Darksiders (2010) Retrospective

There’s nothing wrong with being derivative if you do it well.

Darksiders is one of the rare series I’ll replay every few years and, despite agreeing with the arguments they’re all derivative amalgamations, I still like them more than many of their inspirations.

The most obvious inspiration for Darksiders (2010) is the 3D Legend of Zelda games but, at the time I first played, my experience was limited. I tried The Legend of Zelda and The Adventure of Link on the NES, but my younger self preferred simpler games like those I had first experienced in arcades: think short play sessions, a focus on improving skills through repetition, and chasing high scores.

It was only in my teenage years – having drifted away from Nintendo and fully invested in the PlayStation ecosystem – that I came to appreciate the influence those games had. Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain provided me with an ambitious yet inconsistent 2D Zelda-like experience, but it was the 3D sequel, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, that got me hooked on that distinctive gear- or skill-gated world structure, elaborate dungeons, and the idea boss battles could be puzzles.

As a result, the pre-launch marketing for Darksiders (2010) made it one of my rare day-one purchases and I was not disappointed. Thirteen years later, as an owner of a Nintendo Switch finally working through The Legend of Zelda series – I thought I’d get my thoughts in order and explain why I’d still recommend it over many of the games it draws inspiration from.

War goes to war with everybody

As much as I would love to say I bucked trends and was mature for my age, a combination of legitimate and self-defeating rebellion was common during my teenage years – a perfect fit for Darksiders’ fight-the-power narrative and a cast with only two emotions: anger and angst. Where The Legend of Zelda’s younger target audience could limit its narrative complexity, Darksiders (2010) went with an “edgy” mature rating – hardly novel for the era – and did something few games were brave enough to try.

Religious references are common enough in video game narratives and character design, but Virgil Games literalised chunks of the Christian “Book of Revelations”, personified angelic and demonic figures, and re-framed the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” as arbiters of “The Balance”. As enforcers for the neutral “Charred Council”, their task was to maintain a pact between Heaven and Hell – forged with “seven seals”, of course – to prevent an “End War” before the “Kingdom of Man” had risen in strength.

Events kick off in style as War – dutiful, stoic, and gravelly-voiced – arrives on Earth by way of a flaming meteor. He sets about laying waste to demon and angel alike, but soon realises the other horseman are absent; humanity is being wiped out as collateral in a battle that clearly started long before his arrival; and the leader of the angelic Hellguard, Abaddon, seems confused that War is present at all.

Abbadon falls to a powerful demon and, lacking the powers the breaking of the seventh seal should have imbued him with, War is swiftly defeated. He materialises a century later at the feet of the Charred Council, only to discover he’s accused of riding unbidden, triggering the End War, siding with demons, and dooming humanity in the process.

It’s a scripted, tutorial-heavy prologue but one that serves to establish War’s distrust for every faction. Still, in an attempt to preserve The Balance, he requests permission to return to Earth to try to hunt down the “Destroyer” – a new demonic overlord that has laid claim to the ruined Earth, guarded by a quintet of powerful “Chosen”. To keep him in line, he’s shackled to the wraith-like “Watcher” – voiced by Mark Hamill doing another Joker variant – and sent hurtling back into the fray.

Style and consistency

While Darksiders (2010) has a slow opening half, it commits to the wild premise and larger-than-life cast, consistently ramps up the intensity, and maintains a decent pace into the finale. Even a potentially annoying late-game fetch quest serves as an excuse for a string of important encounters and cutscenes (and secret hunting).

War begins his adventure conversing with Vulgrim, a demonic merchant that trades souls for information. He makes a deal with Samuel, an unhinged and scheming demon willing to unshackle his suppressed power and guide him to the Destroyer’s “Black Throne” in exchange for the power-infused hearts of the Chosen. He befriends Ulthane the Black Hammer, a “Maker” in self-imposed exile on Earth for actions he’s initially unwilling to disclose. He repeatedly battles Uriel, surviving leader of the Hellguard remnants, intent on seeing War pay for his supposed crimes.

Even his interactions with sentient Chosen are entertaining – at least for the brief period of time before he rips their beating hearts out.

Darksiders (2010) Samael

It helps no end that Darksiders (2010) features stylish, well-directed cutscenes that benefit from the visual style and character designs of Joe Madureira, dialogue delivered with almost theatrical prose, and an orchestral soundtrack that makes every interaction feel more epic than it probably deserves.

Another plus is how easy War is to like as a protagonist. At first, he’s an admirable foil to the deceitful and scheming secondary cast, but you’ll eventually realise he knows more than he’s letting on and actively works towards setting up a finale that ensures each faction pays for their betrayal of The Balance. It’s not the most surprising tale but it is satisfying and cathartic to watch events unfold.

That said, a novel premise, memorable characters, distinctive aesthetics, and stylish cutscenes can only carry a video game so far.

Darksiders (2010) Uriel

Cleaving apart demons and angels is fun…

Thankfully, Darksiders is mechanically fun, even if its hybrid gameplay loop feels skewed toward combat.

The combo-heavy, hack-and-slash mechanics feel similar to the PS3-era God of War games, with an effective dash and parry essential to defeating harder-hitting enemy types. It’s quick and stylish without needing too many inputs, and supplemented by power and gear upgrades, weapon enhancements, and a finisher system that – in addition to looking great without God of War’s tiresome button-mashing – provides vital invincibility frames during mass brawls.

