Darksiders II (Xbox 360) review:

Darksiders II (Xbox 360)

Where the original Darksiders' puzzles could drag, Darksiders II's are more expertly crafted, each one a little more difficult than the last--but never too difficult as to be frustrating. The learning curve is silky smooth, and once you reach the final dungeons, there are some outstanding moments when puzzling out a solution makes you feel remarkably smart. It's a tough tightrope for a developer to balance: making environmental puzzles feel challenging without becoming a roadblock to progression. Darksiders II's dungeons get it just right, giving you enough hints through camera angles and other subtle cues, and then trusting you to work out the solution. The only cue you can't rely on too heavily is your crow, Dust, who is supposed to point out your final destination should you get stuck, but might lead you astray, or flutter high above you and then teleport back.

Fortunately, you won't often need Dust's services, given each dungeon's natural progression. Nor will you need to worry about using a spinning blade to play connect-the-bombs, which was part of Darksiders' less appealing puzzles. You also needn't constantly fiddle with menus to switch between items and abilities, which is just as well, considering the sluggish menu performance. Given the sheer breadth of abilities, you still do a bit of controller micromanagement; you might need to switch between an ability and your revolver often in a particular level, for instance, though the related ability wheel is easily accessed with the D-pad. Nevertheless, managing your abilities and equipment is smoother than it was in the original.

Combat skills are divided into two trees and allow for powerful offensive moves (a vicious spin attack, for instance) or for summoning creatures to assist in battle (a murder of crows, perhaps). The action is largely satisfying: it's smooth and responsive under the fingers and is colorful and bloody onscreen. Death's primary scythes make for fluid combat, while his secondary weapon provides rhythmic diversity. That weapon might be a huge axe that sets wraiths on fire, or superfast gauntlets with an electric charge. Your grapple and your gun can also be valuable assets when certain foes join the fray, and battles are at their best when you confront multiple creatures with diverse attack patterns.

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Death can make these undead re-dead.

That isn't to say that Darksiders II's combat is all that challenging on normal difficulty, though it is more energetic than in the original. No longer can you whittle down a demon's health and perform a single-button finishing move almost every time. You can still perform such finishers, but they are far less common, though some equipment can raise your chances. Provided you have enough health potions (and there's no reason you shouldn't, given your easy wealth), you won't often feel in danger. Even certain bosses can be conquered in a single go, in contrast with Darksiders' more challenging endeavors. That's a particularly disappointing development when you reach the final monstrosity and realize it's an anticlimactic pushover.

The challenge is hit-and-miss, but the thrills are unmistakable. Easy as many are, the bosses are often enormous in scale, and some require the use of your special abilities--your grapple, for instance--to succeed. With only a couple of exceptions, Darksiders II doesn't use quick-time events to elicit excitement: the torrents of blood that spew across the screen are the direct result of your combos and volcanic fury. The biggest battles are pure power fantasy, reinforced by Death's ever-more-threatening armor and ever-more-potent weapons. Even the way Death opens doors and chests is part of this power trip, with the horseman summoning ghostly arms to perform such lowly labors.

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Stuck? All you have to do is look around, and the answers become clear.

If you want to further beat your chest and bellow, you can do so in the crucible, where you earn new equipment--or sacrifice it for the possibility of better loot--by taking on progressively stronger waves of baddies. Alas, you won't feel so powerful when coming head-to-head with Darksiders II's uncommon (but pace-breaking) execution foibles. Sluggish menus and occasional loading hitches aren't major issues, but annoying ones. Ditto for some invisible walls and unhelpful camera angles during platforming sequences. More important are the system crashes possible--though not inevitable--while playing the Xbox 360 version.

Don't let the scattered execution snafus be of great concern: Darksiders II is remarkably well put together, particularly in light of its impressive scope. Bigger doesn't mean better, of course, but this isn't a "more of the same, just bigger" kind of sequel. The game uses its expansive geography to cultivate a poetic tempo in which your intellectual triumphs are rewarded with the immediate pleasures of fleet-footed platforming and demonic brutality. In Darksiders II, Death is not an end, but rather, a portal to a memorable saga of snarling brutes and stolen souls.

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