Darksiders Is a Frozen-in-Amber Grimdark Zeldalike (and It’s Smarter Than You Think It Is)

In Darksiders, the Four Horsemen are cosmic cops, maintaining a fragile peace among the “Three Kingdoms” of Heaven, Hell, and Humankind. In this context, War becomes a sort of dungeon-crawling Dirty Harry, mowing down malicious or corrupt supernatural beings. The game is is usually remembered as store brand Legend of Zelda, a grimdark wannabe, all growly artless self-seriousness. But it’s actually something stranger, more ambitious, and more specific than that.

Boot up the recently released Warmastered Edition—because the Darksiders 2 remaster was called the Deathfinitive Edition, and one tortured portmanteau deserves another—and the game’s intent becomes immediately clear: Darksiders is a direct attempt to give Zelda fans what they thought they wanted in 2010, what they’d been saying they wanted for years and years before.

Darksiders takes up that mantle with gusto, taking the inhale/exhale dungeon/overworld structure and item-centric character growth of Zelda and fusing it with the jacked up, spectacle-focused combat of the God of War games. Darksiders is neither as gory nor as acerbic as God of War, mind you, but the intent is clear. Those Zelda tropes can be rescued from Nintendo’s overly-cautious grip (and from the Wii), Darksiders seems to say, and recontextualized in a big splashy current-gen AAA release. This is why, whereas Zelda games can feel unstuck from time, Darksiders will always feel like 2010, frozen in amber.

Darksiders is a fundamentally reactionary piece of work, and so describing it in terms of how it differs from the Zelda series is not only tempting but entirely appropriate. First of all, then, what exactly was it reacting against?

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It’s easy to forget, but when The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker was first announced in 2001, gamers (or hardcore gamers, or pro gamers or whatever ridiculous turn of phrase we’d unironically assigned to ourselves just then) were not about it. Largely this had to do with the game’s bright, abstracted graphical style, which eschewed the then-assumed-to-be-inevitable march toward photorealism in favor of angular contours and cartoon exaggerations.

But more than that, it was about what that shift in style and tone represented, namely a refusal on Nintendo’s part to grow up in the very specific way that we wanted. We wanted, or thought we wanted, to see video games address themselves to adults—which of course really meant that we wanted them to address themselves to adolescents, since that’s what we were at the time. We imagined Ocarina of Time to be a step in that direction, with its cinematic sweep and its graphical style that was, at the time, as close to photorealism as we could have reasonably expected.

I say it’s easy to forget this because most of the disgruntled videogame enjoyers—we who’d felt a creeping, sophomoric unease with Wind Waker’s visuals—came around once we’d, you know, played the game. It was charming, and adventurous, and inventive—the things we’d loved about Ocarina—and the visual style we’d been so nervous about looked so right in motion (and has aged so well, even at its outdated native resolution) that the HD remake for Wii U is borderline-unnecessary.

But the backlash against Wind Waker remained culturally relevant. Nintendo themselves fashioned Twilight Princess to be Ocarina of Time, but more so, not only by muting the color palette but also by reemphasizing dungeons, where Wind Waker had prioritized its vast, incident-rich overworld.

And the broader backlash against Nintendo’s all-ages mindset generally, for its part, created an eager audience for a “mature” zeldalike. Some players had a very fixed idea of what Zelda was supposed to look like, or feel like, or aim at: high-polygon, high-resolution, expensive-looking graphics, fluid combat, blood maybe, and a narrative dripping with gravitas and announcing loudly that it’s not for little kids because little kids aren’t what we are. So Darksiders wears that mantle with aplomb.

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There are some misfires inherent in the game’s gritty affectations, to be sure. The setting isn’t a fantasy kingdom—that’s kid’s stuff—but rather a post-apocalyptic cityscape, ravaged by a century-long war between Heaven and Hell. And the game spends its first few hours thinking that the busted windows and unfurled concrete (and somehow-perfectly-preserved newspapers, blowing atmospherically about) are fascinating to look at. Mostly they’re not. Mostly they’re just grey-brown, and not surreal enough to keep the omnipresent videogame logic from being distracting. I long ago accepted that I can find magical healing hearts in pots and tall grass, but it doesn’t feel nearly as correct to find human souls in fire hydrants and mailboxes.

