Sockets and gems! I love sockets and gems. So imagine my delight when, a few minutes into Darksiders: Genesis, a fresh perspective on the Hellish Zelda-alike series about monsters and demons, I clicked on a stray tab to find a whole page of sockets just waiting for gems.
Let me try to explain this. Enemies in Genesis sometimes drop special gems known as cores. The core for each enemy type is unique and bestows a unique perk. The more you have of each core, the more they level up and the perks get better. (This can get rather grindy, incidentally.)
Now, to access these perks you have to put them in sockets on the socket tree. And here’s where it gets fun. Behold the socket tree! Sockets come in three flavours, and while you can put any old core in any old socket, if you match socket flavour to core flavour you get extra synergy. Throw in special cores that really big baddies and bosses drop and you have a recipe for fun. I have spent many hours in Genesis switching in and out sockets and watching what happens to the overall power levels of my two characters as I do so. It’s nice to see the numbers go up. That’s Genesis, isn’t it? In the beginning, developers created the sockets and the gems. The numbers went up and it was good.
In between fiddling with gems and sockets, Darksiders: Genesis is a pretty entertaining game in its own right. The temptation is to look at the distant top-down-ish camera and the hordes of baddies and think, oh, this is Darksiders trading Zelda for Diablo. That’s not quite it. There’s plenty of crunching through enemies to be done, and Genesis has flair for a skeleton cracking under the blow from a sword that would make Blizzard proud, but the skills never encourage the Diablo Glissando, and the Darksiders developers remain attached to combos and puzzles – puzzles involving switches, portals, traversal, lava and all that jazz. There’s nothing that’s going to confuse you too badly, but it adds more to the texture of each level, the shape of each mission, than you’d expect from a Diablo-like.
There are two characters to play (if you’re playing solo, you can switch between them), and they’re both horsemen of the apocalypse. War is serious and has a sword. Strife is cheerful and favours a gun which can fire different ammo types. That’s the starting point, anyway, but they both develop a nice suite of abilities throughout the adventure. To put it in Diablo language – I’ve just said it’s not that much like Diablo but whatever – War is sort of Barbarianish and Strife’s a bit of a Demon Hunter – but has his Wizardy moments as things progress. The characters each have special tools they pick up along the way – Strife can chuck portals around, for example, while War has the Vorpal boomerang thing and gets to thump the ground really hard – so some puzzles require one of them to step forward for certain tricks. Switching between them is instantaneous, though, and being Horsemen of the Apocalypse, they can each summon and dismiss their horses when gadding about the open-air parts of each level before you get to the dungeons.
Is there a story? There is! And it’s a prequel, I think, although I’ll admit I may have nipped out for a flapjack at a crucial moment of exposition. Lucifer’s up to something so you have to ping back and forth around Hell killing people with semi-famous biblical names and, for one memorable section, checking out a bit of dodgy plumbing going on in Eden. The narrative is mainly a justification for exchanges between the Horsemen, though, and for visiting a bunch of areas with really beautiful art direction. More than anything – this is probably weird – I love the look of an action-RPG. Stone staircases rise up through caverns measureless to man, pools of acid burble and fizz like puddles of energy drink, ice cliffs give way to ancient stone doors and cursed gold coins form glittering dunes. Genesis delivers on all of this. It’s that perfect balance between a well thought-out D&D campaign where the DM can really sell the environments and a naff-but-secretly-brilliant fantasy theme pub just outside of Chertsey where you can have your picture taken next to a fake stone goblin and also get a decent rate on jalapeno poppers. I suspect a lot of jalapeno poppers were consumed during the making of this game.
In between the bickering Horsemen and the puzzling, the heart of the game lies with combat, and combat is so concussive and thumpy from the off that it’s hard to see how the ARPG ladder is going to make it build to anything. It does build, though, starting with the basics of Strife as a distance shooter guy and War as your melee thug, and then encouraging you to make the most of dash and War’s parry – I think it’s only War who can parry – before sending you a bunch of special moves, an early one of which sends blades jutting out of the ground in a manner that is almost a little too darkly pleasing. New moves can be bought back at the central hub, gear often comes with its own violent tricks, and there is a bit of meter management to deal with as you save up your specials, and as Strife lays on damage to unlock a little period where he can shoot people twice as fast. The cores allow you to do neat stuff occasionally, like leave behind a slug-trail of lava when dashing, and the enemy types, though pretty basic hell-beasts, are all fun to thump and can be whittled down for nice finishers. They drop stuff for you to pick up, which is always money in the bank, often literally, and every now and then a newcomer turns up and messes with the head for a bit. I am still getting over the toxic beetles who are easy enough to deal with one-on-one, but who frequently come in pairs.
My favourite thing is that, if you dish enough damage, you get a moment where you can turn sort of super-size, which is perfect for doing in mini-bosses. In truth, solo or in co-op, the game is filled with this sort of stuff, generosity and fantasy violence converging so that every half-hour you’re given a new arena mode or a new way of causing different coloured sparks to erupt from the ground. Darksiders has always been a bit weird because the world is in crisis and demons are plotting and the devil is waiting in the shadows, but moment-to-moment it’s all so comforting! Traversal, giving people a righteous shoeing, conjuring a horse for an aimless gallop, gathering gear, opening chests, opening another sort of chests, doing a puzzle, then back to traversal. Genesis may look like a departure, and it is in some ways. But at its core, it’s the same old pleasures for this entirely pleasurable series, albeit with the odd new trick and delivered from a new perspective.