When showing "Darksiders: Wrath of War" to press over the course of its long development cycle, THQ was always pretty consistent with its messaging: "It's 'Zelda' for adults." While I don't agree with the implication ("It's 'Zelda,' but not for kids" would be more accurate), THQ and Vigil managed to accomplish what they set out to do. They created an open-world action adventure game with all of the puzzle-solving and equipment upgrades that you'd expect from a classic "Zelda" game, but made the subject matter something you wouldn't want your 9-year-old nephew touching with a 10 foot pole.
In "Darksiders" you'll play as one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse: War. Seems that there's been a bit of a mix-up with the whole apocalypse thing and War shows up to bring the end of days to the kingdom of men (read: modern day earth). And he does. Yep, humanity's donezo. Hope you enjoyed yourself.
After a brief introduction showing the apocalypse at work, the game flashes forward to show the world in ruin. War has been stripped of almost all his power as punishment for riding too early, but with his remaining strength, he seeks vengeance against those that used him. And so you set off, exploring dungeons and depressing landscapes in order to uncover the truth behind the early apocalypse.
The sheer number of gameplay mechanics that are shamelessly ripped from the "Zelda" franchise is probably too large to list, but here are a few samples: Collecting heart pieces to increase your maximum health, a boomerang-type weapon to hit switches and solve puzzles, a hook on a chain that can drag you across large gaps and rip the shells off certain enemies, a ridable horse with a recharging number of speed boosts. Shall I go on?
While the comparisons are nigh-unending, I've always enjoyed them in "Zelda," and seeing them employed in such a vastly different venue as the apocalypse was charming. If you're not a "Zelda" fan, though, you should stay far, far away.
The Apocalypse Is Pretty
"Darksiders" isn't going to win any awards on the graphics front, but it had a really neat design aesthetic that never got boring. The closest comparison would be if "World of WarCraft" got uprezzed, with increased detail and resolution. Characters are never "realistic," with the developer instead opting for exaggerated, comic book-esque heroes and villains (expected with Joe Madureira designing many of the characters).
The varied zones, from the crumbling cityscape to the desert-like Ashlands to the surprisingly verdant western areas, keep things fresh, as well. There's something exhausting about being surrounding by constant, choking death, and it's nice to see that the designers weren't afraid to brighten things up.
Something that "Zelda" has never really touched upon is the idea of passive and active weapon enhancements. You can discover objects in the world which can be placed into one of your three main weapons, adding effects like Life Steal and Increased Experience Gain. Some of the later enhancements have a half-dozen different effects, making them tremendously useful and a cool way to customize your play style.
So-So Combat Mechanics
The combat in "Darksiders" has more in common with "God of War" than it does with "Zelda." There's a lot of "one dude vs. many dudes" or "one tiny dude vs. one much larger dude," not to mention the consistent use of the finishing move button to rip the heads off demons to bash them into the ground.
The problem is that the combat is not nearly as tight as "God of War." There are times (often crucial times) when you're holding down the block button but you don't block. Or you get interrupted in a combat when you shouldn't have. Often times you just don't feel like you have complete control of a situation, which is super important for a game like this. Thankfully the combat definitely takes a backseat to the exploration and puzzle-solving, making up only about 20-30 percent of the game.
Story Doesn't Make A Ton of Sense
Coming off the inscrutable "Bayonetta," "Darksiders" has a digestible story of vengeance. Unfortunately there are a few twists and turns towards the end that didn't make a whole lot of sense to me, with characters doing things for unclear reasons. Maybe I just wasn't paying enough attention? Or maybe I'm dumb? Whatever the case, there may be moments that cause you to scratch your head, story-wise. Thankfully you can just absorb the whole "War kills everyone" aspect and still enjoy yourself.
You may not be familiar with "screen tearing," but if you're looking to have a crash course on the matter, play through "Darksiders." Rotating the camera around your character will cause distorting lines to appear on the graphics. Personally it causes some eyestrain and does a very good job of disrupting impressive-looking scenes. I know next to nothing about developing video games, but I do know that more time should've been spent polishing this aspect in particular, as I've never seen a game with more prevalent screen tearing.
Oh, and there's also a shameless sequel plug at the end of the game, so fair warning.
All told I actually really enjoyed "Darksiders." The low points were annoying, but were far outweighed by the enjoyment I found exploring the world, upgrading my gear and ripping the hearts from demons. If you're a fan of either "God of War" or "Zelda," I have no doubt that you'll enjoy most of what "Darksiders" has to offer in its 15-hour journey.