First comes War; then comes Death. Appropriately enough, Darksiders II turns its eyes from its predecessor's protagonist to a new one: Death himself, War's brother and one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. His story plays out over the same time period as War's, but Darksiders II's narrative isn't so much about plot as it is about place and tone. The original Darksiders set a darkly fantastical mood, but the sequel hones its edges. The armor is still chunky and the sound of steel on steel still rings across battle arenas, but the skies are more ominous, the shadows grimmer, and the architecture sharper, as if every spire threatens to puncture the heavens and make them bleed.
And so Darksiders II draws you in not by narrative, in spite of its characters' frequent and raspy soliloquizing. Rather, it uses sights and sounds to impress upon you the importance of your deeds. While one level harks back to the angels-versus-demons, Christian apocalypse themes of the original game, Darksiders II springs forth from a more inventive vision. The dusky dungeons and desert expanses are more diverse than before, and the character designs are more imaginative, as if they've wandered in from biblical legends you've never heard. The characters you meet--undead rulers and impossibly proportioned behemoths among them--speak with humorless gravity, and Death often responds with a sneer and a verbal challenge.
The joylessness of Darksiders II's characters is a contrast to the pleasure of existing in this world. An icy opening introduces you to the basics of combat and movement. In traditional action game style, you slash away at clawed creatures with primary and secondary weapons. You run along walls and jump across beams like a devilish Prince of Persia. But most importantly--and in contrast to the original--your enemies drop coins, armor, and weapons. You can don equipment, sell it to a merchant, or sacrifice it to level up rare possessed weapons, which you can customize at certain thresholds.
If the original Darksiders was an action/adventure/puzzle game, then the addition of loot drops role-playing elements into that mix, which brings to mind a potential concern: Darksiders was already a heavy mixture of recipes that had come before, recalling games like The Legend of Zelda, God of War, and even Portal. There were so many mechanics and so many tools to keep track of that the game struggled to find its own identity.
In Darksiders II, a funny thing happens on the way to the apocalypse: it establishes an identity all its own, rather than one defined through the games that inspired its existence. The game's expanded scope (about twice as big as the first game) and thoughtful pace (about twice as long as the first game) are most responsible for this. You now have a chance to breathe between battles, and each new mechanic has time to settle in before a new one is introduced. The more leisurely sense of pace is obvious from the very beginning. Darksiders' first hour was front-loaded with explosions, angelic cries, and the bloodcurdling sights of demonic forces swarming across the earth. Here, there are moments to take in the frozen chasms beneath you, and to enjoy the slick new motion mechanics that have you defying gravity in heady flights of fancy. (You won't miss War's wings in light of Death's fleet-footedness.)
You might miss the up-front barrage of action at first, but Darksiders II is more about adventure than constant onslaught, though there are plenty of battles waiting ahead. As you ride your steed to the first main dungeon, you can relish the green fields of the first of multiple major regions, and simply enjoy the act of being. If you want, you can explore some of the surrounding ruins, where treasure chests protect valuable pauldrons and cloaks. Or you can slash up the baddies that roam the land, even from atop your horse. But once you get into the dungeons, Darksiders II becomes special--more cerebral than your average action game, and more energetic than your average exploration game.
As expected, each dungeon requires that you puzzle out how to get from one point to the next. At first, this involves scaling walls, throwing the naturally occurring bombs you stumble upon, and pulling a few levers. Then, you get a phantom grapple hook that allows you to swing from glowing hooks and extend your wall runs. Later, you split yourself in three, petrifying your main form and using two doppelgangers to stand on switches and move platforms. Ultimately, you fire portals to travel across great ravines and even through time itself--and these are hardly the extent of the tools you use to make progress through Darksiders II's clever self-contained puzzles.