With Death as our guide, we embark on a guided tour through the scenic Underworld.
"We didn't really know what Darksiders was until the end," says Marvin Donald of Vigil Games. "A lot of it was just an idea." By contrast, the director of Darksiders II sounds far more certain about the direction of his studio's upcoming sequel. It's a game with a quicker, more agile main character. It's a game with less of a focus on Earth and more of a focus on a stylized demon underworld. And, perhaps, most important of all, it's much more of a role-playing game than its predecessor.
Playing as Death, one of the other Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, you're on a quest to free your brother War from imprisonment and restore his good name. As we mentioned, Death is a nimbler protagonist than War--Donald goes so far as to describe him as "feral" in his movements--and that's a trait you see in a few different areas. Death's journey has him fighting swarms of demonic enemies and traversing a twisted landscape, so whether it's skittering up a vertical surface before you actually latch onto a handhold or instantly morphing your standard weapon into something altogether different in the heat of battle, Death is a far less lumbering character than the protagonist of the first game he's out to save.
So, yes, Death is very much his own man. Carrying on with that theme, he's also a much more customizable man. According to Donald, Darksiders II is the beneficiary of more time and leeway for creative pursuits, specifically the game's vastly expanded collection of role-playing elements. Key among these elements is a loot system that allows you to customize your battle attributes, as well as your appearance. Things like armor, gloves, boots, and weapons are all there to be dropped by fallen enemies--each with its own set of stats--and you can mix and match these various bits of equipment to suit your preferred play style. Whether you're fond of relying on magic spells or just smashing things to pieces with the biggest hammer you can find, Donald says the loot system is designed with role-playing class archetypes in mind.
Hearing Donald talk about the effect of this customization on the game, you begin to understand why the original Darksiders was a much more straightforward action game. "We're big RPG fans at Vigil, and we would have done this with Darksiders if we had the time and bandwidth." But, what's so time consuming about mixing these genres? In a word: balancing. "That's one of the biggest challenges ahead of us," says Donald. With all the various equipment you can pick up, the wildly different enemies you'll encounter, and the skill tree you can navigate, it's going to take a lot of work for Vigil to make this all work within the action-game template established by the first game. There are a lot of opportunities for a player's set of choices to break the game, but Vigil seems more than willing to take on the challenge.
All of this occurs in a landscape quite a bit different from the first Darksiders. Whereas that game was largely set against the backdrop of a postapocalyptic urban metropolis--with a few notable excursions to more exotic areas--Darksiders II is a game that resides in more fantastical locales, like the demon underworld. It's clear the artists at Vigil have used this opportunity to get a little more creative with their designs. Case in point: In our demo, Death had to meet with a gentleman named the Lord of Bones. Rather than search out his throne room in some sort of building or fortress, though, you need to leap from a cliff overlooking a massive abyss and land on a floating ship made of skeletons and wings that look not entirely unlike a pair demon electric eels. The enemy design is more than a little batty as well, including a boss fight against a hulking golem cobbled together by the bones of its fallen enemies. Naturally, it attacks you by ripping off its own spine (including its head) and whipping you with it.
Though Darksiders II is taking a step forward from its predecessor in many areas, it still has a few strong ties that go back to War's journey. The original game was, to put it mildly, heavily inspired by the flow of Nintendo's Zelda games, with the way shiny new pieces of equipment often acted as keys to previously inaccessible locations. Death appears to be every bit the lover of new gadgetry that War was because we were shown a tool called the ghost hook that essentially allowed Death to extend his platforming abilities, grappling across wider gaps and wall-running across longer, well, walls than he normally could. Not to say that this structure is necessarily a bad thing--it's just a holdover from the original game you should expect to see make a return.
Overall, we're very intrigued by the direction of Darksiders II. We like the way the more fantastical gameworld is adding to the already strong personality of the series and the way you can add your own personality through the customizable loot system. Hopefully, Vigil can resolve the technical woes that plagued the original game and perhaps even do something about the byzantine control system as well. At any rate, we're looking forward to seeing more on Darksiders II before its 2012 release.