The Darksiders series is in kind of a weird spot these days. Following the collapse of THQ and original developer Vigil Games, THQ Nordic — formerly dubbed Nordic Games — picked up the rights to the property. Under THQ Nordic’s stewardship, two developers consisting of former Vigil staff have gotten to take a stab at making a new Darksiders game: Gunfire Games and Airship Syndicate. Their inaugural attempt, Darksiders III, was a messy Dark Souls clone, but it sold well enough to reinforce the publisher’s commitment to the brand. Now it falls to Airship Syndicate, hot off the heels of Battle Chasers: Nightwar, to carry the torch.
Enter Darksiders Genesis. At first blush, the game evokes images of Diablo, with its top-down perspective and inclusion of cooperative play. And while there is certainly a little bit of influence from the house of Blizzard present in Darksiders Genesis, the hack-and-slash combat and emphasis on exploration and puzzle-solving at the game’s core are perhaps more faithful to the spirit of the first Darksiders than either of its sequels. In fact, I would go so far as to call this a return to form. Despite the change in perspective, Darksiders Genesis is a worthy continuation of the Darksiders series, although it isn’t without some blemishes.
Genesis means the origin or coming into being of something. Alternatively, it can refer to the first canonical book of the Jewish and Christian scriptures. True to its name, Darksiders Genesis takes us farther back into the Darksiders timeline than we’ve been before, although calling it a true origin story is stretching it. Fresh off the heels of annihilating their Nephilim brethren, the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are pressed into the service of the Charred Council, a governing body of giant heads that oversee the Balance of creation. When the Council gets word that the demon Samael is working with Lucifer in an effort to upset the Balance, they send two of the Horsemen to investigate: War, the protagonist of the original Darksiders, and Strife, the gun-toting warrior we briefly saw in Darksiders III.
Of course, not all is as it seems, and War and Strife find Samael’s fortress under assault from another Master of Hell, Moloch. Samael denies any association with Lucifer, but before War and Strife can press him for more information, they are attacked by Moloch and teleported into the Void. There, after meeting up with Samael’s associate Vulgrim (another returning character from the original game), the two Horsemen set out to uncover Lucifer’s sinister schemes and find out how the Masters of Hell are tied up in them.
If all of that sounds like a lot of proper nouns and goofy comic book cheese, it should. Darksiders has always been a larger-than-life property of overwrought, yet earnest, dark fantasy. This is thanks in no small part to creative director Joe Madureira (whose body of work includes Battle Chasers and Uncanny X-Men), who returns to the helm in Darksiders Genesis. Unfortunately, the narrative quickly runs out of steam, and the ending is so abrupt that I had to double-check and make sure I hadn’t skipped anything. Even though he’s presented as an antagonist, Moloch only serves to bookend the adventure, and despite the build-up, Lucifer doesn’t have much of an impact either. Part of the problem is that Darksiders Genesis is the third prequel in a series of four games (and that is very strange to me), meaning that there can’t really be any changes to the status quo from the original Darksiders. Fans have been clamoring for a resolution to the first game’s cliffhanger ending for over a decade now, and unfortunately, Genesis still isn’t that.
Where the narrative does excel, surprisingly, is in its character interactions. Strife is a lot more humorous than his angsty brethren, offering witty quips for just about any situation. He’s honestly a breath of fresh air for Darksiders. Strife and War journey together for the entire game, meaning that there is a lot more banter between the brothers than we would typically get from the solo adventures. I truly felt as though I got a better sense of who these characters are as characters this time around, rather than just arbiters of bloody violence. Little interactions like Strife enthusiastically cheering War on in battle, or War offering a rare moment of pathos in response to Strife questioning the Council’s hold over them, put a smile on my face. If we do ever get a game with the whole quartet, I look forward to seeing more of these interactions.
As mentioned previously, where past Darksiders games were third-person affairs, Darksiders Genesis is a top-down action-adventure title — think The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past with a smattering of Diablo thrown in for good measure. The game can be played cooperatively or with a single player: split-screen co-op is available from special obelisks accessible throughout. Players can also allow online friends to join their game. Darksiders Genesis is split into missions; each mission usually consists of a dungeon with a single primary goal, and players unlock small challenges and optional side missions as they progress through the area. These zones are fairly dense with enemies to slay and puzzles to solve, as well as a cavalcade of different collectibles for players to find. These include Boatman’s Coins (which can be traded alongside souls back at the Void for items and upgrades), Trickster Keys (that open special hidden treasure caches), Healthstones, and Wrathstones (which upgrade either War or Strife’s maximum health or Wrath gauge).
