Version tested: PlayStation 3
The world has ended and the sky has fallen, and yet Darksiders 2 is a pretty comforting sort of game when you really get down to things. Its fantastical over-worlds are filled with lovely, craggy vistas and fancy lootable treasure chests, while its teetering dungeons are home to crunchy combat, giant bosses and pleasantly straightforward puzzling. This is an unashamedly old-school action adventure, vast and friendly and familiar, and loading it up feels like sliding into a warm bath - albeit a warm bath filled with blood, offal and funny little imps that probably want to bite your ears off.
That's not to say that nothing has changed, of course. While the first Darksiders cast you as War - everyone's favourite horseman of the apocalypse and the guy who got the blame for triggering the end of days a touch too early - this time you'll be playing Death, sent out on a parallel mission to his brother as he tries to clear the whole dang mess up again.
Compared to War's wonderfully bulky presence, Death isn't quite as much fun to look at - he's lean and pale and he resembles the lord of the jungle after a night spent locked in a deep freeze. He has his own tricks to master, though, and he brings his own wry spirit to proceedings as his adventure takes him to distant Forge Lands, floating realms both heavenly and diabolical and even a few more familiar spots before the journey's finally completed.
Death's more acrobatic than his brother; he moves through the environment in a headlong pelt and can wall-run, backflip and pillar-hop around the dungeons at will as the designers throw in increasingly intricate gauntlets for him to tackle. In combat, meanwhile, he relies on his dodge instead of a block, and his weak defences ensure that you'll often need to think your way through fights instead of just hammering away at the face buttons until your tendons snap.
As you steadily level up, you can afford to be a bit more gung-ho: new offensive moves are available to purchase from trainers, and Death comes with two skill trees to plunder. They're fairly narrowly focused, but they'll still provide you with some real treats, divided as they are amongst melee and spell-casting options.
By the end of my first play-through, with Death lodged at level 20, I'd seen about half of what these trees could offer, and there was very little for me to complain about. I was able to conjure ghouls to do some of my fighting for me and I'd tricked them out to explode when their life-force was getting low. I had a spooky targeted attack that did tons of damage and reminded me of those great old effects at the end of Ghostbusters, and I could also transform into a giant hooded scythe-wielder when I was really powered up, or summon flocks of crows to pick away at enemies, rebuilding my health bar in the process.
Specials like this are fuelled by earning wrath through regular combat, and even the standard stuff's a lot of fun here: the lock-on works well, the animation is gloriously violent, and you can still execute weakened foes with a press of a button and a perky shower of blood, sinew and bone if you get the timing right. Bam.
The theme of character customisation is continued in a smart lift from dungeon-crawlers. Almost every enemy you face in Darksiders 2 appears to have waddled into battle after swallowing shoes, bucklers, amulets and even the odd cudgel, and while their dietary ambitions might remain a mystery, these goodies are just itching to burst out during finishers. For a first attempt at a loot game, it's not bad at all: each item truly sparkles on your blank-slate Death, and the stats are presented in a way that makes it simple to choose between this glove and that glove as you juggle the likes of gold bonuses, elemental powers and the chance of pulling off criticals.
Offensively, you'll be given newer, better scythes for your main attacks every 10 minutes or so throughout the course of the campaign, and you'll also have a broad selection of secondary weapons to pick from. These range from fast, relatively weak hand blades to giant, unwieldy hammers. They all look fantastic in action and, towards the upper reaches of the loot table, you'll even discover a class of items that can be levelled individually.
The only real issue is that the balance isn't quite right: you'll find so much good stuff in the field that shops become unexciting, and by the end of your first play-through, you're likely to have loads of decent kit but also tens of thousands of gilt coins lying around and little to really spend it on. All the more for that New Game +, I guess, where far crazier rewards will await you.
Outside of the grind of new armour and weapons, you'll also unlock a selection of gadgets, some of which will be familiar to veterans of the first game, and all of which will steadily open up your exploration options. Death's horse is soon joined by a gun, a magical grapple claw, and more exotic offerings that see you splitting yourself in three separate pieces for a selection of - actually rather tedious - pressure plate challenges. As with the original Darksiders, there's a nod to Portal as you edge towards the home stretch and, taken as a whole, Death's expanding arsenal is more than capable of keeping you moving and learning as you head through the huge, puzzle-filled dungeons that make up the main storyline.
For all its clever additions, however, Darksiders still struggles to offer much that's new. The first game was an endearing mash-up of Zelda and God of War, and although this one flings in Prince of Persia's traversal and Diablo's loot, it would be nice to see the odd element that couldn't be traced back quite so easily to a classic source. Tellingly, although it brings all of its borrowed mechanics together with great enthusiasm, it's never quite as good as its individual inspirations.
The landscapes you move through are packed with content but lack the sense of genuine history and place you get from Hyrule, for example, while combat may be wonderfully satisfying, but is still plagued with the kind of frame-rate issues Kratos would rarely put up with. Elsewhere, a few time-pressured sequences reveal that, although Death's parkour is beautifully animated, it can also be slightly clumsy when you're making decisions at speed, and the dungeons themselves tend to be busy and intricate more often than they are truly inspired.
The whole game is elevated by the magnificent art design, though: it's chunky, detailed and endlessly colourful. The characters once again look like the world's most collectable action figures, while the new fantasy-tinged landscapes offer plenty of Tolkien-esque spectacle and the monsters you'll face frequently tower over you in spiky splendour, hands clutching weapons the size of surf boards.
One mid-game sequence is set on a rickety wooden tower wedged on the back of a flying monster, and a late dungeon lets you loose in a cathedral city caught in the grip of what amounts to a hellish oil spill. A particularly dramatic boss is so vast that the best you can do is swipe away at his writhing beard while his hands slap against the earth and brush you aside, and even humble skeletons have a certain cartoonish swagger to them, striding towards you with manacles flailing and giant swords swinging before exploding in a hollow spray of bone once you've smacked them around a bit.
Darksiders 2 is also staggeringly generous, offering a huge campaign that took me 20 hours to complete purely by itself, and providing plenty of detailed side quests and optional areas to explore after all that's been taken care of. Then there are Death Tombs to plunder for high-end loot, collectables to gather together and sell, and an arena mode (if you have an Online Pass) that tempts you with piles of glittering rewards as you fight your way through waves of monsters.
There's a sense throughout of a development team in love with their work: a team that's gleefully committed to over-delivering. Why else would Vigil opt for two dungeons where one would have been enough for most developers, or throw in boss after boss after gigantic boss when others might have tied things up with a simple cut-scene and the odd quick-time event?
Publisher THQ's current troubles add a slight melancholic sting to proceedings; it's hard not to race through the final challenges wondering whether you're seeing the last of the series. Does Death mark the end for Darksiders? I certainly hope not. The story draws to a close with a number of narrative strands flailing in the wind, and throughout the campaign there are signs that the adventure's borrowed elements are pulling themselves together to create something genuinely harmonious. Two riders down, and you'll still want more. If this is the apocalypse, let's make the most of it.
8 / 10