First comes War; then comes Death. Appropriately enough, Darksiders II turns its eyes from its predecessor's protagonist to a new one: Death himself, War's brother and one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. His story plays out over the same time period as War's, but Darksiders II's narrative isn't so much about plot as it is about place and tone. The original Darksiders set a darkly fantastical mood, but the sequel hones its edges. The armor is still chunky and the sound of steel on steel still rings across battle arenas, but the skies are more ominous, the shadows grimmer, and the architecture sharper, as if every spire threatens to puncture the heavens and make them bleed.
And so Darksiders II draws you in not by narrative, in spite of its characters' frequent and raspy soliloquizing. Rather, it uses sights and sounds to impress upon you the importance of your deeds. While one level harks back to the angels-versus-demons, Christian apocalypse themes of the original game, Darksiders II springs forth from a more inventive vision. The dusky dungeons and desert expanses are more diverse than before, and the character designs are more imaginative, as if they've wandered in from biblical legends you've never heard. The characters you meet--undead rulers and impossibly proportioned behemoths among them--speak with humorless gravity, and Death often responds with a sneer and a verbal challenge.
The joylessness of Darksiders II's characters is a contrast to the pleasure of existing in this world. An icy opening introduces you to the basics of combat and movement. In traditional action game style, you slash away at clawed creatures with primary and secondary weapons. You run along walls and jump across beams like a devilish Prince of Persia. But most importantly--and in contrast to the original--your enemies drop coins, armor, and weapons. You can don equipment, sell it to a merchant, or sacrifice it to level up rare possessed weapons, which you can customize at certain thresholds.
If the original Darksiders was an action/adventure/puzzle game, then the addition of loot drops role-playing elements into that mix, which brings to mind a potential concern: Darksiders was already a heavy mixture of recipes that had come before, recalling games like The Legend of Zelda, God of War, and even Portal. There were so many mechanics and so many tools to keep track of that the game struggled to find its own identity.
In Darksiders II, a funny thing happens on the way to the apocalypse: it establishes an identity all its own, rather than one defined through the games that inspired its existence. The game's expanded scope (about twice as big as the first game) and thoughtful pace (about twice as long as the first game) are most responsible for this. You now have a chance to breathe between battles, and each new mechanic has time to settle in before a new one is introduced. The more leisurely sense of pace is obvious from the very beginning. Darksiders' first hour was front-loaded with explosions, angelic cries, and the bloodcurdling sights of demonic forces swarming across the earth. Here, there are moments to take in the frozen chasms beneath you, and to enjoy the slick new motion mechanics that have you defying gravity in heady flights of fancy. (You won't miss War's wings in light of Death's fleet-footedness.)
You might miss the up-front barrage of action at first, but Darksiders II is more about adventure than constant onslaught, though there are plenty of battles waiting ahead. As you ride your steed to the first main dungeon, you can relish the green fields of the first of multiple major regions, and simply enjoy the act of being. If you want, you can explore some of the surrounding ruins, where treasure chests protect valuable pauldrons and cloaks. Or you can slash up the baddies that roam the land, even from atop your horse. But once you get into the dungeons, Darksiders II becomes special--more cerebral than your average action game, and more energetic than your average exploration game.
As expected, each dungeon requires that you puzzle out how to get from one point to the next. At first, this involves scaling walls, throwing the naturally occurring bombs you stumble upon, and pulling a few levers. Then, you get a phantom grapple hook that allows you to swing from glowing hooks and extend your wall runs. Later, you split yourself in three, petrifying your main form and using two doppelgangers to stand on switches and move platforms. Ultimately, you fire portals to travel across great ravines and even through time itself--and these are hardly the extent of the tools you use to make progress through Darksiders II's clever self-contained puzzles.
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 tightrope for a developer to balance: making environmental puzzles feel challenging without becoming a roadblock to progression. 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 won't often need Dust's services, given each dungeon's natural progression. Nor will 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 menus to switch between items and abilities, which is just as well, considering the sluggish menu performance. 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 more energetic than in the original. No longer can you whittle down a demon's health and perform a single-button finishing move almost every time. You can still perform such finishers, but they are far less common, though 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.
If you want to further beat your chest and bellow, you can do so in the crucible, where you earn new equipment--or sacrifice it for the possibility of better loot--by taking on progressively stronger waves of baddies. Alas, you won't feel so powerful when coming head-to-head with Darksiders II's uncommon (but pace-breaking) execution foibles. Sluggish menus and occasional loading hitches aren't major issues, but annoying ones. Ditto for some invisible walls and unhelpful camera angles during platforming sequences. More important are the system crashes possible--though not inevitable--while playing the Xbox 360 version.
Don't let the scattered execution snafus be of great concern: Darksiders II is remarkably well put together, particularly in light of its impressive scope. Bigger doesn't mean better, of course, but this isn't a "more of the same, just bigger" kind of sequel. The game uses its expansive geography to cultivate a poetic tempo in which your intellectual triumphs are rewarded with the immediate pleasures of fleet-footed platforming and demonic brutality. In Darksiders II, Death is not an end, but rather, a portal to a memorable saga of snarling brutes and stolen souls.