Darksiders II and Feeling Hollow

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ

Colossians 2:8

Darksiders II is the worst game I’ve had the displeasure of touching in a long, long time.

I rather enjoyed the first Darksiders. As the game I played before Bayonetta, it earned its spot in my list of “good games” just by using old concepts in a new way. A combination of Zelda tropes, God of War combat (though, actually, much more enjoyable than that!), and hulking Joe Madureira style convinced me to pick it up. I wasn’t disappointed at all. It felt like Vigil Games understood what made Zelda dungeons work as a exploratory exercise, while also presenting interesting and new combo dynamics throughout the whole game.

Yes, we could consider it incredibly derivative, but it fused several styles with such panache that you couldn’t help but enjoy yourself in the process. Exploration actually rewarded you, and while the platforming existed just to complement the environmental design, at least the puzzles stopped you in your tracks every once and a while. At least they provided you the option to target objects in first person, a notable improvement on 3D Zelda’s desire to prevent dual analog control (I am still wondering why to this day). Play on the higher difficulty levels, and you’ll see a lot of nuance in the combat right from the get-go too!

All said, I really liked Darksiders as a franchise. I figured “hey, the next one will probably be pretty good, right?” I waited a good long while for a price decrease, and I finally bit the bullet a few Humble Bundles ago. To my surprise, they gutted the series out and replaced it with a whole bunch of horrible things that have no place in this genre. Darksiders II represents the very definition of an identity crisis: all the polish in the world can’t fix its myriad problems.

Darksiders II combat

Unlike its predecessor, which obviously started as a homage to two big franchises, Darksiders II suffers from “design by committee”. Each part feels made to appeal to as wide an audience as possible to the detriment of the whole experience. You want RPG dialogue trees? We got those! You want Diablo-style loot? That stuff is in, and Diablo III came out this year, so why not? You want God of War combat? Sure, throw that in! How about some open world exploration? Sure, give Death a horse and let him ride like the wind! How about some dungeons and puzzle solving? Throw those in there too! Platforming? Yeah, we did that last time, let’s do it again!

All of it contributes to a surface level judgment that the game contains real depth and combines a whole lot of game mechanics to something awesome. Unfortunately, these individual characteristics never amount to something interesting. They just exist to serve some basic gaming feedback loops (like accomplishment, loot, etc) to make you keep playing. You’re going through the motions without knowing why.

None of these elements function in concert; the holistic effect turns these individual elements into giant drags and wastes of time. Ok, I’m hearing dialogue about a near incomprehensible parallel sequel to Darksiders, which wasn’t exactly the clearest story in recent history. Oh, you’re sending me on a well-dressed fetch quest? Good thing I need to travel for a long time in environments that give me nothing good to find. What is this, Donkey Kong 64? Now time for some perfunctory combat and platforming in-between the hub world and the dungeon! Too bad there’s zero consequence for falling to a bottomless pit or taking a hit in combat, even on the highest difficulty levels! Gear falls everywhere, but who cares? Just equip the things with the highest numbers, and you win.

There’s just no incentive or purpose to any of this. If Darksiders II created an interesting world (like, say, Dark Souls), then it would work, but I felt super powerful from the beginning. My skills barely contributed a part to the experience at all. In a word, everything felt hollow. The game could literally play itself and you could not perceive a notable difference. How did the sequel to Darksiders turn out so boring and uninteresting?

darksiders2_568511b

I imagine this happens when you don’t craft a game with the initial design component of “fun”, rather than “making money”. I liken it to the way rock musicians of the late 1990s filled their albums to the brim with famous producer guidance, outside writers for catchy songs, and a “throw it all out there and see what sticks” approach. Sure, it sounds slick and runs like a dream, but will you remember any of it once you’ve stopped listening? Aerosmith’s Nine Lives showed them at the peak of overproduction for a band that once prided themselves as “dirty hard rock”. They sold their soul, so to speak, and it would take the band many more years before they’d put out anything remotely decent (or anything decent, for that matter). Video games in the AAA space began to tip that way recently, and that “one size fits all approach” won’t last forever.

If video games are about anything, they’re certainly about weighty consequences. Without that, what exactly are you doing, anyway? Fiddling around with a controller until the game ends? I’m certainly not going to go through twenty-seven more hours of Darksiders II just to provide you with a review (which, by the way, would be a one star rating, just from a few hours of play). We must distinguish between what games actually provide us real, lasting value for the money. Focus will always triumph universal appeal any day, and especially not an appeal that takes the form rather than the content. I hold zero interest for deceitful experiences and false displays of power, and there’s no exception for this case. Heck, I would even prefer aesthetic consequences like BioWare dialogue trees to this stuff.

Don’t let yourselves be deceived by empty philosophies, nostalgia appeals, or derivative concepts. Demand more, or we’ll keep getting games like this. Vote with your wallet, and maybe we’ll see more interesting games then failures like Darksiders II. The traditions of men will always let you down.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.