"Choose Your Own Death" is one of the strangest video game pitches that's been flung our way in a while. Choose Your Own Death. Okay, so I've thought about it, and I'd like to go with rollerskates, a wonky stepladder, a plate glass window, and the glinting tines of an upended garden fork, please. At my funeral, I want them to play the theme from Shaft, and everybody has to dress like they work at Burger King.
It all makes a bit more sense, though, when you discover that Death is the new protagonist for Darksiders 2. He's taking over from his brother War in a sequel that fits neatly inside the timeline of the original. Think of it as Back to the Future 2, but with a rock-fisted demon in place of Thomas F. Wilson. War has been accused of kicking off the Apocalypse early, and he's out to clear his name: that's Darksiders. Meanwhile, Death thinks War is his kind of people, so, as another of the famous four horsemen, he sets off on his own parallel adventure to see if he can help his brother out. That's Darksiders 2.
As for the element of choice, this comes from a slight change of emphasis. In Darksiders 2, you'll be able to shape Death a little as the game progresses, selecting which armour you want him to wear as you pick paths through his skill trees, while juggling his load out of weapons and magic attacks. It's a mix-and-match approach that mirrors that of the developer, Vigil Games, which built the original Darksiders, in part, from its favourite pieces of the Zelda and God of War series, taking the dungeons-and-gadgets structure of the former, and the pointy melee combat of the latter. For Darksiders 2, all of that stuff remains in place, but the team is throwing in some new inspirations as well.
So there's a little of the Diablo formula present in the sparkly loot that enemies now drop, giving you a new piece of kit to try out after each encounter. It's good stuff, too. There are plenty of different armour sets available, but they all fall into three basic types, which work a little like classes. Necromancer armour will always boost spell-casting stats. Slayer armour will improve your defence, melee attacks and general weapons proficiency. Finally, Wanderer gear will steadily turn you into a kind of rogue character - fast, stealthy, and brilliant at assassinations.
After the swaggering heft of War, is there a danger that cobbling your own outfit together over the course of the game could mean that Darksiders 2's main character ends up looking like a bit of a charlie? Vigil has taken pains to make sure that this doesn't happen, apparently. Not only is Death kitted out with a dandy Skull mask and a distinct, wiry physique, both of which will always be readily visible no matter how you've dolled him up, the studio has also been messing around with armour since the first days of the sequel's development to make sure it all fits his style.
"It's very complicated stuff," admits art director Han Randhawa. "You have no idea. In the end, we basically had a wall in the studio with all the different armour sets laid out, and as we'd build them, we'd put them into the game as quickly as we could to mix and match them. You have to be harsh and chuck stuff out that doesn't work. Elements may look great on their own, but they may look garish together. You also want to make sure that people are picking up stuff that isn't throwaway." With bundles of decent loot to sift through, then, and two separate skill trees that allow you to tailor your hero even further, choosing your own Death suddenly doesn't sound too bad.
Loot and an increased focus on character progression has helped build a game that looks and feels like Darksiders - you've got the same colourful dereliction, the same earthquake audio and the same chunky Joe Mad enemies - while giving you a lot of new options in combat.
"So much of that came out of the shift in character," admits Randhawa. "War for us was your soldier of justice. He sees everything in black and white, he's heavily armoured, and he basically just rips through everything he sees. Death? It wouldn't make sense for him to be a hulking warrior, as we've already done that. The next thing we wanted to do would be someone who was a bit more agile and tactical when he's fighting."
Death's primary weapon is his scythe. It's called Harvester (a name that conjures images of pleading victims and soul-reaping for American audiences, perhaps, but dumps English players into a rundown world of damp corn cobs, limp roast turkey and Lindisfarne on repeat), and he can wield it either as two short swords, good for fast, close-up damage-dealing, or as a single pole that gives him a bit more reach.
Secondary weapons, meanwhile, include everything from giant hammers to guns that can shoot various different ammo types. Death's not as resilient as War overall - he has a dodge instead of a block, encouraging you to constantly shift in and out of range - but he can also make use of a selection of magic attacks that invoke classic Blizzard every bit as much as all that loot.
Even in the lower branches of the skill trees he can learn the ability to summon zombie allies who will fight alongside him, or to stun his foes with flocks of crows. He's got more tricks up his sleeve than War ever did, in other words, and that's encouraged Vigil to make his enemies bigger and deadlier in response.
If Diablo is the most obvious new influence, there's also a little Prince of Persia in there too, however, as Darksiders' nimble new lead executes wall-runs and jumps far more swiftly than his brother ever could. Death can use a Ghost Hand gadget to grapple from one point to the next when climbing around the environment, and his improved range of traversal moves are frequently chained into complex gauntlets.
It allows for some surprisingly dynamic set-pieces, such as a section in which he's pursued by a rising tide of lava as he scrambles out of a well, and it suggests that platforming is no longer a simple palette cleanser between combat encounters or puzzles. Darksiders 2 should flow from one moment to the next with a touch more grace than the original could muster. (It also promises to be a lot more generous, incidentally, with an overworld map split across several hub towns, each with their own story quests and side missions, and a suite of entirely optional dungeons that come with their own mini-bosses and loot.)
It's weird that a game with so many obvious reference points should somehow manage to feel so coherent and so likeable, but Darksiders 2 still appears to exude a charisma that stops it from degenerating into a collection of tributes or thefts. Its ideas, when borrowed, are always repurposed inventively, and the whole thing is wrapped up in the hulking, wonderfully toy-like art style that gave the original such a distinct sense of character.
Besides, Darksiders never hides its many influences. It continues to wear them proudly, in fact: choice pieces of shiny armour dropped by some of the very best in the business.