Vigil Games scored a surprise hit with 2010's "Darksiders" - a game that borrowed liberally from some of the most popular third-person action-RPG games of its day yet still managed to form an identity all its own. The developer has followed a similar formula to create "Darksiders II" though the influences - and protagonist - have changed.
The end result is a sequel that feels unmistakably familiar while also bringing enough original ideas to keep the action from becoming stale during what is a surprisingly lengthy adventure.
"Darksiders II" takes place alongside the events of the original, which saw War, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, inadvertently trigger the end of the world and wipe out all of mankind. In order to clear his brother's name, another Horseman - Death - must ride through the realms of the undead and beyond in search of a way to restore life to the world.
Controlling Death feels completely different than his larger, less agile brother. Death moves much more quickly and can roll to avoid incoming attacks during battles. During platforming sequences, which make up probably 75 percent of the game, Death can climb walls, leap to ledges and cover gaps by wall-running between them. He also gains a grappling hook-type ability that is used in conjunction with his other skills to access hard-to-reach places.
Navigating through the game's well-designed dungeons requires the player to utilize all of Death's talents, but later levels proved to be especially challenging because the controls often weren't as responsive as one would expect. Thankfully players aren't penalized for dying during platforming sequences, which takes away some of the sting from failing the same jump over and over again.
The bulk of my deaths during the nearly 30 hours it took to complete the campaign were of this variety and while it's possible to die during battle, those times were rare. Many of the enemies you encounter can be easily dispatched thanks to your ever-growing arsenal of weapons and evolving skills. Even arena-style battles against hordes of enemies presented little challenge, for the most part. Boss battles offered more of a test, but I rarely felt overwhelmed by the opposition.
Armed with his trusty scythes and an assortment of secondary weapons like hammers, axes and arm blades, Death is a formidable combatant. Combos, multipliers and special moves make combat situations enjoyable even though they aren't especially taxing on the standard difficulty level (bumping up the difficulty increases the challenge significantly). New weapons and armor can be purchased from merchants, found in treasure chests or scavenged from fallen enemies. I constantly found myself upgrading Death with the latest gear and experimenting with the various stat boosts associated with each item to create a character that matched my play style. Loot can also be traded with other players across Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network, allowing gamers to share their wealth with their friends. Combat still has that "God of War" feel, but if you're going to borrow from another game you might as well make it one of the best in the genre.
It's easy to spot other influences at work, too, be it the "Prince of Persia" style of platforming, "Borderlands"-like loot system that constantly rewards players with new weapons and armor, or the "Zelda"-esque exploration and puzzle solving. Even the music reminded me of modern "Zelda" titles, which is to say it was nothing short of excellent.
While its various gameplay influences work together to make "Darksiders II" a joy to play, it's the presentation that elevates it to a whole new level. Outstanding voice work and a unique art style bring the game to life, and the lack of extended loading screens keep the player immersed in the universe. The environments lack much in the way of fine detail, but smooth character animations and gorgeous architecture make that omission easy to overlook.