Note: unlike most of the stuff I review I haven’t finished Darksiders yet. The reasons for this should become apparent if you read just a little bit further, but in the meantime I estimate I’m about two-thirds of the way through the game and that it is unlikely to suddenly change in terms of quality or content during the last five hours.
The word that springs to mind when I think of Darksiders is solid. It’s a very solid game. A very reliable game. It provides adequately-sized bursts of fun at regular intervals. It features puzzles that are hardly brain-twisters but which took long enough to figure out that they went beyond being simple speedbumps to my progress thrown in for the sake of it. It’s wise enough to keep shaking up the gameplay, constantly introducing a new item or a new mechanic or even a brief one-off foray into a completely different genre so that it never got too repetitive. It’s well-designed, reasonably well-paced and very well-made. It knows what it is doing and it does it very competently. The one thing I don’t think I could ever say when describing Darksiders is that it is a bad game, as such.
So why do I feel so underwhelmed?
The thing about Darksiders is that if you bled out every hint of colour and character from the game, if you just rendered it in a basic wireframe mode that showcased the game’s mechanics and nothing else, it would be very, very hard to distinguish between it and one of Retro Studios’ Metroid Prime games. The Metroid Prime games were absolutely amazing. Darksiders could have done a hell of a lot worse than trying to fuse slashy Devil May Cry-esque combat to the Metroid/Zelda school of item progression opening up both new levels and new areas of levels you’d already visited, and it carries it off reasonably well. However, emulating the mechanics of a successful and popular series of games inevitably invites direct comparisons to it — as I’ve already done here — and in this particular matchup Darksiders comes off worse in just about every category I can think of bar the combat. Again, Darksiders isn’t bad. It’s actually quite good. It would have had to work quite hard to avoid being so. The problem is while Darksiders’ choice (or outright thievery) of gameplay mechanics has given it a strong, healthy heart, in terms of aesthetics and tone the game looks and feels like complete ass.
This is what’s bugging me about Darksiders, I think; that I can’t even begin to parse it in anything approaching an objective manner because I hate the presentational style of the game so much. It’s a hatred that’s deeply personal (albeit well-justified, I think) and one man’s dreary post-apocalyptic wasteland may be another’s utopian paradise, so your mileage may definitely vary when playing Darksiders. Maybe you really, really like the art of Todd McFarlane. Maybe you think he’s the renaissance man of modern comics. If so you’ll love Darksiders because whoever was behind the art design was trying to be Todd McFarlane so hard, and if that’s the case you should run – not walk – to your nearest digital distribution outlet and fork over as many pounds/dollars/rai as they’re asking for it. I guess there must be someone out there who likes this stuff, otherwise videogame developers wouldn’t keep doing it.
To me, though, Darksiders looks exactly like the cliché horseshit mentioned in the PA comic. Exactly how you make a game about warring angels and demons and the Four Horsemen of the Fucking Apocalypse look so goddamn boring is beyond me, but there you go. I picked up Darksiders during the Steam sale for pennies. I’d literally never heard of it before it cropped up in the Flash Sale sidebar1 but the testimonials of people who had played it were encouraging enough for me to take a punt. Reading the blurb I thought the concept sounded a little bit trite; however, that’s because there’s no-one out there willing to take a creative risk and do it properly. I was hoping for fantastical otherworldly battlefields in both Heaven and Hell and beyond. I was hoping that the art director would use the premise of the game to let his imagination off the leash, quite forgetting that the people who make this sort of game are a rarity in an industry that seems to be increasingly creatively bankrupt in terms of novel visual design.
So when I downloaded Darksider’s phat gigabytes to my hard drive and booted up the game, I instead found myself running around inside a giant grey box. I don’t know what it is about modern game development that makes people default to giant grey boxes. I mean, I know it’s easy, but it can’t be much fun for the art and animation team to code, surely? Once you’ve modelled and placed the two-thousandth collapsed skyscraper you’re probably just about ready to leap from the top of one yourself. Regardless, Darksiders is mostly grey ruined cities, grey gothic cathedrals (there seem to be rather a lot of these in the post-apocalyptic US for some reason) and bleak grey deserts. To give the art team some credit they have managed to sneak in a few hints of colour here and there – I did like some of the underwater locations – so it’s hardly the worst offender where this is concerned (public enemy number one here being Space Marine), but it still serves to completely sabotage the game’s core concept of Metroidvania gameplay.
You see, Metroid is all about exploring. Metroid is all about using your latest item to enter a new level, or gain access to a secret part of one of the old one. This is a fine idea to base a game around, but it does require the game to bait the hook with interesting and varied environment design. The approach of Metroid and Zelda is somewhat formulaic – you’ve got the desert level, the ice level, the water level, the lava level etc. – but it is undeniably effective. One of my enduring memories of Metroid Prime is exploring the Phendrana Drifts, an experience which was considerably more effective for coming just after the desert level and which actually ended up defining the series for me. I think of Metroid now and it’s not the combat or the bouncy ball puzzles or the zillion fights against Ridley which come to mind; rather, it’s the simple act of slogging my way through the snowdrifts and ruins of Phendrana. Done right, the exploration mechanic of Metroid and Metroid-alikes can be incredibly powerful. Do it wrong, and what you end up with is Darksiders.
Thanks to the awful visuals it simply doesn’t matter to me that Darksiders pulls everything else off fairly competently. It would have been fairly hard to cock it up given how much of it is stolen wholesale from Metroid – even the energy tank mechanic makes it through intact – but the thing is that they could have refined it all into a transcendent, almost religious experience and I just wouldn’t have cared because I’d have known that after finishing this puzzle to get out of one boring grey box the game would just dump me into another boring grey box. There’s no joy of discovery, no sense of excitement as I smashed away the obstacles that were blocking my path to the next level. The simple absence of that one crucial part of the Metroid formula forms an embolism that goes straight to that strong, healthy heart I mentioned earlier, and which ends up killing Darksiders stone cold dead.
Darksiders is a game built around item progression, but it makes the awful, awful mistake of thinking that that item progression on its own is enough. That the item progression can exist just for its own sake. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reason this kind of item progression is so compelling – for me, anyway – is that it drives exploration, and that that in turn drives the item progression. They’re the two main elements of Metroid that feed off of one another and turn it into far more than the simple sum of its parts. If you kick away one of these key structural supports then it doesn’t matter how good the other is; the whole thing is going to come crashing down no matter what you do. Darksiders’ wrecked city motif may have been bizarrely appropriate in a rather meta sort of way, but as far as the actual gameplay is concerned it’s a disaster on par with the one that destroyed human civilization in the first place. The rest of the game’s foundations are solid, yet that one missing element means the whole thing is an unbalanced construct that might look fairly attractive but which is likely to collapse on top of your head the moment you go in through the front door. I can’t recommend it.
1. To steal one of Pratchett’s phrases, my knowledge of videogames is microscopically detailed within the boundaries of the PC or things released before about 2004, and merely microscopic beyond that.