Here’s what I can say about Darksiders Genesis, the new game from Airship Syndicate: It’s serviceable. Not great, but not bad.
For those who might be new to the Darksiders series, it’s all about the eternal struggle between heaven and hell, as seen from the unique perspective of the horse riders of the apocalypse. The three previous games tell the story of what happened after Earth as we know it came to an end (spoiler alert: It became a big, crumbling battlefield). Genesis, as the title implies, takes us way back to the roots of this story, before Earth even entered the picture.
If you’re familiar with the series, Genesis is a departure stylistically. And if you’re not… great! Nothing to unlearn or relearn. Suffice to say, this new game plays a bit differently than all the rest. Only a bit, though.
Unfortunately, the story Genesis has to tell left me wanting. It’s too bad, as story has always been a big focus in past Darksiders games. But it feels so subdued here. A lot of that has to do with the fact that most of the exposition comes from text on the screen. The voice acting is a notable high point, particularly during the handful of comic book-style cutscenes that spring up, but most of the plot points in Genesis are delivered via the slow crawl of back-and-forth text boxes. It’s the opposite of riveting. I played all three of the previous games and genuinely like this ongoing story, but for most of Genesis I felt kind of lost.
The stuff you actually play, at least, fares better. At first glance, this new spin on Darksiders looks and feels like that classic Blizzard role-playing game, Diablo. The story divides up across 16 levels that you access from a hub location where there are vendors peddling various upgrades. The camera hangs high in the sky and moves with the action, on its own. You can’t control it.
While it might look like Diablo, the feel and flow of the gameplay remains relatively true to earlier Darksiders games. It moves fast, with a focus in combat on precision timing and mastering button combos. During the quieter moments, you use the various tools you collect to solve environmental puzzles that open up new paths or unlock hidden secrets. You’ve got to constantly pay attention to the changing spaces in each level and look for points of interest that might hide something important. There are lots of secrets tucked away.
You play as two of the four horse riders, War and Strife, and you can switch between them at will. War is a sword-swinging bruiser with a bladed boomerang, and Strife is a gun guy who also mixes it up in close quarters with double blades. Each one feels and plays differently, and you’ll find yourself switching back and forth in most fights to handle the different kinds of threats.
Darksiders Genesis is not great, but not bad either.
Carving your way through armies of monsters using War and Strife’s flashy abilities is plenty satisfying. As you get into the tougher levels, capitalizing on their different combat styles becomes more of a situational concern. Certain bosses and big threats are just easier to tackle with one vs. the other. But War and Strife are both plenty capable and feel different enough from one another to keep the action fresh as you level them up and unlock new abilities.
I just wish the RPG pieces of Genesis weren’t such a chore. It starts gently enough, with one vendor and then another appearing in the hub space you return to between levels. The function (and even just the basic presence!) of those vendors could have been explained better, but it’s clear enough if you take even a few extra moments to explore the hub and check out what’s there.
Things start to falter, however, once you get into a thing called Creature Cores. These random drops are upgrade items tied to specific monsters that you can slot into a special grid. The more of each type of Creature Core you collect, the more powerful it becomes. Some cores just confer stat boosts while others give you noticeable bonuses (like healing you for a percentage of the damage you deal). In the later stages of the game, they’re indispensable.
They’re also not explained very well. Even after playing for 20 hours and finishing the story, I’m still not sure I have them completely right. Each node on the Creature Core grid has a special property that give you extra stat boosts when you slot in a Core corresponding to that property. But some nodes are lower level than others, so you want to save your best Cores for the higher level nodes.
The problem is, this whole interface is so poorly explained and inefficient in its design that powering yourself up the “right” way turns into a tedious process. You essentially have to wipe out your filled grid, removing Cores one by one (there’s no “clear all” button!) and rebuild it node by node. I’d do that once every two or three levels, and it felt like an enormous waste of time.
Also on the subject of frustrations: Darksiders Genesis features some great puzzles tied to the gear you unlock, just like its predecessors, but the fixed camera too often gets in the way of your success. Especially when there’s jumping involved. Many of the tougher secrets depend on precision jumps and tight timing, but getting the angle right on those jumps can be painfully frustrating.
Yes, you ostensibly have a small, barely visible shadow beneath your jumping Apocalyptic Horse Rider to illustrate where you’ll land. But it’s too easy to lose track of that shadow, especially when the only thing beneath you is a bottomless pit. I appreciated the inclusion of Darksiders-esque puzzle-solving in this game that looks and feels quite different, but it really doesn’t work all that well.
Looking back on the time I spent playing, I’m feeling pretty ambivalent. Once I got a handle on what Darksiders Genesis was going for, I found myself carving out more and more time to dive back in. It’s fun! But I don’t think there was a single play session where I didn’t at some point yell incoherently about an immensely frustrating “WHY did they do it like this?!” moment.
For all the times it was asked, I never did find an answer to that question. But that’s OK. Darksiders Genesis is landing at a time of year when most of us just want to kick back and relax. Turn down the volume, throw on a podcast, and kick some cosmic ass as a Horse Rider of the Apocalypse.