Where the original Darksiders' puzzles could drag, Darksiders II's are more expertly crafted, each one a little more difficult than the last--but never too difficult as to be frustrating. The learning curve is silky smooth, and once you reach the final dungeons, there are some outstanding moments when puzzling out a solution makes you feel remarkably smart. It's a tough balance for a developer to maintain: making environmental puzzles feel challenging without unduly impeding the player's steady progress. Darksiders II's dungeons get it just right, giving you enough hints through camera angles and other subtle cues, and then trusting you to work out the solution. The only cue you can't rely on too heavily is your crow, Dust, who is supposed to point out your final destination should you get stuck, but might lead you astray, or flutter high above you and then teleport back.
Fortunately, you don't often need Dust's services, given each dungeon's natural progression. Nor do you need to worry about using a spinning blade to play connect-the-bombs, which was part of Darksiders' less appealing puzzles. You also needn't constantly fiddle with the interface to switch between items and abilities, which is just as well, considering the sluggish performance of the main-screen menus. Given the sheer breadth of abilities, you still do a bit of controller micromanagement; you might need to switch between an ability and your revolver often in a particular level, for instance, though the related ability wheel is easily accessed with the D-pad. Nevertheless, managing your abilities and equipment is smoother than it was in the original.
Combat skills are divided into two trees and allow for powerful offensive moves (a vicious spin attack, for instance) or for summoning creatures to assist in battle (a murder of crows, perhaps). The action is largely satisfying: it's smooth and responsive under the fingers and is colorful and bloody onscreen. Death's primary scythes make for fluid combat, while his secondary weapon provides rhythmic diversity. That weapon might be a huge axe that sets wraiths on fire, or superfast gauntlets with an electric charge. Your grapple and your gun can also be valuable assets when certain foes join the fray, and battles are at their best when you confront multiple creatures with diverse attack patterns.
That isn't to say that Darksiders II's combat is all that challenging on normal difficulty, though it is energetic. You can occasionally perform a single-button finishing move if you whittle an enemy's health down enough, though the option isn't overly frequent, and some equipment can raise your chances. Provided you have enough health potions (and there's no reason you shouldn't, given your easy wealth), you won't often feel in danger. Even certain bosses can be conquered in a single go, in contrast with Darksiders' more challenging endeavors. That's a particularly disappointing development when you reach the final monstrosity and realize it's an anticlimactic pushover.
The challenge is hit-and-miss, but the thrills are unmistakable. Easy as many are, the bosses are often enormous in scale, and some require the use of your special abilities--your grapple, for instance--to succeed. With only a couple of exceptions, Darksiders II doesn't use quick-time events to elicit excitement: the torrents of blood that spew across the screen are the direct result of your combos and volcanic fury. The biggest battles are pure power fantasy, reinforced by Death's ever-more-threatening armor and ever-more-potent weapons. Even the way Death opens doors and chests is part of this power trip, with the horseman summoning ghostly arms to perform such lowly labors.
The Wii U version's execution problems are a disappointment considering the overall quality of Death's dark adventure. Yet the frame rate jitters and loading hitches don't greatly detract from the bloody appeal of Darksiders II's combat, nor the gradually evolving complexity of its enjoyable dungeons. Death may have plenty of contempt for the denizens of this burning world, but the game he appears in tempts you ever onward with its promise of new abilities to exploit and new paths to explore.