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Darksiders: Warmastered Edition

Score: 80%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: THQ Nordic
Developer: Vigil Games
Media: Download/1
Players: 1
Genre: Action/ Adventure

Graphics & Sound:

I could write a wall of text bemoaning the fact that we donít yet have Darksiders III and Darksiders IV, but the business of game development is a messy one. There may be hope; one gets the sense that THQ Nordic and Vigil Games are testing the waters for the future of the franchise; last yearís Darksiders II: Deathinitive Edition was a shined-up rerelease of an excellent game that aged remarkably, and its slightly less-ambitious older brother has now received the same treatment. While it doesnít fix the original releaseís problems, Darksiders: Warmastered Edition is a fine update of a great action adventure, and itís absolutely worth revisiting.

Artistic cohesion is one of the most important parts of a gameís visual design; it can be bulging from every square inch of its being with raw technical power and still fail on that front. This is a problem that the Darksiders franchise has never, ever had. Thatís largely to the credit of comic book artist Joe Madureira, whose involvement was rightly touted since day one. The series has a look thatís all its own, and it still holds up very well to this date.

Of all the visual elements in Darksiders, character models are, by far, the most impressive. War is a hulking mass of color and shadow, and though we donít really see much of his face, we get the right impression from his glowing eyes, twin stray strands of ivory white hair, and the unexplained glyph on his forehead. Monsters are cartoonish enough to look surreal, but never enough to lose their intimidating edge.

Environments are rather drab in comparison to those of Darksiders II, but given the apocalypse/post-apocalypse Earth setting, itís not really an issue. Itís a subtly haunting suggestion of what a century free of human presence and rife with demonkind might look like. Bone structures, strange growths, and general dilapidation are the rule rather than the exception, but later in the game, the environments get more interesting.

Fire and brimstone. Thatís Darksiders: Warmastered Editionís sound design in its most basic essence. Cris Velasco, Mike Reagan, and Scott Mortonís soundtrack explodes with choral fury, blatting brass, and shrieking strings. What else could possibly befit a game that depicts the end of the world and beyond? Voice acting is deliciously over-the-top, but safe. Liam OíBrien has mastered the art of the sardonic almost-but-not-quite English accent, and his deliberate, paced delivery lends War an incredible sense of gravity. The Watcher, Warís unwanted traveling companion, is voiced by Mark Hamill in a performance that may have players thinking the manís a one trick pony when it comes to his career as a voice artist. But itís a damned fine trick, and it works for this role. The voice cast is well-rounded; the always-excellent Phil LaMarr gets nice and evil for the exiled demon merchant Vulgrim, and Moon Bloodgood delivers a fiery portrayal of the vengeful Archangel Uriel. The rest of the sound design is competent, getting the job done with no particular high or low points.


Gameplay:

Darksiders is the Book of Revelation as told by a twelve-year-old boy whoís riding the biggest sugar high of his life. Amidst an endless war between the Kingdoms of Heaven and Hell, the Kingdom of Man lies at the center; the whole of creation is held in balance by an ancient triumvirate/entity known as the Charred Council. The means of enforcement? The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: War, Death, Strife, and Fury. Eons ago, a truce was called between the Kingdoms, leading to the creation of the Seven Seals. The agreement? When the Kingdom of Man is ready to join the fold, the Seven Seals will be broken, the Horsemen will be summoned, and the Endwar will begin.

Through a series of mysterious, treacherous circumstances, War is summoned to Earth, where the Endwar appears to have already begun. But somethingís off. While angels and demons are slaughtering each other in the streets, humans are simply getting killed en masse. So clearly they arenít ready. But whatís more troubling is the fact that of the Four Horsemen, War is the only one who has shown up. It soon becomes clear that the Seventh Seal was not actually broken, but by then, itís much too late. The leader of Heavenís army ends up dead. War ends up being stripped of his powers and nearly killed himself. The Charred Council accuses him of not only jumping the gun with the apocalypse, but also of actively assisting the Kingdom of Hell. But through a bit of bargaining, War is sent back to Earth to find the ones responsible and ultimately prove his innocence.