Players can control either Strife or War and switch between them at the press of a button. Each brother has access to a different toolset: Strife can use special bombs that open up portals, while War has access to a bladed gauntlet that can be used to hit switches. You’ll have to use each Horseman’s abilities in conjunction with one another in order to progress, and new abilities unlock further on in Darksiders Genesis. You can replay each mission too, and the game keeps track of how many collectibles are in each stage, encouraging players to revisit old areas and see what they missed.
Exploration in Darksiders Genesis usually feels rewarding, which is good because some of those items are deviously well-hidden. Naturally, the Horsemen can also mount their horses to navigate these zones a little faster, although your mount isn’t always available depending on the terrain and whether or not there is a major enemy engagement nearby. If I have one complaint about navigating these stages, it’s that the game occasionally asks players to complete a platforming challenge. These aren’t too taxing, but given the top-down, near-isometric perspective, gauging depth and distance for some of these, particularly a nasty bit involving a collapsing bridge (which had me pulling my hair out as I ran to my untimely demise), can be frustrating.
Each brother handles differently in combat, as well. War feels much the same as he did in the first game, wielding a massive greatsword to string light and heavy attacks together into devastating combos, as well as block enemy attacks. Strife, meanwhile, uses twin pistols in battle, and while he isn’t able to block, landing enough hits will activate a “hotstreak” that will dramatically boost damage output. War and Strife also have access to powerful Wrath abilities that use a portion of their Wrath Gauge. These attacks are mapped to the face buttons and can be anything from War performing a massive area of effect attack or Strife dropping a set of proximity mines for enemies to blunder into. Each Horseman can augment their attacks with different elemental properties, as well: War’s sword might be able to cause enemies to explode, or Strife’s shots can change into wide bursts that spawn health orbs.
When enemies take enough damage, pressing a button will cause the Horsemen to snap to their location and perform a grisly finisher, causing the enemy to explode like a loot-stuffed piñata. After enough damage has been dealt, the brothers can transform into a deadly Balrog-like demon for a brief period of time — Chaos Form and Anarchy Form for War and Strife, respectively — to wreak havoc on enemies and bosses alike. New to Darksiders Genesis is the Synergy gauge, which causes the other character to swap in and attack all nearby foes. All in all, Airship Syndicate did a great job of translating the feel of Darksiders’ combat into a new perspective. And while there are occasional foibles, like enemies who are close to walls not getting an execution prompt, combat generally feels snappy and fun.
Visually, Darksiders Genesis is very pleasing to the eye. Joe Madureira’s character designs are just sublime, and they really do the heavy lifting here, nailing the heavy metal, dark fantasy aesthetic of this universe. While by no means a graphical powerhouse, the exaggerated, colorful character designs mesh well with the windswept caverns, icy plains, or burning flows of lava that make up the game’s environments. I did encounter a few technical issues here and there: sometimes subtitles in cutscenes were out of sync with the voices or simply did not appear at all, and there was intermittent lag whenever the screen got really busy or the game was trying to load something. Still, these issues were few and far between. Audio-wise, Darksiders Genesis‘ music was composed by Gareth Coker, whose previous work includes both Ori games. It’s a good soundtrack, with lots of soaring vocals and dramatic orchestral flair. The voice acting is also very good: Liam O’Brien returns as the gruff and gravelly War, while Chris Jai Alex puts in fantastic work in bringing Strife to life. I also just really appreciate that Moloch is voiced by Keith David. That guy rules.
When I reviewed Darksiders III, I lamented that the Darksiders series had become a dead horse. The first two games were some of my favorite experiences during the seventh console generation, and I felt as though the franchise’s future was quite dire. I feel gratified, then, that Darksiders Genesis was able to turn things around. While by no means the pinnacle of the series, it’s a more than worthy successor to Vigil Games’ legacy and a very enjoyable action-adventure title that fans will get a kick out of. I can only hope that Airship Syndicate will one day be able to finally give us the conclusion to this epic saga of Heaven, Hell, and the Balance between them.