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posted: 8/21/2012 6:00 AM

Death takes a holiday in 'Darksiders II'

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  • Despite the grim subject matter, "Darksiders II" is almost gleeful, with vivid character design, lively animation and a wicked sense of humor.

      Despite the grim subject matter, "Darksiders II" is almost gleeful, with vivid character design, lively animation and a wicked sense of humor.
    Associated Press/THQ

 
Associated Press

We all know the apocalypse is nigh. Surely you've heard about the Mayan calendar coming to an end in December. Perhaps you've seen the political ads promising Armageddon if you vote for the wrong guy. Maybe you're stuck without air conditioning in 100-degree heat and just wish we'd get it all over with.

In "Darksiders II" humanity has already been extinguished. The question is: What next?

The protagonist is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse -- specifically, Death, who you'd think would be a little happier about all the chaos that's been unleashed. But he's more concerned with restoring the reputation of his brother, War, who was unjustly blamed for the global massacre in 2010's "Darksiders."

Part of Death's penance involves freeing millions of human souls from limbo. But there are hundreds of demons standing in his way, as well as one primal force, Corruption, who's wreaking havoc across Heaven, Hell and a now zombie-infested Earth.

Despite the Biblical underpinnings, you don't need a religious studies degree to enjoy "Darksiders II," which unashamedly draws inspiration from the Book of Revelation and gallops away with it. (On a horse named Despair, no less.) And despite the grim subject matter, it's almost gleeful, with vivid character design, lively animation and a wicked sense of humor.

The first "Darksiders" was unfairly dismissed by some critics as a "Legend of Zelda" clone, thanks to its emphasis on puzzle-filled dungeons. They're still a huge part of the sequel -- if anything, developer Vigil Games has doubled down on them -- and they're still delightful. Filled with devious traps and devices, these three-dimensional mazes demand brains as well as reflexes to survive, and there are a few puzzles that will make you feel really smart when you solve them.

So the "Zelda" influence remains, but "Darksiders II" incorporates elements of at least a dozen other games, including "Prince of Persia," "God of War," "Shadow of the Colossus," "Portal," "Ratchet & Clank" and even "Call of Duty." It's like a greatest-hits anthology of the last decade in video-game design. And as a whole, it's more rewarding than the latest installments in most of the above-mentioned franchises.

Vigil has also beefed up the role-playing elements, so every monster Death kills contributes to the evolution of his powers. You can upgrade skills in two categories: Harbinger, which boosts Death's offensive might, and Necromancer, which lets him summon ghouls and crows to peck away at his enemies. Every kill also contributes to a meter; when that fills up, Death can briefly transform into an all-powerful Reaper.

Death's primary weapon is a scythe that splits in two during combat. He's always equipped with a backup as well -- perhaps something slow and brutal, like an ax or hammer, or something faster but less effective, like claws or knives. New, more powerful weapons and armor are stashed away in every dungeon, so fans of loot-collecting epics like "Diablo" will be satisfied. You can easily switch between weapons and call up spells during combat, which is smooth and fast-moving.

There were some glitches in the Xbox 360 version I played. In a few cases, Death got stuck behind a rock or just froze altogether, and I had to reboot. But those are minor flaws in a game as sprawling and ambitious as "Darksiders II," the most morbidly amusing game I've played this year.

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