This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Darksiders.
Well, bugger my bumblebee's breadbin. The first few weeks of 2010 are going to be fun, aren't they? Darksiders, Bayonetta, Dante's Inferno, and God of War III: God of War ripoff, God of War ripoff, God of War ripoff, and God of War... well, God of War. God of War knows how I'm gonna keep all four of these reviews interesting, unless maybe I wore increasingly elaborate hats with each one. What is it with this time of year that's made game developers so angry at mythological creatures? Oh wait a minute, Christmas... Oh, I see! Did Santa bring you your pink slips this year, and now you're taking it out on all his mates?
Anyway, I got my hands on Darksiders first, and to begin what I feel will be a trend of overusing the phrase "like God of War, but...", Darksiders is like God of War, but concerning the Biblical Apocalypse. Not that they want to admit it; the story skirts coyly around depicting anything as offensive as God and Satan having a punch-up in a pub car park, instead referring obliquely to a "Creator" and a "Destroyer". The main character's one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and considering the gameplay style, it should be fairly obvious which one: Death would make things too easy, Famine's a little too gradual, and what the fuck's Pestilence gonna do, cough on people?
Anyway, something that strongly resembles the Apocalypse happens; War gets a bit overexcited and comes down to Earth to stomp on everyone, but wait, where are the other three Horsemen? Oh no! Turns out this isn't officially the Apocalypse; it's just some other unrelated conflict between angels and demons that results in total human extinction. Apparently, the right paperwork wasn't filed, so War's bosses get very cross at him, take away his powers, and send him back to act as some kind of cosmic repo man and kick all the angels and demons off the planet until they can fill the proper forms in! Presumably, "Darksiders" refers to the demons, but they never get referred to as that in the game, so it's a pretty weak title overall. If only there were a better name for a game about a supernatural embodiment of armed conflict... (Okay, I'm done with that.)
Besides the central concept, Darksiders doesn't actually rip that much off from God of War. In many ways, I wish it had - God of War had decent combat, for one thing. Here are the combos you will need to know to master Darksiders: The Chump Chop (square), The Double Chump Chop (square square) and The Whipped Cream Genocide Brouhaha (square square square). If you're an advanced student, remember to also hit the dodge button whenever a nearby enemy produces a megaphone and yells, "Hello, this is me telegraphing my attack! Are you ready? Here it comes now!"
There's only one attack button at first - you get another one when you get your first secondary weapon, but there are no combos that use both buttons. All you can do is wail on the enemies like you're mining for silver in their nasal cavities, and it gets really boring really fast. The first boss fight is the hardest in the game, but by the end, you've got six more life bars (and hopefully you've bought the dashing stab attack that is to the entire combat system what Yoko Ono was to The Beatles), so the final boss is piss easy. Who mapped this curve out, Jackson Pollock?
But to be fair, there's also a fairly strong emphasis on puzzles. Just because War is the personification of violence doesn't mean that violence is all he's about... Oh wait, yes it does! You may have heard in the grown-up reviews that this aspect of Darksiders borrows rather heavily from that one Zelda game Nintendo have been constantly remaking since 1987. I don't think that's the case though; I think saying Darksiders "borrows heavily" implies they did some actual work of their own. A better phrase would be, "completely rips off with about as much shame and emotion as the fucking Borg collective". I appreciate that taking elements from a good game that worked well and playing around with them in new scenarios isn't a bad way to design games, but when you have a boomerang that can hit multiple targets, a grappling hook that pulls you on to climbable walls, and a puzzle dungeon themed around reflecting a beam of light with movable mirrors, we've moved from simple "homage" to the territory of respraying a stolen car and reselling it to the owner. Thankfully, the last dungeon introduces one gadget that has never been in a Zelda game: a gun that opens blue and orange portals. Outstanding. Maybe Darksiders can't help it, like it's got kleptomania or something; in that case, I don't know whether to make fun of it, or have it sectioned.
For a game that has you collect souls all the time - that's blue souls, not red souls; this is not God of War, this is completely different! - Darksiders doesn't really have a soul of its own. It seems like what you'd get if some pale man in a business suit threw a pile of random popular games from the last five years at a development team and ordered them to Frankenstein them together into something that's guaranteed to sell. All these macho and smiling warriors chopping the legs off giant spiders with swords the size of aircraft carriers - this is a 14-year-old's idea of masculinity. War has absolutely no personality; he's a great big brick that gets in fights, going about things with an air of cold, angsty dispassion. He doesn't seem to give a toss about anything he does, so why should I? And what right does War have to be angsty about his life? He's fucking War! He's never had to queue up at the job center or pine after ex-girlfriends who left him for a surfer; he just breaks things! If I were War, and I'd just hoisted a seven-foot demon into the air and chopped him in half with a single swing, I wouldn't stand there scowling, I'd go, "Fucking hell! Did anyone see that? I am squirting machismo out of my nipples over here! I am a monster truck that walks like a man!"
But what butters my crampons the most is the character design. The main character looks like someone sat down, started drawing him and then never fucking stopped. You know when you play World of Warcraft, you pick up a pair of boots here and some shoulder armour there, constantly switching out every piece for more effective ones until by the end of it, your outfit's so mismatched, you look like you've put on a magnetic leotard and fell into a saucepan cupboard? Well, that's the look War has going on. Who the fuck thinks this looks cool (besides the gelatinous creatures that like Warhammer 40K)? A plain black shirt looks cool. A blazer and tie looks cool. What War looks like is a fucking coral reef on legs. In games, when characters can often be quite distant and in constant motion, the designs need to be simple enough that the player can tell what they are and what they're about at a glance, but everyone in Darksiders just look like they're wearing ghillie suits made of dinnerware. Exercise art direction with a bit of fucking aesthetic sense, for the love of God! ...of War.
Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw: ROAAARRRGH AAARGH RRRRRURGH KILL
Fair Use Notice: Kratos from God of War only wears a skirt and a big tattoo and he's still better dressed than War
FullyRamblomatic.com: Resistance is futile