On January 5, 2010, I was still reeling from the rush of fall 2009. Uncharted 2, Borderlands and Assassin’s Creed II were all in regular circulation on my television. THQ and Vigil Games’ Darksiders quickly became one of those games I’ll “get to later.” Right.

The apocalypse came and went, and I barely noticed… until last fall when I finally made the time to experience one of the most intriguing new IPs of this generation. I picked my way through the fall of humanity and the condemnation of War, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, consuming everything I could and hunting down every last collectible. It wasn’t long after that I had my first opportunity to see Darksiders II in action. Being able to so quickly see the changes new protagonist Death brings to the series, all while holding fast to Joe Maduiera‘s fantastic art, gave me great appreciation for the underlying design concept driving the franchise forward.

Darksiders II is bold for so many reasons. Shifting from the heavily muscled, overt, unstoppable force embodied in white-haired War to the smaller, lithe and enigmatic figure of Death left many gamers wondering how the sequel would fare. Making the transition from action-adventure to action-RPG though, was more readily welcomed, especially when the loot system was first showcased. Watching the game in motion was when things started to gel for those of us fortunate enough to attend the game’s first press reveal. This wasn’t a rehash of something we’d already played. It was an evolution.

What War did with force, Death does with grace.

You'll have plenty of loot to mull over in Darksiders II.

I am thrilled to share with you that while Darksiders II had a smidgen of stumbles along the way for me, it does so many things right that those sparse imperfections were washed away in a tide of pure, unadulterated enjoyment. Beneath the mind-bending platforming and traversal elements, visceral and satisfying combat, intriguing narrative and one of the most compelling scores ever to grace the medium is the most important thing that a game can bring to the table: fun.

This return to a cosmos out of balance expands far beyond the realm of man, explaining the origins of so many things encountered during our quest in War’s heavy, steel-everythinged boots. Those strange crystalline growths littering the decrepit cities of a post-humanity hellscape, the race of the hulking Ulthane and even the very origin of the four Riders will be revealed along this journey. However, the game does not serve all its juiciest bits on a platter for every wanderer. No, while the critical path of Death’s mission to clear the name of his brother War (accused in the first game of prematurely starting the apocalypse) will take you in the neighborhood of 20 hours, there is so very much more you can invest in the game.

Side quests litter each of the four realms you’ll traverse, with many of them requiring patience to fully unravel. For those that do seek to tug on the threads of fate, there will be enormous interior locations (ones you won’t otherwise see on your adventure) just waiting for your ghastly visage. Taking on these additional challenges won’t be easy, but Vigil has ensured that you will have a great many tools at your disposal.

As imposing as Death is, even he marvels at the hewn stone of the Forge Lands.

The things that do live in the Land of the Dead chill even a Horseman's heart.

Darksiders offered up moves you could purchase to enhance War’s killing prowess, along with upgradeable secondary weapons (including those wielded by his fellow Horseman). That concept is vastly expanded in the sequel. Death will still acquire new button-combo moves from trainers, but Harvester (his mutable scythe(s)), armor and a wide variety of both slow/heavy and fast/light armaments will litter the ground in the wake of your reaping. This is one huge step away from classic action-adventure, firmly planting one of the series’ feet in the realm of action-RPG.

If you’ve ever played Diablo, World of Warcraft or Borderlandsyou will instantly recognize the color-coding at work. In Darksiders II though, the whites, greens, blues and purples that make up the rainbow of your inventory don’t simply relate to rarity and rarely correspond directly to raw power. Rather, the further up the food chain you get, the more additional benefits your gear will bestow. This creates some tough, but never unenjoyable, choices when gearing up (not the least of which is choosing the armor that looks the coolest). Later on in the game, you will discover unique, named weapons. These typically have unique benefits like “Bloodlust,” which increases your strength inversely proportional to your health. These are mere novelties, though. At the top of the pyramid, peering down as all other gear cowers, are the Possessed Weapons.

These random drops, outlined in red, their mere glow conveying a nigh unquenchable thirst can show up at any time. They take the form of scythes, hammers, axes, arm blades, claws and every other type of offensive equipable item. At first, they may appear weaker than other gear at comparable levels, but great power lies within each one. Possessed weapons may be upgraded five times by feeding them other gear. Each time the meter is filled, players can choose to either add another benefit like improved critical chance, elemental damage, additional strength and more. Once fully evolved, this gear is hands down more powerful and beneficial than static gear. The downside is that inventory management becomes a matter of storing gear until the next Possessed drop.

Harvester, Death's scythe, can take many forms.

Nightmare on Realm Street.

One of the best features of these rarest of finds, though purely inconsequential in terms of gameplay, is that they can be renamed. I have wielded scythes called The Futternator and Tib Rickler. I have smashed foes with the lightning-infused Hebrew Hammer. I have… “trimmed” demons with an axe known only as The Mohel (ask a Jewish friend). It’s a silly, but wonderful, feature. Also, using the Serpent Tome in-game item emailing system, I can pass them on to a friend (on the same platform) when I’ve outgrown the weapons.

In addition to the gear and skills for purchase, Death’s prowess grows by earning experience through combat and questing. At each level, significant main story juncture and from rare collectible turn-ins, Death will receive a skill point that can be invested in one of 33 different abilities. These are split into two primary trees: Harbinger and Necromancer. The former is focused on brute strength and proficiency with direct, offensive capabilities. The latter is centered on crowd control, defense and battlefield manipulation. Raising ghouls from the grave to draw aggro and restore Wrath (the power for your skill tree-based maneuvers). 

I suggest committing to one tree or the other early on, you’ll have a more focused attack profile. Later, you can visit Vulgrim (who returns for this second outing) and pay a paltry 1,000 gilt (the game’s money) to respec. Toward the end of your journey, that is an extremely small price to pay to tweak your skill set. You can test your builds in the 100-level Crucible arena. Every five rounds, you can choose to cash out or keep fighting. Lose though, and you’ll earn nothing.

The skill trees allow you to build a Death that suits your play style.

Come closer, see what Vulgrim has to offer...

Vulgrim will also sell you random items from each of the rarity tiers, however you’ll need one of the game’s collectible Boatman Coins in addition to gilt. These are worth investing in because they are one of the ways to land a precious Possessed Weapon. You won’t be seeing the demonic merchant much during the game, though. The Serpent Holes from Darksiders have been done away with. These were a neat idea, but bogged the game down. Instead, you’ll be able to freely fast travel at any time, even from within dungeons.

Popping out for more health and wrath potions is extremely easy, as you’ll leave a waypoint behind. These allow you to return to where you were before departing. Saving works the same way. I truly love the little touches in Darksiders II, like the initial loading screen. You’ll see your Death standing there, waiting for you. Pressing start, fades out the menu, swings the camera around and you’re exactly where you left off. This is a simple, but effective, accessibility inclusion that more developers should implement.

Another convenience issue comes in the form of Dust, a crow that can be employed to direct you toward your next objective. You must manually activate him, so there is no fear that he will give away the game by accident. He will continue to fly around, though. His presence is comforting, and often made me feel like I wasn’t quite so alone.

Death is never alone.