I don’t think it’d be averse to say that the Darksiders franchise has always been somewhat of a chameleon to its contemporaries. After all, what originally began as a rather stylised and more brutal take on the classic Legend of Zelda formula (with just a smidge of God of War’s combat thrown in) has smartly adapted with each subsequent entry, giving fans of all things hellish and hack-and-slash something new to look forward to every time – whether they were asking for it or not.
The first game stuck closely to its core tenants of puzzle-solving and dungeon exploration; Darksiders II threw a loot system in the mix, and last year’s Darksiders III took more than a few cues from Dark Souls with regards to how you battled enemies. So, with all this tonal whiplash happening in every sequel, we were all left wondering where would the series go next? Well, I doubt many had a Diablo-style top-down dungeon crawler in mind. But the truth is that, for as pared-back and simple as Darksiders Genesis appears on the surface, by winding the timeline back and introducing a sharp change of perspective, this is the best the series has ever been.
Taking place several years before the events of the original Darksiders, Genesis sees the return of War as a main protagonist, alongside the last remaining horseman to appear in the series: Strife. Both characters handle wildly differently from one another, with War playing extremely similarly to how he did in the first game, wielding his iconic Chaos Eater sword to deal a lot of damage up close and slice through reams of demons in one fell swoop, should ever you or your partner be at risk of becoming overwhelmed. Strife, by comparison, is armed with two incredibly efficient pistols (named Mercy and Redemption), letting you keep your distance from the hordes and creatively gain plenty of kills from afar using all manner of interchangeable ammo types.
Darksiders Genesis makes no bones about it being designed specifically around two-player co-op, but the power sets of both characters are distinct enough that it never feels like your missing out from swapping between the two in single-player. The number of enemies and the amount of challenge may scale depending on how many people are playing, but not experiencing the two-player tweaks barely take away from the gameplay. Both War and Strife develop and grow enough over the 17-level campaign that I constantly found myself flittering between the two in what is, in many ways, a buddy cop road trip through the very pits of hell.
I say this because, believe it or not, the relationship between War and Strife feels very Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy in 48 Hours. Liam O’Brien once again lends his vocals to the former horseman, bringing a deep gravitas to serve as the straight man of the pair. Chris Jai Alex’s Strife, meanwhile, is taking the mission to prevent Lucifer’s plan far less seriously, always jesting with War as the wise-cracking gunslinger. The story in Darksiders Genesis is really nothing to write home about, but it’s these light bouts of conversation between the two horsemen that kept me engaged with what’s going on. Strife’s persistent quipping is the perfect way for the series to poke fun at its previous oh-so seriousness.
In terms of pure gameplay, Genesis retains just enough familiar elements from previous entries that it feels unabashedly Darksiders, all while mixing it up with top-notch isometric exploration and traversal. Vulgrim, for instance, is still on hand with his shop in the void to let you purchase all manner of valuable upgrades and items, while depleting an enemy’s health low enough continues to let you follow up with an appropriately grizzly kill animation. All these franchise hallmarks translate really well to the new top-down point of view, as does the returning ability to temporarily transform into a hulking beast once you’ve built up enough rage.
Exploring the many locations in Darksiders Genesis will see you come up against endless demons to slaughter, yes, but just as important is seeking all the collectible goodies sprinkled across each chapter’s map. You might find a new gear item useful for helping War and Strife progress in the story, a new wrath ability that will let you unleash further devastation, or most importantly a new type of creature core. The latter serves as Genesis’ primary method of progression, acting as ability modifiers that subtly change the way you play when slotted into War and Strife’s shared skill tree. Both horsemen become stronger over time thanks to newly acquired cores, gradually improving your health, wrath and attack potential.
Creature cores are just one of the many micro-systems that helps Darksiders Genesis stand apart from the likes of Diablo, lacing in additional depth that you’ll be able to feel the next time you engage in battle. You even eventually unlock an extra mode roughly a third of the way into the game called Arena, where as War and Strife you’re able to try out your improved abilities against 10 waves of enemies while collecting more souls and Boatman’s coins useful at Vulgrim’s shop. How all these different upgrade systems and combat mechanics work can appear daunting at first, but eventually they all come together to let you release a visceral symphony of destruction.
No Darksiders game would be complete without a hefty helping of boss battles, and thankfully Genesis doesn’t disappoint on this front, mostly. Almost every story chapter is punctuated by some gigantic beast with its own set of powers for you to contend with, near enough always rewarding you with a Major-level creature core that makes the heated battle all worth it. Some are unfortunately repeated several times, but this is easily forgiven by the time you come across the handful of story-related bosses. These take up their own whole chapter and can really depend upon War and Strife’s unique abilities gelling together.
Ultimately, Darksiders Genesis feels like the next great step for a series that has, until now, often struggled a bit to find its own identity. What could have been thought of as lesser-than by moving the camera from behind to above has in no way had this effect, with Genesis still doing an excellent job of letting you defeat endless legions of devilish foes as you explore to make your horseman (horsemen, in this instance) better, stronger and more badass. Strife’s ranged attacks would have been enough to solidify Genesis as a rollicking twist on the Darksiders format on its own, but the fact that you’re able to do so also as War with either in solo or with a friend in co-op is the cherry on top.