The first five minutes of Darksiders had my inner 12-year-old going nuts. What were originally thought to be asteroids peppering New York City were soon revealed to be demons and angels, falling from the heavens and locked in bitter combat. The demons were kitted out in their typical chain-and-tattered-cloth getup while the angels looked like some sort of laser-wielding medieval knights from the future. Hell yes.
As the city began to crumble beneath the celestial onslaught, the earth itself began to give way as massive chasms split roads and buildings in two. It's in this chaos that War, the second of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, enters. The Charred Council, a governing body of ancient creatures, declared that the forces of Heaven and Hell were to observe an armistice so that the third race, the newly created man, could have time to evolve into something beyond punching bags. If either side broke the agreement, then the Council would send forth the Horsemen in punishment. After being sent prematurely to the surface, War is recalled by the Council and stripped of his powers. It's now your task to find out how and why he, the only one of the four, was called, and to seek vengeance for the terrible fate that has befallen man.
There is something immensely pleasing about dispensing some primordial justice. I don't care how many times I popped off a zombie's head, it felt good each and every time. There are some serious perks to being a horseman, albeit one stripped of most of their power, the primary one being that you're a hulking mass of muscle and scowling rage that carries a massive sword and some wicked gauntlets. It also helps that War looks very, very cool. Designed by (comic) artist Joe Madureira, War is one of the most striking characters to come out in a while. He is also surrounding by some of the most appealing visages of desolation this side of Fallout 3. The world looks like hell, and War looks like he fits right in.
Strangely, this ragged setting doesn't play home to the kind of all-out combat that you might think. Oh, there's combat alright, and plenty of it, but there's also a lot of exploration, platforming, and puzzle-solving. The game's design is an interesting mixture that comes across as Zelda with God of War sensibilities, and, despite the character looking like he should be curb-stomping everything in sight (and damn the hovering platforms!), it comes together very well.
The tired convention of the hero being stripped of their power at the outset is followed to a tee here, but what is important is that, while weakened, War still remains strikingly powerful. He can not only crush weaker enemies with a single blow, but he can also survive high falls, complete with endlessly satisfying debris-flinging landings, and toss even the strongest enemies about for gnarly finishers. This not only keeps the game from feeling like a slog but also serves to emphasize just how powerful the angels and demons are, and just why man fell so quickly. This sense of raw strength is prevalent throughout and serves as a subtle way to underscoring the backstory - after so many thousands of years of advancement, man was still no match. A small, but much appreciated, touch.
Getting to the bottom of things requires facing down Destroyer, the lord of Hell, which is no small task. Fortunately, War is an agile goliath sporting Prince of Persia-like deftness, grabbing ledges, double jumping, running along walls, and even floating across massive chasms using some gnarly wings. Much of what can be traversed is clearly marked in some way, from the decaying surface of a scalable area to the exposed support beams that allow War to run along walls, and fit in nicely with their surroundings. A minimap shows the current waypoint while a larger map, if found, will detail the entire area. About the only problem I ran into was getting lost during some the many backtracking sequences, especially when the area had several obstacles moving platforms, elevated pathways, etc. as some waypoints aren't indicated and it's easy to get turned around.
When on the ground, you will be spending much of your time switching triggers, solving some rudimentary puzzles, and beating the living hell pun very much intended out of whatever happens across your path. The puzzles will be very familiar to God of War fans, with giant blocks needing to be moved onto pressure plates and switches found to activate pulley systems. Most of these aren't bad, and even those that require backtracking manage to pass briskly while offering a sense of adventure. The only problems I ran into were a crash or two and a glitch that only allowed me to hit activate one of two panels, barring my progress. Fortunately both switches were available after reloading. The frequent checkpoints are also pretty unique in that the game takes into account the enemies killed and puzzles solved, so after respawning, save from having to take care of one or two new enemies, you just need to run back to where you died handy. But solving puzzles and jumping between demon-infested, decaying skyscrapers isn't the only thing War does. He also does a lot of (re)killing.
