Friday, April 21, 2017

Darksiders: Derivative, Redundant, Uninspired

Darksiders (2010) is essentially the love-child of The Legend of Zelda and Devil May Cry. Picture, if you will, a Zelda game in the vein of Ocarina of Time or Twilight Princess, set in modern times after a war between Heaven and Hell has wiped humanity off the face of the earth and left its landscape a ruined mess, in which you play as War -- one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse -- trying to clear his name after he's framed for prematurely bringing about the apocalypse, by going into Zelda-style dungeons to solve puzzles and unlock special items that will help you defeat the boss and unlock new areas of the world map, while fighting enemies using a combination of a giant sword, scythe, and pistol to build combo-chains Devil May Cry-style. That's Darksiders in a nutshell; it's a carbon copy so similar to those two games that a cynical person might say it straight up plagiarizes them, while others might say that it is more of an homage in the style of those two games.

I certainly qualify as a hardcore cynic, but I generally enjoy Zelda games and there aren't enough 3D Zelda-clones out there to scratch the Zelda itch while waiting years on end for a new Zelda game to come out (on a brand new console that you can't afford until the price drops several more years later). I was looking forward to playing Darksiders, hoping that it would offer that same Zelda feel but with a more mature theme full of grimdark imagery and bloody violence. Darksiders succeeds on both fronts, but at the same time it feels a little too rote and mechanical, as if the developer, Vigil Games, was so focused on reproducing the Zelda and Devil May Cry formulae that they forgot to put any of their own creativity into the game, thus leaving us with a perfectly functional and decently enjoyable game that's ultimately too derivative, redundant, and uninspired for its own good.

Let's get the Zelda comparisons out of the way first: virtually everything in this game (except for the combat and leveling system) is lifted directly from Zelda. It has the same type of world structure and progression, where you get a semi-open world to explore that expands as you gain key items from dungeons that not only are used to defeat the dungeon boss, but also unlock new areas of the world map. The dungeons themselves require you to solve environmental puzzles, usually involving the new item you just gained (with the usual pushing blocks and flipping switches), and you can find treasure chests that grant you a map of the dungeon's layout, a compass showing the location of all items in the dungeon, and keys to open locked doors. The world map has a lot of hidden areas to explore, encouraging you to go back to previous areas with new items to gain extra powerups.

Using the boomerang Crossblade to hit a switch above a door.

Other Zelda staples that appear in Darksiders (in some form or another): bombflowers, using bombs to blow up obstacles, the deku leaf, catching a draft with the deku leaf to fly higher, lighting torches on fire, the power glove, the hammer, climbing up or down vines, a horse that uses carrots to run faster, using a horse to cross a huge chasm, the Dark Link fight, the hookshot, the grappling hook, a Navi-esque companion, the Lens of Truth, the bow and arrow, the boomerang, heart piece containers, getting a full heart container for beating a boss, a blue teleport thingy after beating a boss, a magic meter, magic meter upgrades, using a musical instrument to open doors, earning money for breaking things in the environment, deku bulbs that launch you into the air, bosses with glowing weakpoints, bosses that always follow a scripted pattern, the master sword, collecting fragments to restore a mystical object, using consumable items from glass containers, going into a shadow realm to find and defeat a certain number of things to free important NPCs, plus probably many more that I'm forgetting or didn't notice.

Some of these comparisons are a bit of a stretch (the pistol is obviously not a direct copy of the bow and arrow, but it serves the same function) while others are somewhat incidental (like the blue teleport thingy that only shows up once, I think), but the point is to show that Vigil Games was deliberately trying to make Darksiders as close to Zelda as possible -- the only thing it's really missing is a princess that needs to be rescued. That's not necessarily a bad thing, however -- if you're going to directly copy another game, then you may as well copy one of the greatest game franchises in existence. The problem is that Darksiders brings absolutely nothing new to the table, since its only twists on the classic Zelda formula are things taken from yet other games -- Devil May Cry (or God of War if you prefer) and Portal.

