The first Darksiders game saw you take control of War, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, as he fought to discover who among the warring forces of Heaven and Hell had sought to bring about Armageddon and the End of Days.
Caught between hordes of demons and swarms of avenging angels, mistrusted by his masters on the Charred Council and – let's face it – with a habit of making only the most brutal kind of enquiries, War succeeded in unravelling the mystery... but not without drawing down an unjust death sentence on his own head.
Darksiders II takes place in parallel to the first game. You step into the blood-soaked boots of another of the Four Horsemen, Death, who is convinced of War's innocence and sets out to prove it. Against the orders of the Charred Council, Death embarks on a quest to uncover the conspiracy at work – a journey that will take him into strange dimensions inhabited by beings both angelic and diabolical, many of them intent on nothing less than his complete obliteration.
Darksiders II is a creation of magnificent scale and splendour. From the outset, you're pitched into a world brimming with vast, open spaces and labyrinthine dungeons, all beautifully realised in an atmospheric palette of dark, doomy hues. The music is nerve-tingling and blood-pumping by turns; the sound effects as crunchy and impactful as if you were charging around in other-worldly armour yourself.
As the story is so central to the experience, the quality of the voice acting is all-important, and Darksiders II boasts actors as accomplished as Michael Wincott (who played the lizard-like Guy of Gisborne in the movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) and James Cosmo (Lord Commander Mormont in HBO's Game of Thrones). The result? The dialogue shines, and the plot – which is a twisting, turning marvel – remains gripping throughout.
Options and menus are streamlined from the start, ensuring that the focus stays on the adventure. A huge amount of character customisation and enhancement is available during the course of the quest via a handy inventory system, and it's great fun getting to grips with the various skill upgrades and weapon choices as you go along. With an intuitive control system and loose-limbed, lifelike animation, Darksiders II is action at its most immersive.
In the earliest days of the world, when the war between Heaven and Hell seemed set to unbalance all creation, the Charred Council was formed to oversee the struggle and ensure that neither side won the advantage for too long. To achieve this, the Council offered four of the Nephilim – a race of angel-demon hybrids – incredible powers if they would agree to act as a kind of inter-dimensional peacekeeping squad, at least until the fledgling race of mankind had time to find its feet and Armageddon could proceed in a more orderly fashion.
The result was the creation of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: War, Fury, Strife and Death. As the star of Darksiders II, the latter is a grim-faced, gore-loving fiend with moon-pale skin and a pair of evil scythes with which to dispatch his many enemies. Seated upon his demonic steed, Despair, Death cuts a fearsome figure – he is no ordinary hero.
With his brother unfairly accused of trying to bring about an early Apocalypse, Death is hell-bent on clearing his name. To do so, he has to seek out (and usually slay) some of the most monstrous beings this side of Satan. Brotherly love was never so extreme as this, nor so gloriously gruesome – so it's lucky that our friend Death is annihilation incarnate...
Darksiders II plays fast and furious, a relentless, combat-fuelled tour of the diabolical dimensions that slows only so that you can upgrade your abilities and deal out destruction with even greater ferocity.
The game's combat system is expertly pitched, combining frenzied combos and earth-shaking finishers with elements of strategy. You won't defeat the dark forces simply by bashing buttons – triumph comes only to those who master a more fluid, responsive style of battle incorporating lightning-quick timing, defensive dodges and well-placed sorcery.
Besides your Health Meter, you'll need to keep an eye on both your Wrath Meter and your Reaper Meter. When the former fills, you'll be rewarded with special abilities; when the latter maxes out, you'll assume Death's ghostly Grim Reaper form for a short time, inflicting greater damage on your foes and providing more resilience to their attacks. Other ways to intensify the action include trading with merchants you meet along the way or exchanging several weaker weapons for a single more terrifying one. Axes, maces, diabolical armour, even a grappling hook – there's a ton of equipment to discover, all of it demon-forged or divine, ready to make your opponents wish they'd never materialised.
Just as the game's trading and treasure-hunting add immeasurable depth to the quest, its combination of free-roaming overworlds and maze-like dungeons (packed with puzzles to solve and obstacles to leap, swing and scramble over) ensure the adventure stays fresh, especially when you add Death's phantom mount, Despair, to the mix. Galloping across blasted wastelands on the back of a black destroyer is the perfect complement to the dungeon-based missions, and a stylish way to show the powers of Heaven and Hell that Death himself is back in business.