Death takes a working holiday to the Nether Realms in the obsessively satisfying Darksiders II (THQ and Vigil Games, rated M for mature, reviewed for Xbox 360, $59.99).
A player controls one of the famed members of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse on a mission-loaded, third-person role-playing game as he attempts to save his brother, War, while crossing the kingdoms between heaven and hell.
What’s the story? From the game manual: Awakened by the end of days, Death, the most feared of the legendary four horsemen, embarks on a quest to undo Armageddon. Along the way, the horseman discovers there are far worse things than an earthly apocalypse, and that an ancient grudge may threaten all of creation.
Play the role: This open-world adventure greatly builds upon the 2010 Darksiders game and takes Death to many parts of an expansive world where he is caught in a time-consuming, Wagnerian tale of doom, corruption, betrayal and salvation that any fan of a Middle Earth saga would admire.
The player controls this testosterone-filled Grim Reaper, who with his bone-white mask, stringy long hair and clothing selection, is an eerie amalgam of Master of the Universe’s Skeletor, Robert E. Howard’s Conan and Bernie Wrightson’s Frankenstein.
While moving through intriguing locations including the desolate Southern Wastelands, the fields of Stonefather’s Vale and the claustrophobic confines of the Shadow Gorge, the Pale Rider takes along varied weapons (more on them later) and two helpful friends.
First, Death can mount and ride his steed, Despair. The powerful horse not only is awesome in combat, but also leaves a translucent blue trail in his speedy wake.
Death’s second sidekick is a crow named Dust. He keeps watch over the Reaper and will guide him to mission objectives with a simple click of a player’s analog stick.
During his quests and side missions, and in the finest tradition of the Prince of Persia (if the royal warrior was a WWE wrestler), Death can do wall runs, pillar climbs, and beam runs; leap from posts; push massive orbs; and swim underwater to traverse a sometimes exhausting number of environmental puzzles.
And, much like any role-playing game, our miscast hero interacts and talks with characters, uses a detailed map to find missions, stockpiles a generous inventory of armor and stuff dropped from fallen enemies and broken treasure chests, and collects gold and items (from weapons to rare magical gems) to buy and sell with local traders.
Get to the action: Unlike his brother War in the first Darksiders game, who was more of an indestructible tank, Death takes on a persona akin to God of War’s Kratos, a speedier combatant able to chain together devastating assaults on enemies as quickly as he is able to evade an attack.
Although Darksiders II offers depth to its game mechanics, it still mainly is a hack-and-slasher without prejudice as a player is armed with a variety of massive medieval weapons to deliver his might, including a pair of razor-sharp scythes, claws and a selection of secondary weapons, including gigantic hammers, maces and axes.
An “everything but the kitchen sink” mentality comes into play as developers expand Death’s arsenal, armor and powers with thousands of combinations to fight such forces as skeletons, ice giants, stone golems (called Constructs), beastly stalkers, hovering sentinel heads, large stinger wasps and swarming scarabs.
For extra firepower, let’s start with a sawed-off-shotgun-style pistol named Redemption used for long-range damage and for shooting at bombs that can cause plenty of fiery damage to enemies and surroundings.
Next, Death can purchase and learn more than 100 weapon combination moves that range from spinning scythe attacks to claw berserker furies (Wolverine fans can now smile).
Also, a selection of branching magical moves is available as he levels up and spends skill points. Used with a radial menu (or tied to button combinations), these moves refuel as a player accumulates wraiths during battles.
Our pale hero eventually can enlist the help of a group of ghouls that pops up (from coffins) and attacks (one of the coolest moments of any fight), use a teleport slash to cut through victims, unleash a swarm of crows, and harness the powers of fire, ice and lightning to complement his special attacks.
Finally, Death’s translucent purple Reaper form can be called to clear a battlefield, dealing devastating damage.
Memorable moments (in no particular order): The first time Death opens a treasure chest and the translucent glowing purple claws of his dark side emerge to rip open the lid; Death accidentally falls off a cliff and his Reaper form emerges to resurrect him; mounting a rocky construct to blast away at a corrupted yellow crystal barrier; fighting with Thane just for the fun of it; an encounter with the massive Earth Crag called Karkinos; exploring the forested Baneswood; and admiring the sunset while stopping by the Tri-Stone village.
Violent encounters: Controlling a character named Death, as you can imagine, translates to a level of brutal ferocity that often allows him to crush opponents into glowing embers. Surprisingly, it is not as bloody as many M-rated games these days. Although a player will see his fair amount of spurting life fluids, exploding torsos, pieces of flying bone and creatures bursting into flames, it always feels a bit cartoony.
Death actually is kind of easy-going and always seems to be helping somebody. This makes the Grim Reaper more of a lovable lug rather than maestro of mortality.
Read all about it: Fans looking for more background on the potent lead character can go to the Dark Horse Comics website (http:// digital.darkhorse.com) and download the Darksiders II: Deaths Door miniseries (99 cents each).
Pixel-popping scale: 8.6 out of 10. Imagine comic book creator Joe Madureira animating a World of Warcraft cartoon and toss in a pinch of Warhammer and Battle Chasers character design to get a picture of some dynamic elements realized in Darksider II. Actually, that should be no surprise as Mr. Madureira is creative director for Vigil Games.
The result is a beautiful, often-stunning world boasting rich locations (be it dungeons, open fields, castles and underwater ruins) that make a player stop and just look around to appreciate the developers’ passionate effort.
Star power: Actor Michael Wincott (best remembered as the evil gang leader in “The Crow”) stars as the voice of Death and James Cosmo (the distinguished character actor known for “Braveheart” and “Game of Thrones”) voices the burly Maker Elder.
Extras and Unlockables: Use a code included in the package to unlock the Crucible mode that adds more than 100 levels of survival-wave-type challenges to the game. An anonymous letter found in the Serpent Tome (a cool messaging system to gift new equipment or receive exclusive content) at Tri-Stone eventually will invite Death to an arena where he quickly whips through levels of battle five at a time and receives awards and experience for his effort.
Final thoughts: Darksiders II won’t be remembered for adding innovation to the role-playing genre, but it is one heck of an immersive and extended adventure for the fantasy-loving gamer. I’m hoping I’ll never need to admit this again in my life, but I absolutely appreciated Death.