The combat system is basically Devil May Cry, where you're using a variety of weapons and attacks to build a combo chain, swapping weapons mid-combo and ultimately trying to look as cool as possible while doing so. Left-clicking attacks with the Chaoseater (a giant sword), while right-clicking attacks with either the Scythe (a scythe) or the Tremor Gauntlet (a power glove fist); you can quickly and easily swap between the Scythe and Gauntlet by pressing the tab key. Additionally, you can equip various weapons to your three item slots, pressing numbered hotkeys to switch between the Crossblade (a giant bladed boomerang), the Earthcaller (a horn that causes AOE stun and knockback on enemies), the Mercy pistol (a rapid-fire pistol), and the Abyssal Chain (a hookshot that pulls you towards enemies, or pulls their armor off), and pressing the R key to use your toggled secondary weapon. You can also press the shift key to block, counter-attack, and dodge.

Using Din's Fire Death Rage in the Twilight Cathedral.

Each of the primary weapons has its own unique moveset, and you can spend souls earned from defeated enemies (Demon's Souls, anyone?) to buy new attacks and to upgrade existing ones. You can also buy special "wrath abilities" that function like magic attacks, consuming wrath from your wrath meter as you use them. Blade Geyser shoots spikes out of the ground all around you; Stone Skin buffs your armor and attack values; Immolation lights the area around you on fire so that enemies who get close enough also catch fire; and Affliction poisons a single target for damage over time. You start with only the Chaoseater sword and a few basic attacks at your disposal; the rest is progressively unlocked as you play the game.

The combat is functional, and it can even be fairly satisfying at times, but it serves as a good example of the superfluous, redundant, incohesive design problems of the whole game, where the designers just threw everything they could into the game without considering how it would integrate with everything else, and whether it actually needed to be there at all. The combo multiplier builds as you string consecutive hits together, but it seems to do absolutely nothing. The scythe is meant for wide-sweeping, crowd-control AOE attacks, but the sword handles that role perfectly fine (maybe even better) with the Whirl Wind combo. The scythe has two 360-degree attacks, but one of them is faster and also attacks vertically with a tornado, rendering the other obsolete.

The sword has two attacks that launch enemies straight up into the air, optionally taking you with them if you hold the button down for mid-air combos, but one launches the enemy higher and hits more times, rendering the other obsolete. Blade Geyser is meant to hit enemies in AOE around you, but you can do that exact same thing with the scythe or gauntlet without having to spend wrath from your limited supply. Stone Skin and Immolation can't be used simultaneously, and they both have the effect of causing more damage to enemies, but Stone Skin also boosts your defense, rendering Immolation obsolete. You unlock the Tremor Gauntlet well after you've already started upgrading the sword and scythe, which makes it immediately a much less appealing option.

Using Nayru's Love Stone Skin in the Iron Canopy.

The whole game suffers from feature creep, bombarding you with so many options that you don't need or even want to use. Just in combat, you've got three main weapons in the sword, scythe, and gauntlet (each with a crap-ton of moves, many of which are redundant), three secondary weapons/items in the earthcaller, crossblade, and pistol (five if you count the abyssal chain and voidwalker, which are used extensively in their respective dungeons), four "magic" abilities (half of which are redundant), plus the chaos form which you can activate once your chaos meter hits max, mounted combat once you unlock the horse, and a few temporary items like the fracture cannon and redemption rifle. Smaller enemies can be grabbed and thrown into other enemies, and you can even pick up things in the environment like cars or street lights to throw or bash at enemies. It's good to have options for the sake of variety, but only when those options are actually worth doing; in Darksiders, most of your options just give you more ways to do the exact same thing you're already doing and/or are simply less effective than other options.

