A thought experiment: let’s say you’re a big shot game reviewer, and you gave a game – for the sake of this discussion, let’s say Mario 64 – a great review: 10 out of 10.
No, it doesn’t matter if you’d really give Mario 64 a 10, that’s not the point. Focus.
Okay, so I take Mario 64 into my garage, tear into the code, and make a single change: I make Mario’s blue overalls green. I also change the title screen to say “Gary 64”, repackage the game and start selling it. And eventually, the game ends up on your big-shot-game-reviewer desk.
So does Gary 64 get a 10 out of 10 from you?
If you say no: why not? It’s the same gameplay you gave a 10 before. Nothing important changed. If Mario 64 is great and fun and a 10, and Gary 64 isn’t meaningfully different, then it stands to reason Gary 64 is also great and fun and a 10.
If you say yes: so originality counts for nothing? So the fact I just copied & pasted a successful designer’s work gets a pass from you? Shouldn’t your review evaluate MY achievement alone – in this case, making a measly pair of green overalls, an accomplishment that certainly doesn’t warrant a 10?
While Darksiders isn’t the derivative hack job Gary 64 is, it raises the same questions. Whether to penalize a game (or movie, or song, or whatever else) for being imitative is a complicated question. To do so makes a declaration about the importance of originality; the extent one penalizes a game indicates how relatively important originality is. If instead you take a more worldly approach to criticism, then originality is irrelevant: all that matters is whether the gameplay is good and fun, and anything beyond that basic measure is didactic coffeehouse bullshit.
Personally, I have trouble with the worldly approach. I think it’s important to consider how much you did – and if you're aping other games (a not-uncommon practice), well at least do 'em better.
Publisher: THQ / Developer: Vigil Games / Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
By now you’ve probably had Darksiders’ pastiche dissected for you, but just in case: heaping spoonfuls of God of War and post-Ocarina Legend of Zelda, with smaller pinches of other titles here and there (Panzer Dragoon, Gears of War). You play as War (one of the Four Horsemen), duped into playing a role in a totally unofficial and unapproved Apocalypse that leaves Earth a wasteland crawling with the demonic victors. Held responsible for the Biblical-scale war atrocity, War pleads for and is granted a chance to prove his innocence – though only after being paired with The Watcher, a sadistic-yet-sometimes-helpful supernatural probation officer and Darksiders’ demonic equivalent of Tingle or Navi.
So War sets out on his quest, one you’ll feel like you’ve been on before. When fighting enemies or smashing open chests full of glowing orbs, you feel like Kratos; when searching for keys or pushing blocks around to solve a puzzle in a catacomb, you feel like Link. And not just a little, but a lot. William Hazlitt said it best: "Though familiarity may not breed contempt, it takes off the edge of admiration." Even actual, full-fledged Zelda games having trouble eliciting admiration these days, so it's hard for Darksiders to fare much better.
It does try to spice things up a little, though. For one, it has Joe Madureira as a creative director, and what he brings to the table is probably Darksiders’ brightest point. This especially surprised me, someone who isn’t much of a fan of his work (he’s clearly talented, just not someone I respond to); Darksiders’ characters and creatures are distinctive and fun to look at, colorful and complex. I didn’t like Darksiders too much, but I’d pick up War, Vulgrim, and Tiamat figures for my bookshelf in a heartbeat.
Secondly, Darksiders has a moderately interesting story, and I’ll admit I was genuinely curious to see how it’d unfold for a while, until the game finally bled off most of my interest.
I’m not sure which is more disappointing: that Darksiders cribs from other games, or that the parts of the games Darksiders cribs from are so stale, or that when Darksiders isn’t cribbing it’s so boring. But the real problem isn’t so much all the harvesting of organs from other, better titles; it’s that the seams are so visible and artlessly stitched together. Darksiders has all the magnificence of a collage made from torn up bits of the Mona Lisa and Van Gogh’s Starry Night, mounted on a $9 corkboard. There’s no finesse in the final assembly, with dissimilar parts grafted together (I never got the hang of suddenly going from an hour of puzzle-solving to 15 frantic minutes of air combos and counterattacks) and an amateurish mistake sitting next to every clever reinterpretation.
Take the stupidly hard first boss battle (arguably the game’s most challenging), kicked off with the added agony of a mostly unskippable cutscene. Or the generically grey post-apocalyptic landscape littered with rotting cars and crumbling skyscrapers (yet incongruously: whole, perfect sheets of newspapers float on the breeze 100 years after mankind’s extinction; print doesn’t just live, it’s immortal). Or the overly-complicated and under-responsive controls.
Or even the game’s performance, which chokes and sputters from the game’s appealing but hardly ambitious visuals (particularly on the 360). It seems Madureira’s art is just another pretty piece of yarn Darksiders has festooned its nest with, irrespective of how it fits into the whole.'Till next time...