The four horsemen of the apocalypse, it turns out, are actually the enforcers of the shadow council - the entities that sit between heaven and hell and stop things getting out of balance. At least, that's what THQ's new title Darksiders would have you believe - out now for 360 and PS3.
Cast as the fourth horseman of the Apocalypse, War, you've been framed for triggering the aforementioned apocalypse too soon. Stripped of your powers, you're sent back to earth a hundred years after the event to either put things right or die trying.
Darksiders is a third person action RPG, with a strong emphasis on the action. RPG mechanics are present (leveling up, loot) but only in so far as Prototype was an RPG; gear is obtained by spending souls you collect from slain enemies or find in chests, whilst leveling up happens at key points in the campaign (rather than by grinding mobs or similar).
The action parts come primarily in the combat system. There's an emphasis on stringing together combos (intially by just spamming the square button but eventually you buy moves and blocks that spice things up a bit) and there are loads of enemies to fight at any given time, each with their own particular set of tricks to use against you.
Combat flows reasonably well, particularly against the "cannon fodder" enemies (which typically swarm you). You can switch from target to target pretty easily and War almost always attacks the target you intend him to, without having to wrangle the controls much to make it happen. If you want to, you can lock on to an enemy by holding L2 which will ensure the camera keeps him in view and your moves will become relative to the position of the locked-on enemy.
Once you start facing the tougher foes, things start to lose their sheen a little in the combat department. War will not respond to moves like dash (to get out of the way) or block until he's finished animating that previous attack - sometimes these "wind down" animations can take an age to play out, resulting in numerous occasions where you're screaming at him to do what you want him to whilst the big, ugly bad guy winds up his attack oh so slowly before eventually slamming his ponderous fist into your head. Then he seems to laugh at you for being too rubbish to get out of the way. Frustrating.
Another frustrating element is the flow through some of the levels. Most of the time it's super linear (to the point of ludicrousness), where you enter an area, kill the bad guys and a new area will open as the old one closes behind. But sometimes you'll be completely stumped as to what on earth to do next and the game taunts you with idiotic clues which won't actually help you figure out what you're supposed to do. Once or twice could be chalked up to jaded reviewers and their deminishing skill at playing videogames but it happens often enough here to be assumed to be the fault of the game designers.
Getting around the (usually very pretty) environments can be unintentionally challenging at times, with War being a bit cumbersome at grabbing ledges or climbing out of water. Moving the camera whilst attached to a climbing wall is a bad idea as War will assume you want to leap off the wall and stop moving. You also have to be in exactly the right spot to activate things or climb off (or onto) things, leading to several situations where you assume you're doing the wrong thing when in fact you're right, you're just one pixel out from where you need to stand to make it happen.
The controls are more than adequate for the core exploration and evisceration, however once you start to add more complex moves to your repertoire things can get pretty awkward. For example, locking on is achieved by holding L2 whilst in order to access some special moves you need to hold in L1 and press a face button. That's all well and good for the "We always use two fingers for the shoulders on each side" PlayStation generation but for those of us that were playing games when that crowd were sucking at their mother's teats, pressing two shoulder buttons on one side at a time is a bit of a stretch. Some of the moves you can buy have some quirky button / joystick combinations required to execute as well, symptomatic perhaps of the number of moves you can buy (quite a few, although not as many as Prototype).
Character and NPC designs are generally really interesting and unique, with angelic hosts all decked out in futuristic armor and the demonic crowd looking like they've just crawled straight out of hell. War himself is a moody chap, with his demeanour, look and penchant for hoods being very reminiscent of Too Human. In fact the entire game is pretty reminiscent of Too Human, only without the random loot dropping from monsters, futuristic twist or Denis Dyack's failed attempts at schmoozing the fans.
The initial impression of Darksiders is pretty bleak, particularly fresh after playing through Bayonetta (where the combat is spectacularly polished and has considerably more depth). Once you get into the groove, however, Darksiders has a level of magic about it that transcends most of the awkwardness of the game engine. It is fun to explore and see what's going to happen next, assuming you can find your way through the "puzzles" to get there.
Performance on the PS3 is mostly fine, however the game is peppered with micro-pauses (they seem to be around saving, loading and pausing). They're frequent enough that you never quite get used to them, particularly when they happen mid combat. Otherwise the game looks very good most of the time, with a distinct look which is uniquely its own and is carried off well throughout the game.
Darksiders is good but not great, although it's sure to find a smattering of die-hard fans that will love it regardless of its quirks. If you can get through the first few hours, you'll probably finish it and look back on it with mixed (but mostly pleasant) emotions. With a solid base like this to build on, a sequel could be very special indeed - just please spend the time on game design that it needs to lift the core of the title out of the average domain in which it currently resides.