that, the indefatigable Death is off again, bounding down steps towards his prey and hacking apart dozens of brainless golems en route.
Getting a first look at Darksiders 2's combat is hugely encouraging. Every animation seems to have been halved in length, resulting in fights that look a lot crisper and more responsive than in the original game. Where this might have made the action flighty and intangible, the game is saved by an impressive suite of crunchy sound effects. Death's enemies crack, crunch and pop under the blows of his dual-wielded blades, which Death snaps together to form a single, giant scythe if you keep a combo going.
"Death doesn't block," comments the man from Vigil, as if he were talking about how a friend of his doesn't drink. Where mighty War was happy to deflect blows, Death further boosts the momentum of combat by only ever rolling out of the way.
But the biggest surprise is the huge, floating numbers that Death knocks out of his enemies with every attack. To tie in with the game's new loot system, you now see how much damage you do every time you so much as brush the pad. Far from being immersion-breaking, these numbers instead give you even more moving objects to care about on the screen. It works.
Any doubts about the new loot system can be fumbled into a bottomless pit, too. Every item of armour not only appears on Death, it's all been designed with Darksiders' over-the-top art style where each shoulder pad looks like it could crush a brown bear. There are also talismans, capes and secondary and primary weapons to equip. As we watch, Death picks over a pile of defeated golems to recover a hammer that, when wielded, is bigger than him. Each attack has an agonisingly long wind-up time, which we find out is no problem at all.
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One last sermon before Death.
At the touch of a button, a vast flock of crows spills out of Death and proceed to peck away at his enemies in a storm of numbers. This, it turns out, is one of the special abilities that lurks in Death's skill tree, which is supposedly so big that even thorough players won't be able to unlock all the powers. Vigil want to have players agonising over these choices, which can only be a good thing.
Death's showdown with the arena champion ends the demo on a suitably Darksiders note. On the one hand, the boss is gorgeous - a tottering, giant construct assembled from the arms and armour of a thousand fallen champions, with an attack that sees him pulling his entire skull and spine free from his armour to use as a comedic flail. On the other, these attack patterns seem slightly repetitive, and none require anything more complex than Death rolling his old bones endlessly out of the way.
Which makes me think that all of these new RPG elements represent the perfect direction to take Darksiders in. Where the first game dragged, here you'll have loot, side-quests, a robust skill tree and the exploration of a beautiful world four times bigger than the first game to hold your attention like the welcoming rungs of a ladder. Reversing the apocalypse from within the barren, supersized scenery of the Abyssal Plain might not make for an imposing challenge, but it's certainly looking like an appealing one.