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One of the longest-running jokes circling the ‘70s era of rock and metal was just how insanely obsessed it was with creating a very particular sense of visual style. The album covers from Rush, Jethro Tull, Iron Maiden, Yes, Asia and so many others were bizarre works of surrealist art that live on long past the actual music. A big part of that influence was thanks to the amazing fantasy-inspired art of Roger Dean, who created some of the most iconic Yes and Asia album covers.
Surprisingly, Dean would later come to work with game developer and publisher Psygnosis to create some of their most amazing box art. I’m oddly reminded of all this thanks to the re-release of Darksiders II (questionably subtitled as the “Deathinitive Edition”), which would be right at home artistically with sounds and imagery of 70s rock and Dean’s artistic flare.
The original Darksiders was an attempt to create a Legend of Zelda-like experience with a much darker pitch. In that first game, you played one of the four horseman of the apocalypse, War, who was out to clear his name after getting blamed for starting the apocalypse early. It was an interesting game, but it suffered from the slow, plodding nature and humdrum and familiar design.
So after being disappointed with War, I skipped Death’s (another of the horseman) debut a couple of years later in Darksiders II. That was a mistake—it turns out Death knows how to rock. It’s hard to imagine any game more deeply influenced by the ideal of ‘70s fantasy rock culture. Darksiders II couldn’t be any more metal unless you stamped the “HEAVY METAL” magazine logo on it and actually gave it a licensed soundtrack from the era. It’s actually disappointing that the game doesn’t open up with Rush’s Tom Sawyer.
Darksiders II has some of the most quintessentially rock moments in all of gaming. Take one scene early on, where Death is literally riding a pale horse through a rocky desert landscape during a massive Meteor shower. This game is the stuff made from a childhood of too much Tolkien, Heavy Metal magazine and folk metal. These are creators who walked into a room trying to boost their confidence by humming that they’re modern day warriors with a mean, mean stride.
Darksiders II works this rock operatic fantasy from top to bottom. It features a landscape of the apocalypse mixed with lush forests, hidden ruins and stark deserts on alien worlds, and creatures of flesh, stone and metal. The entire game has a vivid, organic look that makes Death’s violent journey feel more important and personal. The auxiliary characters all have metal names like the Creators, Lilith and the Destroyer. And of course what’s more metal than the horsemen themselves—Death, War, Strife, and Fury?
(And no, those aren’t the traditional four—I can only imagine the developers decided to replace Famine with horsewoman of the apocalypse, Fury, because Famine hardly seems rock-worthy. And all fans of ‘70s fantasy metal love a good heavy metal babe anyway. I hope this Deathinitive Edition does well enough to get us a full-on Fury game next.)
Beyond mere metal aesthetics though, Darksiders II slyly does something else important–it frequently surpasses the game it’s so heavily influenced by. Sure, diehard Zelda fans are gaga for that pointy-ear guy and his ever-in-need-of-rescuing princess, but it’s actually been a long time since Nintendo’s puzzle and exploration-heavy fantasy series was truly top shelf.
Darksiders II picks up where the original left off by making the setting more fantastical and much more Zelda-like, but more importantly, the variety of challenges—whether based on running up walls and jumping or flipping absurdly over-complicated series of switches—is both engaging on its own and fully in line with Nintendo’s classic series.
In essence, Death outdoes Link in pretty much every way and he’s like, totally metal while doing it, which is something we’d never say about the Legend of Zelda games. Darksiders II manages to mature the much-beloved game style it mimics, amping up the scope, violence, and overall themes. This is a rare instance where paying homage to the past leads to something worth playing on its own terms.
The downside to all this, of course, is that if you’ve played enough games (especially starring pointy-eared elves), much of the gameplay in Darksiders II might feel exceedingly familiar. The game doesn’t shy away from wearing its influences on its spiky, armored sleeves, and it would be intriguing to see what direction the series could go in should it decide to really become its own animal.
Either way, Darksiders II is a huge game fully deserving of this re-release. Death is a grim and crusty metal-laced badass unleashed amidst a collapsing world of angst and destruction that could fuel another decade’s worth of LSD-laced album covers. So go ahead and give Death a (second) chance. You’ll find he, much like today’s Tom Sawyer, is a modern-day warrior with a mean, mean stride.
Jason D'Aprile has been covering games and entertainment for the last three decades across a variety of platforms, many of which are now extinct. In addition to covering gaming (both obscure and otherwise), he also writes a bit of the odd fiction and tries hard to avoid social media.
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