War sports a modest combo list that is augmented by secondary weapons, skills, and a steady stream of finisher moves. Similar to God of War, collectables souls in this case can be used to purchase new moves, weapons, and upgrades, while other weapons acquired through progression. Such weapons are used both in combat and as a means to solve puzzles, such as the boomerang-like Crossblade that can be used to both ricochet off walls to hit buttons and charged to grind an enemy's gut. Using the weapon sets in tandem can cause for some pretty elaborate (and bloody) combos, and racking up the hit count is especially satisfying since the combo window is noticeably shorter than in other games. The real potential of the system comes out in a series of timed challenges required to unlock some areas, as the counters' unforgiving pace requires that you make the most out of everything War has at his disposal. The aforementioned finishers are performed on creatures once they are sufficiently injured and offer bloody, mostly quick-time free cinematic coup de graces. Your main weapon, the Chaoseater, slowly regains its strength as you kill enemies, and can also benefit from enchantments and purchased power boosts. Skills help to break up brawling, but I didn't use them as much as I had anticipated, though they do come in handy to make space or deliver a last, desperate blow. If War is sufficiently angry, he can unleash his demonic Chaos form and obliterate near every enemy in a few hits. In his regular form, he has a handy dash to avoid attacks and pierce enemies, as well as a block that can lead to a counterattack. What's most satisfying about the combat is that War has a weight to him that carries over to his movements: swords come down hard, weapons are swung with force, and enemies react appropriately. Given everything else there is to consider during combat, the combo list comes across as manageable rather than limiting and plays its part quite well.
Now when it comes to the PC version of Darksiders, having a robust combat system and actually being able to take advantage of it are two different things. To Vigil's credit, you can remap the keys, but with a game that has so many actions and variables, I'm not sure if there really is one golden scheme. An example will help, so let me give you a rundown of the default keyboard and mouse controls: W, A, S, and D take care of moving forward, backward, left, and right while the mouse left and right buttons handle primary and secondary attacks, respectively, and the mouse wheel throws objects. Those objects are picked up with the E button, and aiming is done with the Q button. If the object misses and you need to close with the enemy quickly, then you press Left Shift to target the enemy and Left Ctrl plus direction to dash, but you have to be careful because Left Ctrl also doubles as block whenever you're not moving. Oh, and if you want to use a skill, you have to press Caps Lock + Number Key. You can actually adapt to this setup to a point. Once something happens, be it a finger slipping off of a key or the wrong enemy being targeted, it all goes downhill very, very quickly, and your fingers start to look like what can best be described as a pretzel. The human hand simply doesn't have the digits necessary to pull off all of the moves or fight with ease.
Fortunately, Darksiders does support gamepads. Sort of. The wired Xbox 360 controller is the default pad that the game recognizes, and the only way to get one of the countless others on the market to work properly is with some tweaking. I was able to get one working after a bit of finagling and found the experience much improved. However, aiming remained a pain; instead of the camera titling up or out, it simply pans to the side, resulting in an awkward, slightly offset view. Even if you get targeting down, there remains the problem of tweaking the sensitivity as basic camera movement is fast while aiming is slow. It would have been nice had the limitations of the keyboard and mouse been kept in mind as the game was being ported, but it wasn't, which means that some of the trickier or time-consuming bosses looking at you, Tiamat which are often the game's weakest points, become borderline unbearable. So much of the game is enjoyable that the sore spots really stick out, and even more so when you have to wrestle with the controls. If you have the option, use a controller.
Despite the PC being a very customizable platform, you will find that Darksiders offers very few options. As best as I could tell, there is no way to remap gamepad buttons, which worked fine for me as the default layout is fairly sensible but might be an issue for those with gamepads with a less console-like button layout. There are also very few graphic options, save for resolution and enabling v-synching. Some ways to take advantage of higher-end effects or greater gamepad compatibility would've been welcomed.
Except for a few irritating encounters, which were mainly boss fights, most of the problems I ran into were platform specific. I played the game with both a keyboard-and-mouse and gamepad setup, and while the gamepad is the far superior choice, the old WASD stand-by is still serviceable, and its shortcomings couldn't keep me from playing. There is just something joyous about one of the Four Horsemen ripping apart a sarcastic demon, complete with grimaces and fountains of blood. The excellent graphics and strong voice overs perfectly accentuate a setting that manages to be more than just a generic post-apocalyptic landscape; the personalities and motivations are actually interesting. But that's all icing on the cake when considering the varied design there is even a Panzer Dragoon-inspired section and addictive combat.
Darksiders manages to be more than just a combat slog by offering an interesting story, a unique cast of characters, and a lively design that samples multiple genres. Save for a few questionable, unnecessarily tedious encounters, most of the problems I had were the result of the move from console to PC. While still a very good port, Darksiders does take some adjusting to; it's not very accommodating. A minor glitch and a crash were the least of my worries when put up against such a demanding control setup, which stretched the keyboard-and-mouse setup to its limit. Switching to a controller introduces new compatibility problems for those with non-Xbox 360 gamepads. However, once everything is setup, you will find an incredibly addictive, stylish, and varied action title the likes of which are hard to find on the PC these days.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)