One thing you sure do get with the Darksiders series is variety: the first game took heavy inspiration from the Zelda franchise, whilst the second favored lots of loot and a bigger world. The third game had a little bit of Dark Souls floating around in it, as well as a dash of the Metroidvania genre. And now we’ve got Darksiders: Genesis, a prequel that pulls the camera way out into a top-down view and throws in a few dollops of Diablo for good measure. That’s four games and four very different styles. Talk about bang for your buck, eh?
Darksiders: Genesis has actually been out for a few months on PC, but I didn’t get a chance to review it at the time. Now though, it’s launching on consoles, so with Genesis becoming available to a whole new audience, it seemed like a good time to do a review.
In the previous three games, we’ve got to play as War, Death, and Fury, but the fourth and final Horseman (Not the classic wrestling faction) has only got mentions and a brief cameo in Darksiders III. Genesis marks the proper debut of Strife, the last of the Horsemen, and the most different in terms of personality and gameplay. War, Death, and Fury are all quite serious and focused, but Strife has a sarcastic streak as wide as War’s monstrous shoulders. He’s snarky, likes to crack wise, and therefore also tends to annoy the shit out of his brothers and sister.
Playing the straight man to Strife’s snarky sarcasm and constant humor for this adventure is the hulking mountain of anger known as War, the star of the very first Darksiders who finally got to step back onto the stage. At one point Strife merrily tries to tell a knock, knock joke, before telling War that he’s meant to reply with, “Who’s there?” War calmly states that he would never give away his location like that, and would instead just smash the door down and assault whatever poor bastard was on the other side. That’s the kind of comedy to expect in Genesis. At first, it struggled to connect with me and I found the interaction between the two Horsemen a little stiff, but as the game went on I began to enjoy the way they bounced off of each other. Truthfully, they act like siblings: sometimes arguing, disagreeing, or downright hating each other, but always willing to back the other up. That’s the kind of strange relationship I want from the Horsemen, and it’s a pleasure to finally get to actually see more than just one on-screen other than just in a cutscene.
The actual story is pretty much a basic skeleton designed to give you a tour of various environments and let you beat the crap out of hundreds of enemies. Basically, War and Strife have been dispatched by the Charred Council to investigate Lucifer who seems intent on upsetting the all-important Balance. He’s been busy granting power to various other demons, and so the bulk of the story has War and Strife paying visits to these evil beings, aiding by Samael and Vulgrim, who continues his run of appearing in every Darksiders game to date.
If you’re new to the Darksiders franchise and its bonkers lore and love of huge armor then all of this might sound a bit naff. And it kind of is. Without prior knowledge of the series the first hour or two can be a bit confusing with strange terms like The Charred Council and The Balance being thrown around. It’s goofy stuff, but somehow it works. While it’s certainly not great storytelling in the traditional sense Genesis manages to deliver a plot that doesn’t get in the way, provides an excuse for the action, and is still enjoyable in a mindless, action-romp sort of way. It’s like a good action movie; enough plot to vaguely justify all the death and give you an excuse to drink a copious amount of fizzy drinks and eat a fucking tonne of sweets.
And if you happen to be a returning veteran of Darksiders who, like me, is bafflingly invested in Darksiders lore then there are some nice new nuggets of information to be gathered up and hoarded like some sort of demonic squirrel.
But let’s get into the actual gameplay which is actually familiar top-down hack ‘n slasher fare but executed so well that you won’t care that it isn’t dripping in goopy creativity. Provided you’re playing solo you can swap between War and Strife on the fly, and Darksiders: Genesis does a nice job of making both characters feel unique. War is all about getting up close and intimate with his foes, his massive sword dealing big damage to anything unlucky enough to be on the same planet. Unlike Strife, War can block incoming attacks in order to remain nice and close to his victims, and can also launch heavy attacks. His special abilities include unleashing spikes that erupt out of the ground or turning his skin to stone in order to soak up damage like a boss.
As for Strife, he favors his twin guns which can be fired by aiming with the right stick and pulling the trigger. Some simple melee attacks help hold back the enemy if they do manage to get close, though. And while you dish out damage Strife’s special gauge builds up and when it actives it lets Strife fire faster and hit harder.
The various levels which make up the reasonably lengthy 10-15 hour campaign are nicely sized, offering extra space for exploring. You even get to summon up Strife and War’s horses to ride around, a concept I wish got used more. It’s fun to gallop around and smash some bad guys from the saddle, but there was a lot more that could have been done with the Horsemen’s equine companions.
By searching the maps for hidden chests both War and Strife can earn special selectable modifiers for their weapons. Strife, for example, can swap between several secondary ammo types such as arcing electric bullets or a powerful beam that can rip through numerous enemies at once. War, meanwhile, can imbue his giant blade with the ability to suck up health or to add some extra types of attack. These abilities can all be easily changed on the fly, too, by bringing up a radial menu. The fact that these skills are hidden around the levels, as are other items like health shards, gives you a good reason to explore every nook and cranny.