In theory, there’s plenty of depth and several interconnected systems to consider. You acquire three weapons that improve with use: the Chaos Sword is an effective all-rounder, the Scythe is perfect for crowd control, and the Tremor Gauntlet excels at stunning single foes.

You can purchase new and upgraded combos for each weapon with the Souls currency (not the dropped-on-death kind), and they can be modified by equipping enhancements that add both weapon-specific bonuses and passive buffs.

War also has “Wrath” powers that offer both defensive and offensive spells at the cost of said resource; new gear provides useful combat abilities like knock-back, stunning, and air-juggling; while a Chaos meter builds up to unleash War’s ultimate form, giving you a few seconds of invincibility and massive damage output – useful for speeding through a boss phase or dispatching tougher foes in a mob.

It’s not without issues though. There are a limited number of chests and valuable artefacts to find, meaning you can’t upgrade everything in a single run without tedious grinding. As such, you’re incentivised to find a few combos you like and upgrade them. When you couple that design with spongey late-game enemies, non-boss combat eventually feels like a chore and this is one of the reasons I prefer the sequels.

Darksiders (2010) Weapons

…but I prefer the other gameplay elements

With all that combat, Darksiders (2010) offers little downtime, even when you’re puzzling your way through a sprawling dungeon or exploring every corner of the over-world for secreted-away legendary weapon enhancements, or health and wrath shards to boost their respective pools.

It’s a shame as the familiar structures turned into post-apocalyptic dungeons – think a ruined Gothic-style cathedral with a bat problem, a labyrinthine subway station infested with insects, and a web-strewn skyscraper canopy with giant spiders – are all smartly designed and visually striking. Many of the over-world areas feel a little barren by modern standards, but with oversized architecture that makes even War feel small, the world feels as grandiose and intimidating as any classic high-fantasy setting.

Darksiders (2010) Twilight Cathedral

Of course, it’s not just real-world locations fallen to ruin and overrun by green nature or reddish hellscapes: you’ll traverse the desert-like, worm-infested “Ashlands” by horse; explore an ethereal remnant of Eden adrift in the void; and ascend the utterly illogical Black Throne tower that dominates the horizon.

Even if each dungeon sticks rigidly to the “rule-of-three” approach lifted from The Legend of Zelda games, they’re lengthy and complex endeavors that highlight decent variety when it comes to traversal challenges, puzzle types, a few scripted sequences, and the Chosen boss fights.

You collect ancient sword-keys in lava-filled ruins below a cathedral; shift subway cars around and swim through a flooded station; slow time to dash across worm-infested dunes or avoid demonic machinery; and align beams of light throughout the dark tower to open the way forward.

To aid you in these tasks you’ll acquire new gear and powers as you go: spectral wings that allow you to glide short distances; a glaive that can imbue itself with fire; a grappling hook to swing across chasms; and even a portal gun to transport War and other objects.

Naturally, these upgrades aren’t limited to the dungeon they’re found in. Every new piece of equipment opens up more secrets in the over-world or in prior dungeons, and they’re essential to defeating the dungeon’s Chosen and several sub-bosses. A flaming glaive can bring down Tiamat, the Tremor Gauntlet can shatter The Griever’s armoured shell; and the portal gun allows you to avoid screen-filling attacks and reach the weak points of the massive Straga.

Darksiders (2010) Stygian Fight

It’s not all perfect, of course. Darksiders (2010) is fond of locking you in rooms until you defeat all enemies and you’ll break back-to-back curses, by way of eight tutorial-style challenge rooms, within the opening two hours – something that was dull the first time and gets progressively worse with each playthrough.

There are some brisk and entertaining scripted events – think stealing an angelic mount or demonic weapon and mowing down hordes for a few minutes – but the pure combat sequences always pale in comparison to engaging puzzle-like sequences that involve traversal, secret-hunting, and bosses. Oh, and part of that might be the distinctive audio tingle Darksiders gives when you walk into a puzzle room, followed by a satisfying “da da da dun” drum roll when you solve it.

The more you play, the more gear and powers you unlock, and the more complex the puzzles and boss encounters become. With a relatively brisk playtime of 15 hours, I’d argue it’s one of those rare games that offers a substantially better second half without losing steam.

There’s nothing wrong with being derivative if you do it well

Over 13 years since its first outing, and with each sequel garnering less success, Darksiders feels like an IP that’s slowly fading into obscurity; which is why I hope that if any of this sounds appealing – and especially if you’re a fan of The Legend of Zelda or God of War – you’ll at least give Darksiders (2010) a go.

The first game is not my favourite, but it is, objectively, the most cohesive and polished experience. It highlights what the IP has to offer, without the issues that come from a failing publisher mid-development or tight budget limitations. You can play it on every platform – including a great Switch port – and, as the subsequent games are all prequels or run concurrently, it also works perfectly as a standalone entry.

Darksiders (2010) might not offer gameplay as complex or polished as its many inspirations but you get an unashamedly over-the-top story, memorable characters, a distinctive visual style, and a varied gameplay loop that does a little bit of everything well enough. It’s rare that a jack-of-all-trades game rises above a 7/10 score, but I feel Darksiders (2010) excels at scratching several itches at once.

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