Ah, the ’90s. Depending on whom you ask, it was either the holy era of the comic book industry, or the unspeakable dark ages. Comics in the ’90s saw host to many established tropes, from variant covers (often of a holographic nature), gritty and dark-themed superheroes, and huge changes to the status quo of beloved stories, some fondly remembered (the Death of Superman, the X-Men’s Age of Apocalypse) and some still raising the unforgiving ire of comic fans (Spiderman’s Clone Saga).
Midway through this hodgepodge of trial and error, an up-and-coming artist named Joe Madureira quickly grew in popularity for his manga style work on the Uncanny X-Men. He later went on to create his own comic series, Battle Chasers, but frequent, often yearly delays brought the project to a close with just nine issues produced. Regardless, Joe Mad’s work continued to gain a respectable following due to his distinctive style; if Final Fantasy designer Tetsuya Nomura is known for his love of belts and zippers, then Joe Mad shares a similar affinity for gauntlets and armour.
When THQ announced Darksiders, an action adventure game developed by Vigil Studios and Joe Mad’s debut as a game director, immediate apathy was given; one need only look at Todd McFarlane’s failed attempts to know that few comic artists, if any, have successfully carried their work over in videogame form. But the apocalypse must truly be upon us, for not only is Darksiders anything but a failure, it may actually go down as one of the top action titles of 2010.
The plot of Darksiders goes something like this: the ongoing war between Heaven and Hell is forced into a temporary truce by a council of higher beings, decreeing that neither side must fight each other until the appointed apocalypse, which will take place in the kingdom of man. During this final battle, the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse will arrive to restore balance (apparently by slaughtering an even number from both sides). In present day earth, humankind is given a rude interruption from their daily lives as both demons and angels pour into the busy streets for the big battle. War, our main hero, joins in on the fun only to realize the other three Horsemen are nowhere to be seen. After receiving the token Metroid de-powering, War is imprisoned for a hundred years, accused of setting off Armageddon early. Determined to clear his name, War is granted probation by the council to explore the now-destroyed human world, allying with a few demons and ancient creatures, while fighting off against hordes of devils, angels, and everything in between.
Unsurprisingly, the story reads like a comic book (from the ‘90’s, no less), but played with a straight enough face that it doesn’t fall into an unintentional parody of itself, and there are a decent amount of memorable characters that fall under the category of bad-ass (main hero War, who takes a more silent approach than you’d initially expect), humorous (the Watcher, serving as a bizzaro Navi counterpart to War’s Link, and voiced by the always entertaining Mark Hamil) to somewhere in between (the incredibly powerful and inexplicably Scottish Ulthane). End of the world storylines are incredibly common in games nowadays, but Darksiders’ literal hell on Earth setting brings an extra level of intrigue when traversing the dilapidated buildings and barren streets (not counting the zombified humans and rampaging hellspawn). Of course, there are plenty of unearthly settings such as multi-floored demon towers and volcanic wastelands, but with the number of battles you’ll be forced to fight, you’ll have little time to question how the earth was reshaped so drastically in just a hundred years.
Right off the bat, you may assume Darksiders to play as yet another God of War knockoff, and you would be correct in that assumption….to an extent. The game does carry the same intense and brutal mechanics of Sony’s hit series, with attacks that can be chained together seamlessly through multiple weapons and abilities, and the ability to pull off violent finishing moves to weakened opponents. You also have the ability to upgrade your weapons as well as unlock additional combos by trading souls with a demonic shopkeeper. (Why do demons always use souls for currency?)
But what may surprise you is how much the game borrows from another well-known game series, namely The Legend of Zelda. Many aspects of Nintendo’s beloved franchise, particularly its 3D iterations, seem almost shamelessly inserted into Darksiders; War’s main task to clearing his name has him traveling to four dungeons located in four different corners of the main world, where he must make his way through a twisting maze of rooms and floors that often require a key or solved puzzle to proceed. Such puzzles include manipulating crates and other movable structures to reach higher areas, destroying breakable points of interest with bomb plants, and even opening treasure chests to obtain new weapons and power-ups. The borrowed aspects even carry over to the combat, as enemies can be individually targeted, their attacks can blocked and parried, and even a horse can be eventually summoned to traverse the field as well as take out enemies in rapid succession.
What keeps Darksiders from being a shameless plagiarizer, however, is how well these borrowed mechanics work. The combat is refreshing and fluid, the dungeons are lengthy but decently paced, and the hidden power-ups (such as shards that increase War’s maximum health or Wrath, the latter which works as MP for his deadlier attacks) in each area encourages repeat visits. In many ways, this is the high-def Zelda title that fans have dreamed of, but it’s Darksiders’ darker presentation and larger-scale events that elevate it above merely playing tribute to a classic series; the number of cool, ultraviolent moments that occur throughout the game are numerous, such as fending off against an army of heavily-armored angels with a massive particle cannon, or repeatedly slamming a railway track into a boss’s forehead, or outrunning a massive sandworm on your demonic horse, to name a few. The sheer amount of enemies and battles are high, but so is the number of toys War gets to play with.
The visuals compliment the visceral action, often resembling the Heavy Metal comics, and the Havok engine ensures that the destructible (and often useable) environment satisfies with its damaging effects. The only drawback to an otherwise pretty game is the occasional dip in framerate during the game’s overly intense moments (particularly the opening massacre of the human world), along with a couple of half-second pauses due to loading. This rarely detracts from the slick visuals, and it’s during cutscenes where the animation and character details really shine (thought it should be said that due to the sheer size of enemies and along with wide shots of the environment, War does often appear as a really buff dwarf rather than a hulking Horseman). What may end up more memorable is the game’s use of sound, which is incredibly explosive and is bound to upset a few neighbours for those with a decent Home Theatre setup.
Also, while Darksiders’ combat is every bit as fluid and natural as the games it drew inspiration from, the controls do have a bit of a learning curve to them. The reason for this is that while War has many abilities and powers to choose from, there simply aren’t enough buttons to use them all. Many of the more powerful combos and powers (including his Chaos form, a devastating but temporary transformation that can be used once the appropriate gauge is filled) require an unfamiliar combination of the shoulder buttons, while blocking and parrying enemy attacks may require some practice in order to nail down the timing; the latter is especially crucial, as several attacks from powerful foes can deal a great amount of damage to War’s health, which can be difficult to replenish without a nearby chest or equipped potion. A real-time inventory wheel can also be used to assign secondary weapons as well as consumable items, although once again, the limited number of buttons and combined commands could cause some momentary distraction during the more hectic battles.
While just an iota away from reaching true greatness, Darksiders is a true surprise among the oversaturated market of action adventure games. The game introduces familiar ground and mechanics for longtime fans, but the proper handling of these time-honored elements only heighten the entertainment factor. Let us only hope Joe Mad doesn’t take as long for the sequel as he did with issue #3 of Battle Chasers.