Ah, betrayal. With the possible exception of Brain Training (and I stress "possible"), all videogame stories are about betrayal. Darksiders' certainly is. You play as War, one of the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and in this alternative retelling of the Revelatory bits of the bible you find yourself called to Earth to judge the sinners before everyone's ready.
You've been betrayed. The higher-powers-that-be reckon you're to blame for mankind's untimely destruction. It's only by the grace of the Charred Council - the Simon, Louis and Cheryl of obelisk-based supernatural arbitration - that you're allowed to return a century after the end of the world to try and put a lid on things. And only then if you agree to have Mark Hamill escort you in the form of a devious sprite called the Watcher who lives in your arm.
You're here for revenge, but ostensibly you're here to do the Council's bidding, and that bidding translates into a mixture of puzzle-heavy dungeon-crawling and brutal hackandslash, played out in a colourful, fairly-openworld third-person action game full of collectables and upgrades to gather, many of which allow you to do new things in areas you've already visited. We're back in Metroidvania territory then, but sales of Batman: Arkham Asylum and Shadow Complex last year suggest Darksiders is in good company - and 15 hours rampaging around the end of the world suggest it belongs in that company too.
It certainly has the component parts. Each location yields a new toy - a grappling hook here, environmental Bullet Time there - and puzzle and enemy design falls into step with the timeline of new gizmos, demanding that you consider your new contraption first and foremost before you're gradually invited to use it in combination with other tools once you get the hang of it.
As you progress through the interlinked districts of the game's cauldron of post-apocalypse, the developers demonstrate they understand the subtler side of a good Metroidvania too. Some gadgets are nifty in and of themselves - a portal gun, for instance - while others are seemingly prosaic, like a boomerang device called the crossblade and an earthquake gauntlet, but all of them are used in inventive and measured fashion. Most vitally, and no matter the scale of the complicated puzzle you're solving, you come to trust the game to treat you respectfully and deposit you in the right place to make quick progress once you're done with something.
There's attention to detail, but that attention to you is evident all the way through. Some of the puzzles in the Destroyer's tower near the end, for instance, ask you to gather light sources and transfer them to a central hub, which involves retreating through your own footsteps using different mechanisms and combinations of your gadgets to the ones you used originally. While many elements of the level furniture that you require to go in both directions are in plain sight at all times, it's always clear what is relevant now and what will become relevant later on.
Combat is the other great pillar of the game, and there are boatloads of ways to fight people in Darksiders, with an impressive range of mashy sword attacks, secondary weapons and combo attacks to discover or purchase from the sinister shop-demon, Vulgrim. You can also earn Wrath attacks - spikes from the ground, spinning knives, that sort of thing - and equip active and passive modifiers to your key weapons.
You even get to use projectile weapons occasionally, including a sort of angel cannon and a demonic grenade launcher with remote-detonation capability. However you fight though, individual skirmishes usually end as you opt for an ultraviolent one-button finishing move once an enemy is in a dazed state.
These finishers are dazzlingly gratuitous and gory, to the extent that by the end of the game the sight of War merely slicing an angel's wings off and then impaling it on his gigantic Chaoseater sword is utterly blasé. You take out one boss by going inside its head and cutting it apart from the inside out, and in another satisfying outcome you dispatch a long-term antagonist by squashing his head in your fist. Other demons simply have their arms lopped off at the elbow before you stab them in the face, and giant worms must learn not to expose their bellies.
None of it is actually horrendous, however, because Darksiders is deliberately colourful and cartoon-like - which comes as no surprise given that the game's creative director is one Joe Madureira, better known as a comic-book writer and artist of considerable merit. He and his colleagues deserve credit for the game's coherent, engaging aesthetic and the magnetic characters therein.
War, for instance, is a chiselled vision of action-figure doom, who dances through exotic combos and finishers with ballet-dancer choreography, and speaks with an accent and dialogue pitched carefully south of parody despite his growling delivery. Mark Hamill, meanwhile, demonstrates that last summer's Joker (and I suppose Luke Skywalker) was no fluke with his impish turn as the scheming Watcher, and others like the inexplicably Scottish giant Ulthane are hammered into smoother and slicker shape than you might expect.
Likewise, the narrative revelations in the final third and the crowd-pleasing finale are also pleasantly devoid of cliché. Darksiders may be a game where you win the ability to summon or dispense with a magical demon horse by pressing both bumpers, but it's a game built on a story rather than a scenario, with a vision that perhaps deserves the second instalment the ending elegantly requests.
With that said, the combat doesn't mature as enjoyably as the dungeon design, because at least on Normal difficulty the range of options remains a range of options, while you focus on a few successful core techniques (in my case, the harpoon dash, home-run swing and dashing evades) that work more or less throughout.
There are neat counters and combos galore, but even a few stylish in-line tutorial sections struggle to guide your hand in new directions as effortlessly as the game does with its puzzle design. It does eventually present a few more exotic enemies and overlong engagements, but by the time you're forced to innovate the need to do so feels out of touch with the whole, and becomes frustrating rather than liberating as it might have been earlier.
Boss and mini-boss design is an exception, at least, with some enjoyable brawls that, at their best, are more like hazardous puzzles with a bit of cannon fodder than traditional hackandslash showdowns. There's a giant enemy crab who needs to catch a train, for instance, and a recurring demon robot with a ball on a chain, whose various ends are probably best described as a triumph. Plus, you get to do one and a half boss fights on your horse, and Eurogamer is explicitly pro-horse.
It's the puzzle and exploration side of Darksiders that continually elevate it, however - in the exciting secret rooms that confer souls, maps, artefacts and components of the elusive Abyssal Armour; in the elaborate, dungeon-wide puzzles that draw from every extremity of your growing inventory of tools; and above all in the growing sense that if you're missing something then it must be right in front of you, and not something obtuse that you will resent when you eventually discover it.
The only slight criticism is that it's difficult to keep track of areas that you will need to return to with a new tool, and once the game is over your inability to quickly identify areas with secrets still to reveal may put you off the job of revisiting them for remaining treats - something that feels like a letdown in light of Arkham Asylum in particular.
Still, while on the surface of it Darksiders feels like a game with a lot of good ideas but only a few of its own, where even a brief flying section on an angelic mount owes rather a lot to Panzer Dragoon, overall the silly old story and wonderful art style give terrific heft to the universe, and the clockwork of the puzzles and game systems are precision-engineered in a manner that you come to trust implicitly. It may be a game of betrayal and redemption, but you won't feel hard done by if you choose to begin 2010 in its company.
8 / 10