There's simply no reason to mix up your techniques, except against bosses, which aren't really combat scenarios as much as they are action puzzles. In Devil May Cry, you're graded based on how many attacks you're able to string together, how varied your attacks are, and the degree of difficulty for the attacks you use; if you spam simple, repetitive attacks on enemies, your score will be much lower, which will get you fewer red orbs, which are what you spend to upgrade your stats, buy new weapons, and learn new attacks, so it's in your best interest to mix up your attacks and to try to pull off more complicated attack combos. As already mentioned, the combo multiplier in Darksiders doesn't do anything at all (or if it does, it's trivially inconsequential) -- enemies drop the same amount of souls no matter how they die, and you aren't graded for your performance in the various dungeons (like in Devil May Cry), so once you find an effective technique there's no reason to branch out; anything else you do is purely aesthetic, because the combat system is entirely superficial with zero mechanical depth to it.

This principle even applies to exploration, where a lot of your "tools" for reaching otherwise inaccessible areas really aren't that mechanically distinct from one another. Using the gauntlet to break blue crystals is mechanically no different than hitting it with your sword or scythe, except you now have the correct "key" for the "lock," and breaking the red crystals is essentially the same except its "lock" will only accept bombs as the "key." Whether you're crossing a chasm by using the shadowflight wings to glide from draft to draft or using the abyssal chain to swing from grapple point to grapple point, you're really just holding a button down and moving forward towards the next target -- it just looks different. Whether you're using the crossblade to activate a set of switches, or throwing a bombflower onto a red crystal, or using the voidwalker to create a set of portals (Portal-style), you're really just aiming at two different hotspots in the environment and clicking to "connect" them with the right key item equipped, then walking forward into the newly-opened doorway.

Using the Aperture Science Portal Gun Voidwalker to make portals.

Maybe that's oversimplifying things, but it really feels like all these different items were designed to serve the same function, in terms of exploration, but that some situations arbitrarily require one item instead of another. There's usually no logical, immersive reason for it ("why in the world are there Portal pads here, of all places?"), and the gameplay involved is basically the same in every situation, except you have to constantly dig through your inventory and juggle your equipped "keys" every time you come across a locked "door." From a design standpoint, the decision-making process of what to use where is simply "make it require something the player doesn't have yet" while consulting a chart to make sure they're using everything evenly. I normally like it when games do that, because it's usually pretty rewarding to backtrack through previous areas to unlock something you couldn't access before, but it feels, in this case, like it was designed to artificially inflate playtime, especially considering how spread-out the world actually is, and how generic most of the transition areas are.

The world is broken into about 10-12 primary areas, each with its own distinct, memorable theme and level design. You've got the Choking Grounds, a circular graveyard with the gazebo in the center; the Ashlands, a huge sandy wasteland with natural rock formations; the Anvil's Ford, a forested area with cliffs and rivers; the Iron Canopy, a modern cityscape that's been overrun by giant spiders; and so on. These areas are all fun and interesting, but they're separated by a bunch of long, linear transition areas that have no relation to the two areas they're connecting; a lot of them are just a bunch of generic grey tunnels that you could easily swap around and it would have no effect on the level design. Most aren't marked on the map, and few of them have any kind of memorable feature to help remember which one is where. It doesn't help that the warping system means you only ever have to go through an area once, until you decide to go back for optional unlocks, meaning you have even fewer opportunities to become familiar with these areas.

Talking to Navi Luke Skywalker The Joker The Watcher. 

Towards the end of the game, when you've finally gotten the abyssal chain and the voidwalker Portal gun, it's really hard to remember where all the grapple points and portal pads are that you've spent the last 16-20 hours passing by because there are so many of them and a lot are tucked away in those generic, forgettable transition areas. I could vividly picture specific grapple points and portal pads in my mind ("it was at the end of a long, rectangular, grey hallway, the pad was on the ceiling, and you had to shoot over a wall that didn't quite go all the way up") but I could not, for the life of me, remember how to get to them. In the end, I basically just had to re-explore the entire game world inch-by-inch, top-to-bottom to find all these places again, after I'd already spent a bunch of time previously backtracking through areas each time I unlocked a new item like the crossblade or the gauntlet.