Darksiders may not have an original bone in its body, but the skeleton it has is sturdy and for the most part, well-structured. At its core, itís an action adventure that is largely content to ape The Legend of Zelda. If imitation is often considered the sincerest form of flattery, you can consider Darksiders a love letter written to disparate franchises that extend from Nintendoís flagship adventure series to the likes of God of War and Metroid. This interdisciplinary collage approach usually works to Darksidersí credit, but at times, it actively hamstrings the experience. When it works, it really works. But when it doesnít, it really doesnít.

If thereís one thing that Darksiders nails, itís its marriage of tried-and-true gameplay philosophies with a very specific series of design structures. Consider the world: itís open but guided. It lacks the freedom of most modern role-playing games, but this allows the developers to take a more intensive approach to exploration. A central hub connects with a series of distinct environments, each of which leads to a dungeon. From there, you work your way through the available rooms, slaughtering the monsters that dwell within and solving some environmental puzzles. Eventually, youíll discover a new weapon or special piece of equipment that factors heavily into solving later rooms. And ultimately, youíll square off against a boss monster, using the "item of the dungeon" to bring it down.


Difficulty:

Darksiders: Warmastered Edition offers a unique series of challenges designed to tickle one part of your brain at a time. It features a handful of spikes across the spectrum, but they have the benefit of smart level design that builds up to these moments. A few moments are a bit much, but they wonít have you seething for long, provided your powers of observation are good enough. As mentioned earlier, the game doesnít always employ the usual tricks to guide you towards puzzle solutions or the way out of a particular area. This can be overwhelming, especially in large areas. However, the mini-map is usually all youíll need to figure it out.

Combat is all thatís affected by the variable difficulty level, and thatís the right choice for a game like Darksiders. While it would have been interesting to see something along the lines of Ocarina of Time Master Quest, that would be asking far too much. As it stands, combat is generally not a particularly punishing affair; encounters are smartly designed and place emphasis on crowd control. The lock-on mechanic can get a bit finicky at times, and it occasionally conspires with the camera to frustrate you, but it never becomes too much.


Game Mechanics:

Risk abounds in games that attempt to pad out their repertoires with as much "stuff" as possible, and Darksiders is such a game. The diversity in its gameplay systems is commendable from an idealistic standpoint, but when it comes down to execution, they are not at all equal.

Exploration and puzzle-solving mechanics are invariably excellent Ė they are easily the strongest elements of the game. Naturally, this is inextricably tied with Vigilís level design, which is near-uniformly stellar. As is the case with much of the rest of the game, thereís little invention outside of the setting and visuals, but thereís comfort in its adhesion to a formula that has always worked well. It doesnít always do a good job of communicating the way forward, but if you ever get stuck, you wonít remain stuck for long.

Combat comes in close second. With the selection of mythological weaponry at Warís disposal, bringing the Charred Councilís justice to the forces of Hell is a bloody, savage delight. However, itís a rather shallow system that lacks the precision and grace of the most notable character action games that came before it. Most fights boil down to staying out of the way of enemy attacks and dashing in to unleash a button-mashing combo or two before reverting back to evasive or defensive maneuvers. And once youíve whittled down their health to a sufficient degree, a (B) icon appears, and War can execute a finisher thatís blessedly free of quick time events. Slaying enemies and finding special chests rewards you with Souls, which come in three different forms: health, wrath, and currency. Health speaks for itself, wrath is just another word for "magic," and currency can be traded for consumables and upgrades, by way of Vulgrim, who also facilitates the gameís fast-travel system.

Itís when Darksiders takes its eye off the ball that it starts to get into trouble. Watercooler moments are usually a respite, a way of freshening up the proceedings when a certain gameplay pattern starts to wear out its welcome. Most of Darksidersís diversionary moments are weak. An early flying sequence is supposed to evoke Panzer Dragoon, but itís unsatisfying and unreasonably lengthy. A later sequence has War wielding a giant explosive cannon as he butchers his way through a cavern filled with demons. It would work well if Warís pace wasnít reduced to that of a snail. There are other such moments peppered throughout the game, but they are disappointing on average and mediocre at best.

In the end, Darksiders: Warmastered Edition is a worthwhile rerelease. It might not completely stack up against Darksiders II, but thereís a fantastic undercurrent of consistency that holds them together as a whole. Given the obvious lessons learned between the two, itís almost intoxicating to imagine where the series could go next. Hereís hoping that it actually has a future.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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