Just as comics struggled to break into the film industry before eventually exploding in popularity, so have they done with games. The days when developers could just stick favorite costumed fighters into a forgettable brawler are long gone. They gave way to a new trend of developers placing beloved characters in open-world games that rarely ranged above mediocrity.
Game developers are now realizing the need to approach comics-based games in unique and inventive ways that reflect the strengths of their properties, talent, and respective mediums. The mechanics in Batman: Arkham Asylum were tailored to the character; investigation, stealth, gadgets, using fear as a weapon to dispatch opponents one-by-one. Similarly, the upcoming Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions plays to the superhero comic trope of the multiverse, casting the player as multiple versions of everyone’s favorite web-slinger. Last year’s InFamous, in addition to having a title that’s annoying to type, was an original comic-style game.
At a reductive level, InFamous was just an open-world shooter. It was good, but its comic inspiration wouldn’t have been so strongly felt without its comic-book styled custscenes. As an original IP, Darksiders is much in this same vein. However, Darksiders does a much more effective job of evoking its comic inspirations.
Darksiders begins with the Horseman War–one of the biblical Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse–being summoned to Earth for the end of days. When he gets there, he finds Heaven and Hell engaged in their final war, with humanity caught in the middle. There are only two problems: his fellow Horsemen weren’t summoned and Armageddon has come a few thousand years ahead of schedule. War is initially blamed for the snafu, and after 100 years of imprisonment, is sent back to Earth to find and punish those responsible for the catastrophe.
On a technical level, comics are a form of art that use sequential images to tell a narrative. The goal of the comic artist and/or writer (depending on the team’s method) is to make and frame each image to effectively tell a visual narrative. Basically, a good artist should be able to make art that can stand on its own, able to tell at least the gist of a story without any dialogue or captions. This is where the effort from comic artist Joe Madureira, creative director of Darksiders and co-founder of developer Vigil Games, is most strongly felt. Every frame of a custscene looks like it could be a frame in a comic; I could mute the TV and still perfectly understand what’s happening, based solely on the framing and art.
The art itself is also vivid and expressive. Finally, a game in a post-apocalyptic setting that’s bright and colorful! The ruined city features some genuinely beautiful landscapes. In Anvil’s Ford, the urban ruins have been reclaimed by vibrant, green vegetation; the Iron Canopy is grey, but in a way that’s chilling and still, exploiting my anxiety instead of just being boring; the Ashlands are a wide expanse of craggy desert, formed by the ashen remains of humanity instead of boring old sand. The environments in Darksiders never lack originality or their own form of beauty.
Truthfully, in addition to just looking nice, Darksiders uses its pretty art to tell a good visual narrative, much to the benefit of its overall level design. The aforementioned Iron Canopy is a prime example, where I was especially struck by the use of a public bus, suspended between two platforms by the webbing of demon spiders, as a type of bridge. It was a visually striking image that told its own story (possibly suspended so the demon spiders could more easily capture those trapped inside) and served a utilitarian function within the level that also felt very organic.
So, why am I talking so much about Darksiders’ visual presentation and not its actual game mechanics? The answer is because Darksiders doesn’t do anything you haven’t seen before. If anything, Darksiders strives specifically to do things you have seen before. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily; rather than innovate, Darksiders borrows, spins and refines. In short: Darksiders is the best Zelda game I’ve played in a while.
Most immediately striking in that regard is the level design. Like modern Zelda games, it falls in that area between open-world and linearity. There’s freedom of movement and areas to explore, but you’re exploring niches in a relatively constrained environment, rather than exploring wide-open spaces. The world is divided into distinct areas and dungeons that you progress though linearly, with the exception of backtracking.
In that regard, even your progression as a character is in the Zelda tradition. Each dungeon gives you a new item, which is used strongly within the dungeon (especially during boss fights), and again in previous areas to reach formerly inaccessible treasure. That treasure consists mostly of Life Stones and Wrath Cores; collect 4 of each to upgrade your health and “wrath” (magic power, mana, choose your favorite synonym for “energy”) bars.
The equipment itself includes such mainstays as the War Glaive (boomerang) and Abyssal Chain (hookshot). You even have your own guide to chime in and tell what to do and where to go, though War’s relationship with ‘The Watcher’ is a far more antagonistic one than Link had with Navi (though it’s probably just as antagonist as the relationship most players had with Navi).
Darksiders’ “homages” don’t end there; on his journey, War will collect multi-colored orbs to replenish health, wrath, and act as currency; buy new items and skills from a shady, sinister-sounding merchant whose domains are marked with a distinct eerie blue light; he’ll even acquire a portal gun. Yes, that’s right: a portal gun.
Knowing these facts beforehand, it would be easy to come to Darksiders with a cynical attitude. To do so would be just that: cynical, and unnecessarily so at that, as Darksiders is anything but. Playing the game, it becomes clear that none of these mechanics have simply been cribbed due to laziness or a lack of originality.
If anything, Darksiders is a love-letter to videogames. Every idea and mechanic that it emulates, it does well and with great care. The developers’ passion for the medium comes through in the sheer fun of playing the game. Its combat and puzzles are right up there with the best in the biz, so much so that it’s one of few games I’ve played in a long time that kept me up nights, unable or unwilling to put down the controller.
Darksiders isn’t perfect. Like some of its inspirations, Darksiders isn’t so strong with the platforming. I had many moments of frustration because I felt very confident that War shouldn’t have missed a jump, jumped too late, or should have grabbed a ledge. In fact, there were times where I swear War didn’t jump at all, and just ran straight into a pit of death. Fortunately, falling to your death in Darksiders only results in a small health penalty and places you back at the jump you missed, so it was never a terribly big deal. I also had some issues with the camera. Specifically, it’s fixed too close to War. Too often I couldn’t really see what was happening in a fight, resulting in too many hits from off-camera. But I’ll say it again: Darksiders is the best Zelda game I’ve played in a while. Joe Mad’s visual style is stunning and unique and the game itself is just downright fun. Darksiders shouldn’t be missed.