The unlocks aren't even that rewarding, and they're especially not very exciting. In each case, it's just a small barrier that leads to an immediate treasure chest, which can be really anti-climactic after all the hours of anticipation. Most of the things you unlock are lifestone shards and wrath shards, each of which needs four to give you a new bar of health or a new bar of wrath, meaning each one you find only gives you a small amount of progress towards eventually getting something rewarding. It's even worse with the Abyssal Armor pieces, of which you need 10 to unlock the new armor set. Sometimes you find consumable items meant to fill your glass containers; these are completely worthless, equivalent to Zelda's "here's a measly five rupees" chests. The Mask of Shadows, which you unlock at the very end of the game, is the most disappointing thing of all, since all it does is let you see things in the environment that were obviously there before, but that you just couldn't interact with without the mask. That doesn't bring anything new to the gameplay, and is no different than if they'd just spawned all these things for the very first time at the end of the game without giving you a fancy "powerup" to access them.

Using the Lens of Truth Mask of Shadows to see the anvil and shard.

The game's pacing is all over the place, too. Zelda games usually have a pretty good rhythm of giving you a new area to explore, where you get to talk to NPCs, solve problems (ie, quests), and find hidden treasure before going into the area's dungeon; you typically always know what you're getting yourself into and the different stages and gameplay elements flow seamlessly into one another. Darksiders, in contrast, is pretty jarring, often plucking you out of regular gameplay to drop you into bizarre one-off scenarios. At one point you're running along a dilapidated highway and then you watch a cutscene and suddenly, for some reason, you're riding a griffon in a StarFox kind of gameplay sequence (or perhaps more accurately, a Panzer Dragoon Saga sequence), with no idea what's actually going on. That type of gameplay sequence never pops up again.

Another stage randomly turns the game into a third-person shooter, which randomly gets reprised later, for some reason, with a different type of weapon. Early on you're given a horn that you use to open gates, and then for some reason the gatekeepers make you go into random "challenge arenas" where you have to complete some arbitrary challenge like "perform five aerial kills" or "perform 20 grab/stun finishers" within a time limit. Meanwhile, certain abilities (like the counter-attack) are bestowed to you randomly, for no reason, and you sometimes stumble into dungeons or their final bosses as if by accident, with no real setup to set your expectations. It creates this really weird, disjointed pace where it feels like Things Are Just Happening and you're just kind of along for the ride, not really in control.

The real satisfaction of Darksiders comes from its dungeons, which despite being a carbon copy clone of Zelda prove to be just as fun, if not more so than typical Zelda dungeons. Darksiders' dungeons are comprised by a series of rooms that spread out in multiple directions, often requiring you to explore deep in one direction to get a key item needed to unlock access to other areas in other directions. Along the way you have to fight enemies and mini-bosses and do some platforming, but mostly you'll be solving puzzles. These puzzles are pretty clever -- even if the solutions are usually pretty obvious, that doesn't mean it's always easy to do. Sometimes it takes trial-and-error to figure out what works and what doesn't; other times it comes down to personal skill with navigating the environment, timing your actions right or having good enough aim with your weapons. All-the-while it's really satisfying to progress through a dungeon, figuring out where you need to go and what needs to be done as you work your way towards the dungeon's boss.

Pushing a block platform off a ledge. 

Unfortunately the bosses suffer from antiquated design, perhaps a problem of trying too hard to be too much like the source material. By that I mean, every single boss is a repetitive pattern of attacks and behaviors meant to be exploited, requiring a singular sequence of actions on your part to expose their glowing weak spot. It's basically a puzzle to figure out what you have to do in each situation (it always involves some application of the item you just obtained), but once you do so it's simply a matter of repeating the same pattern two or three more times until the boss eventually goes down. There are no second or third phases, no escalations in boss tactics that require you to change and adapt your tactics to a new situation; you simply follow the script, repeating the same thing until you eventually win. They're rarely ever challenging, and that simplistic design can feel incredibly anti-climactic when you finally reach the end of the dungeon.