And a lot of the game is a faithful-copy paste, a exercise in distinctions without differences. Chests work like chests, and doors work like doors, but War punches and kicks them open. There’s magic, but it’s called Wrath. There are Pieces of Heart, but they form a human skull, they’re called Life Shards, and instead of earning more hearts you’re earning whole new lifebars, stacked on top of the old ones like you’re a damn Viewtiful Joe boss. The context-sensitive moves from Wind Waker are there, but reimagined as splashy single-button finishers. The dungeons have what I’ve called a bifurcated structure, split roughly into the half before you get the item and the half after, and you can be utterly sure you’ll use the dungeon item on the boss (though the way you’ll use it can be clever and surprising). At times, a true blue zeldalike.

Some of the AAAification, meanwhile, works like gangbusters. There’s jumping, there’s dodging, there are combos. You’re got unlockable attacks, passive abilities, and secondary items, and you’ve encouraged to switch frequently among them. There’s good deal of freedom in how you can approach a given encounter: Do you spend some Wrath on an Area of Effect attack, or pick off the enemies one by one? Do you dodge, or block? Do you swing with your sword, which you’re buffed for additional damage, or your scythe, which you’ve buffed to grant you more money or magic or health (all of which are confusingly called “souls”) from fallen enemies?

That fluidity doesn’t carry over into exploration, though. There’s an air-dash move, but it’s an attack, so don’t try to use it for traversal; you have a double-jump and a glide for that—the glide being a very close analog for gliding on the Deku Leaf in Wind Waker, complete with geysers to increase your height (and without the needless limitation of your glide consuming magic; where Wind Waker is at pains to refill your magic meter after every glide). And instead of presenting you with a sprawling Hyrule Field sort of an overworld and then filling it with fussily specific objectives, Darksiders strings its Zelda dungeons into an explicitly linear campaign. It makes little or no attempt to hide its on-rails nature.

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There’s a lot in Darksiders that’s similarly straightforward—oddly honest, disarmingly earnest. This is clearest in the case of the Guardian, the game’s resident chaperone character. He’s a jerk. He harangues you, insults you, goads you, and within in the story, he’s literally making you less powerful by his very presence. “Until this is over,” he says right off the bat, “you’re a dog on a leash.” Which is what I hear when Navi or Tatl or Fi says pretty much anything. Rather than pretending its chaperone character is helpful and delightful, Darksiders knows that he’s the opposite and dramatizes that fact.

Now, I don’t think that the Guardian is supposed to be a direct piss-take of Link’s various companions. Probably he’s just a bit of concentrated “maturity” and “edginess.” But whatever the intent, by acknowledging him as the hindrance that he is, he ends up being perhaps the single most emotionally honest iteration of the chaperone character trope in any game (with the possible exception of Ōkami, where Issun is framed as a petty distraction, obsessed with reputation and sex and whatever while Amaterasu is more focused on, like, saving the world and whatnot).

Likewise, instead of being a Chosen One, you’re just a very powerful being getting more and more powerful (which is all Chosen Ones are in videogame narratives, once you strip away the window dressing of imagined moral uprightness). War isn’t a silent protagonist, but he is a bit of a blank slate—neither plucky dauntless hero nor unlikable bastard, but simply a walking, talking, puzzle-solving arsenal. Like Link, War invites us to project ourselves onto him and express ourselves through him, but here there’s clearer understanding that we’re being asked to express ourselves in the form of a killing spree.

There’s no you’re-enjoying-the-mayhem-aren’t-you fourth wall break in the style of BioShock or Metal Gear Solid, but War enjoys his grisly work just enough to point out that we enjoy the grisly parts, too. We’re bleaching the world of its monster-gods, partly due to the obligatory world-in-the-balance stakes, but mostly because they’re in our way and felling them is fun.

And again, Darksiders isn’t outwardly engaging in that sort of metacommentary. It just wants to be a zeldalike that’s cool and badass, and yes, the resultant radical ‘tude can seem silly and dated. But the game is resonant and texturally interesting enough that it explores agency and violence without even necessarily meaning to—and it’s successful enough at copying from the Zelda playbook that it transcends its reputation as a mere clone. If you skipped Darksiders the first time around, you might be surprised to find that it’s a lot smarter than you think it is, and indeed, in some ways a lot smarter than it means to be.

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