The real key to what makes fighting the dozens of enemy types feel good is the audio and visual cues. Through the sounds of Strife’s guns and the weight of War’s sword swings combat is given a nice, meaty impact that keeps the slaughtering satisfying and fun. The gruesome execution moves are a nice touch too, even if the zoomed out camera makes them harder to appreciate. Plus, you even get to unleash massive firey demon versions of War and Strife every now and then. Who doesn’t like that?
But it isn’t all decapitations and ballets of death. The Darksider games like a bit of platforming and puzzle-solving, and Darksiders: Genesis is no different. Top-down views are often a little iffy for accurate platforming so it’s hardly surprising that you’ll fail the occasional leap because you couldn’t gauge distances right. However, for the most part, the platforming is quite fun, largely because it never requires you to be too precise.
As for the puzzles they’ve been kept nice and simple, possibly because neither Strife nor War seems like they have the patience for tricky brain-busters when there are monsters to be smashed. Mostly it boils down to hitting a few switches or maybe matching up some symbols. Simple, easy stuff that helps break up the action a little. But there are a few fun gadgets thrown into the mix, such as Strife’s portals that can be tossed onto specific surfaces, or War’s Vorpal blade that can bounce from target to target.
The prior Darksiders games have all allowed the Horsemen to buff themselves up in various forms, and Genesis carries on that tradition, albeit with an unusual system that involves gathering Creature Cores from slain foes. Different cores offer up different bonuses from a simple increase in damage to buffing special abilities or even adding some new ones, like a chance to leave a trail of fire when you dash. On top of that collecting cores, you already have increased their total power, making them more effective. This is where things get a little more complicated: you need to slot the Cores into a giant board. When the first Core is placed it opens up the adjacent slots and so on, with different slots featuring symbols that match those on the cores. By matching symbols you get an extra power boost. If that wasn’t enough then some slots can’t make use of a fully leveled up Core’s powers. Finally, there are special slots for Major Cores – the kind you get from beating up the larger monsters and bosses – and these provide the biggest bonuses.
It’s a cumbersome system in some ways that feels over-designed. It certainly took me a little while to properly grasp it. Once you do, though, it’s quite satisfying to use, even if it has the same problem as a lot of upgrade systems – you don’t notice the little stat increases in the actual gameplay. Just playing through on the regular difficulty you don’t actually need to pay too much attention to Cores and their placement either, but if you plan on replaying level on the harder settings then that’s where the whole system comes into its own.
It’s clear that the developers want you to tackle those tougher settings and focus on building up your Creature Cores, and I did find myself doing just that. Sadly, there’s no endgame content so you really are just going through the same levels again with tougher foes, but the gameplay is strong enough to warrant it, I feel.
All of this glorious carnage and Creature Core gathering can be experienced solo, but you can also rope a friend into the action, too. Sadly there’s no co-op specific mechanics like joint attacks or anything cool like that, but it’s still heaps of fun to have a friend lopping off limbs beside you. It makes me hope that if we ever do get to see a true Darksiders sequel with the full complement of Horsemen that four players will be able to team up in co-op. That’d be pretty sweet.
Coming from the silky-smooth action of the PC version of Darksiders: Genesis the drop-down to just 30FPS is a harsh pill to swallow. That extra smoothness makes heaps of difference in a game like this. Still, swallowing that pill wouldn’t be so much of a pain in the throat if it wasn’t for the performance problems. Even on an Xbox One X Darksiders: Genesis struggles to hold 30FPS, often dropping a few frames and thereby giving a feeling of stuttering. Occasionally it drops more than that. It never gets bad enough to ruin the game entirely or anything, but it mars the otherwise excellent combat.
The months between the PC launch and the console version should really have given the developers some time to apply a bit of spit and polish, but sadly pretty much all the same bugs and glitches are to be found. Enemies have a tendency to vanish during execution animations or appear several feet to the right or left of where they should be, leaving War to stab nothing but air like he’s trying to impale the Invisible Man. Bad guys also get stuck inside of scenery a fair bit, and you’ll get stuck on bits of the level, too. I even got stuck on loading screens a couple of times.
It’s definitely got some rough edges, even with those extra months between releases, but ultimately Darksiders: Genesis is actually a solid game. The mixture of combat, platforming, and puzzle-solving is compelling stuff that nicely ticks the “fun, mindless entertainment” box that floats around inside my head. And I don’t mean that as in insult. Not everything needs to be the next great work of art or full of complex, nuanced mechanics. It’s enough for a game to just be bloody good fun. That’s what Darksiders: Genesis is – bloody good fun.