The dungeons also have a problem, much like the overworld map, where they can become too sprawling and hard to navigate if you ever decide to backtrack in search of artifacts or treasure chests you might have missed. They flow perfectly fine the first time through, since a lot of areas are initially restricted to create a particular route through the dungeon as you unlock doors and solve puzzles, but since they sprawl out in long, linear paths you can get stuck going through huge chunks of the dungeon all over again just to get a single missed chest, and then you have no easy way out and have to backtrack long distances just to get out again. The final dungeon, in particular, can be incredibly tedious, with it requiring you to go into three branching paths, each of which is about half a dungeon in its own right, and then backtrack to the center so that you can go to one of the other branches to do it all over again, fighting the same boss three times, once at the end of each branch.

Combat leaves little to be desired, even ignoring all of its redundancies. You have the ability to block, dodge, or counter enemy attacks (all of which is done with the shift key, which means you can easily perform the wrong action by accident), but enemies generally don't telegraph their attacks, so you end up taking a lot of damage from hits that you had no realistic chance to avoid, short of understanding how the AI works and anticipating that an attack is going to come before you get a chance to see it. The dodge, meanwhile, only moves you a very short distance, which is usually insufficient to dodge attacks by larger enemies that cover greater distances, and dodging also seizes control for a moment afterwards, leaving you completely exposed to attack and unable to do anything. That's good in the sense that it forces you to time your dodges properly, but that's already shaky business because of the untelegraphed attacks, and it really disrupts the flow of combat having these awkward pauses forcibly inserted into a free-flowing combat system.

Using the bow and arrow pistol while riding Epona Ruin.

Then you've got the control issues which are just atrocious on the PC, despite the fact that I played a supposed remastered version where the designers have had two opportunities to get it right, and failed both times. If you want to use your magic skills, by default the game expects you to press and hold the B key, and then press 1, 2, 3, or 4 to use the slotted ability. Like, what? Never mind the fact that you already have three of your fingers occupied with the movement keys at WASD, but expecting you to reach for the B key with your thumb and the number keys with your pinky is just absurd. It's like whoever was in charge of programming the default controls is not only not used to PC gaming, but has never seen a keyboard before. By default you have to press O to bring up the map (instead of the usual, more logical M), and you have to press Control and Shift to cycle left and right in menus. Throwing the crossblade at multiple targets involves pressing a button to toggle aim mode, then pressing and holding a second button while aiming the mouse at your desired targets, and then pressing a third button to throw it.

Going into aim mode lowers the camera over the shoulder, proving useful for aiming the crossblade, pistol, Portal gun, fracture cannon, or redemption rifle, but the targeting reticle moves independently of the camera, so if you need to turn you have to drag the reticle to the edge of the screen and then drag it back to center, and it's easy to lose track of where the reticle is on-screen (and therefore what you're aiming at) when you've got a bunch of enemies also shooting at you and things exploding at the screen. Swimming, likewise, is completely mouse and camera independent; you have to press Control to swim lower and either Shift or Space (I don't remember which) to swim higher. This often feels clunky and imprecise. I tried playing with my Xbox 360 PC controller to see if maybe the controls would work/feel better that way, but the game never recognized it for some reason.

If I had played Darksiders when it first came out, back in 2010, there's a chance that a younger, more naive version of me would have been part of the crowd saying "it's better than Zelda," but now that I'm older and more analytically-minded I'm forced to conclude that Darksiders is simply too derivative, redundant, and uninspired to qualify as a good game. I don't mind that it so blatantly copies the Zelda formula (that's a positive as far as I'm concerned), but the fact that it brings absolutely nothing new to the table while feeling like a cluttered mess of ideas that have been indiscriminately and awkwardly shoehorned into the game makes the whole thing more than just subtly disappointing. It can be decently fun and satisfying at times, but it lacks the charm and cohesion of a good Zelda game, and it lacks the satisfying depth of Devil May Cry. In essence, it's an average Zelda game and an inferior Devil May Cry game mixed into one mediocre package.

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