What would you get if you combined The Legend of Zelda, God of War, Diablo, and a smattering of 90s comic books? Odds are, you’d get something akin to Darksiders. After the closing of THQ and eventual shuttering of developer Vigil Games, the fate of the Darksiders franchise was unclear. Nordic Games, now THQ Nordic, ended up acquiring the license and eventually re-released Darksiders II in a “Deathinitive Edition”, but seemingly passed up the first game. I suppose they were just waiting to come up with a suitable pun, because Darksiders: Warmastered Edition has arrived, bringing the original’s unique blend of Zelda-style adventuring and hack-and-slash combat to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One (as well as PC and the Wii U, eventually). Fans and newcomers alike are now able to experience War’s quest for redemption on modern hardware, but unfortunately, myriad issues (on PS4, at least) prevent this Warmaster from being truly “deathinitive.”
The story of Darksiders is a heavily stylized, fantastic take on the biblical apocalypse. In the midst of an eternal conflict between Heaven and Hell, a group of fiery talking heads known as the Charred Council interferes, bringing the conflict to heel with the aid of their mighty enforcers, the Four Horsemen. When the apocalyptic final battle finally begins, the Horseman War joins the fray, only to find himself stripped of his powers and on trial for triggering the apocalypse early. War must therefore set out to clear his name, travelling across the ravaged Earth in search of answers and eventually uncovering a vast conspiracy involving both angelic and demonic forces. The story isn’t really anything to write home about, but is salvaged by confidence in tone and an utter commitment to its bizarre universe. Darksiders is an amalgamation of comic book and fantasy tropes, glued together by Battle Chasers and X-Men artist Joe Madureira’s stylish artwork, but it carries itself with barely the slightest hint of irony, which makes War’s blood-soaked tale of vengeance and redemption surprisingly endearing. It may seem like Todd MacFarlane got his hands on a bunch of rejected Games Workshop designs at times, but it works.
Storytelling isn’t the only area in which Darksiders feels familiar. It’s essentially a 3D Zelda game, but with combat cribbed from God of War. After a disproportionately combat-heavy prologue, the game settles into a rhythm of overworld exploration, puzzle-solving in dungeons, and boss fights that will seem familiar to any fan of the Zelda franchise. These well-designed dungeons, along with the satisfying combat, take up the brunt of the game’s 20 hour length, although there are a number of other nods and references to popular titles: There are life upgrades that need to be collected in sets of four, souls that are used as currency, a boss resembling a giant sandworm that is fought on horseback, and even a portal gun. This kitchen sink approach to game design can seem a little ridiculous at times, but outside of a few instances where the game deviates into third-person shooter territory (and suffers for it), the execution is above-average at worst and quite inventive in the game’s brightest moments. There are enough satisfying “ah-ha” moments during puzzle solving to satisfy fans of Zelda, and while the pacing suffers a bit due to the forays into different gameplay styles, it’s overall a remarkably engaging adventure.
Darksiders’ combat controls are fluid and responsive, and War is able to string together combos as effortlessly as the Kratoses or Dantes of the world. War starts off which just his Chaoseater sword, but eventually gains an extensive arsenal including a scythe, a pistol, and several tools with which to dispatch enemies and solve puzzles alike. I’m particularly fond of the Crossblade, which fulfills a similar function to Link’s Boomerang in that it’s a multi-target weapon that can also be used to hit switches, but in this case is a giant shuriken which can be used to stun and deal damage to enemies for an extended period of time. War can spend souls to purchase new combos and enhancements from a demon named Vulgrim, and both the sword and scythe level up with use and can be slotted with various passive abilities. There’s also the Chaos Form, where War essentially transforms into the Balrog from Lord of the Rings and wreaks havoc upon whatever fool saw fit to engage him. War certainly isn’t lacking for options in combat, and there’s something inherently cathartic about tearing off an angel’s wings before using its own spear to impale it.
Joe Madureira’s art style comes to vivid life in Darksiders’ presentation. A large portion of the game’s character designs look as though Diablo and Spawn got together to build a Warhammer 40,000 army while listening to some sick Manowar riffs (honestly, the only thing missing from Darksiders’ smorgasbord of influences is a heavy metal soundtrack—the epic fantasy score gets the job done, however). There’s a unique blend of the fantastic and the modern that really sells the comic book aesthetic of this universe. Metallic angels with glowing wings fire laser rifles, while enormous demons rise from pools of lava and throw cars around. One mid-game dungeon takes place in a partially flooded subway station that has also been repurposed into a kind of post-apocalyptic gothic cathedral, providing a fitting microcosm of the game as a whole. There are also all sorts of little details in the environment that aren’t as impressive as they might have been at one point, but are fun nevertheless, like the ability to run over fire hydrants and have a geyser of water erupt from the ground. It’s also worth mentioning that the voice work is quite good, with Liam O’Brien providing the gravelly overtones of War, and even Mark Hamill lending his prestigious talents to the gleefully cackling Watcher.
All this is true of the original game, which means it’s probably time to get into what exactly is brought to the table by this “Warmaster.” Unfortunately, this is where the majority of problems begin to show. For the most part, the game has been bumped to 60 FPS, but I ran into a couple of instances, such as an on-rails section atop a griffon and a particularly challenging early-game boss fight, where I swear the framerate chugged to single digits. There’s also some lag whenever War enters a new area, a tutorial message pops up, or the player decides to open or close the menu. Textures and environments have been polished up, although there are a couple of post-processing effects I personally found distracting and would honestly recommend disabling. “Vignettes” adds a faint black border around the edges of the screen, while “Chroma FX” adds a hazy filter to the game’s lighting which seems to make everything look murkier. Without them, the Warmastered Edition looks quite sharp. The most egregious offense, however, are the various audio bugs I encountered throughout my playthrough. Dialogue quickly becomes desynced by several seconds during cutscenes, leaving characters flapping their mouths in silence during cinematic moments, which is a shame because this game’s dialogue is such an enormously cheesy treat. There were also instances where cutscenes would randomly skip altogether, unprompted, but dialogue would continue playing during the ensuing gameplay. THQ Nordic has said that they are working to address these issues on PS4, but until then, I find it difficult to recommend Darksiders: Warmastered Edition over its last-gen counterpart.
Ultimately, Darksiders is a solid action-adventure title, the likes of which we don’t see often nowadays. The Warmastered Edition, however, is a disappointingly lackluster re-release, with a number of bugs that weren’t present in the original release that serve to hinder the experience. As a series fan, I hope that THQ Nordic eventually releases a patch to address these problems, because the tantalizing possibility of a Darksiders III involving all four Horsemen of the Apocalypse theoretically rests on the success of these remasters… but aside from all that, Darksiders is a good enough game to deserve the extra tender love and care.
Editor’s Note: As of this writing, THQ Nordic has released a patch that addresses some, but not all, of the aforementioned bugs. The audio synchronization has been fixed during cutscenes, as has the heavy slowdown during at least one of the encounters where it had been prevalent. I still had a cutscene skip on me randomly (complete with dialogue continuing during the boss fight), although it seems to happen far less frequently. I have nevertheless adjusted the scores of this review accordingly.