If there's one thing Darksiders won't score high for, it's originality. Video game aficionados will have a field day spotting all the stuff it's stolen, and as a brutal, seven word summary "God of War meets Legend of Zelda" has things covered. The basic game structure is pure Super Metroid/Castlevania, and there isn't much here that won't hit you with some sense of familiarity. Aren't those Zelda's bomb-plants? Devil May Cry's combat challenges? Onimusha, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver and even Gears of War are pinched from. Do you gripe about games that follow a familiar path? Well, Darksiders will have you griping away for weeks.
But wait a second. God of War meets Legend of Zelda? Metroid? Castlevania? Soul Reaver? Originality be damned - if Darksiders has thieved ideas, then it's pinched them from the best and used them to fashion one of the most rich and enjoyable action-adventure games we've seen in ages.
It's not as if Darksiders is lacking in ambition, either. After all, this is a game which opens with the destruction of the world as you and I know it, as our hero – the first horseman of the apocalypse, War - stands accused of kicking off a premature final conflict between the forces of heaven and hell. Within the first half hour, Earth stands in ruins, Hell has taken dominion, and humanity has been destroyed. War, apparently slain in battle, then returns to restore balance, and open a can of whup-ass on whatever dark forces set him up.
What this comes down to is a very Zelda-like adventure, punctuated by whopping bouts of God of War-style ultra-violence. War tramples around the wreckage of New York (now tastefully redecorated by Hell's makeover team) beating zombies and hellspawn, before embarking on a quest to rip four beating hearts from the bodies of four major demons. Each of these confrontations takes place in a Zelda-esque dungeon, and involves - in classic Zelda style - navigating the area, solving puzzles, finding some new and useful weapon, then using that weapon to remove every obstacle that stands between you and the boss.
The dungeons are superbly designed, with ingenious if rather old-fashioned block and lever puzzles, and Darksiders does a great job of capturing the sense of exploration that made the classic action/adventure games of the 16-bit era so compelling. You even find yourself returning to old areas to open previously unexplorable sections with the new tools that you've found. It's retro, but only in a good way.
The combat, meanwhile, stitches together ideas from Devil May Cry and God of War to superb effect. Generally, you mix and match simple attacks and more complex combos using War's mighty sword and a player-assigned secondary weapon to soften foes up, then use the circle or B button to administer a grisly fatal move. It's a fast, fluid and highly responsive system that makes for some satisfyingly brutal swordplay. Nor does the action get monotonous, either. As in Devil May Cry you can use souls collected from fallen enemies to buy new, impressive-looking moves, and there's also a solid weapon upgrade system. Objects like cars or heavy furniture can also be grabbed, wielded and thrown, and before long you'll also gain useful ranged weapons (one of which is singing straight from the Zelda hymn sheet).
Someone has also clearly been taking a careful look at how God of War stages encounters, with the game throwing in large-scale skirmishes against multiple opponents and more difficult confrontations against single, rock-hard contenders, then adding new twists as each dungeon takes its course. Your foes have a wide range of special moves and demand specific tactics, and while you can get so far just by button-mashing, you'll have an easier time if you can work out which attacks, combos and counter-attacks fit each situation. The difficulty level is well-judged too. On "normal" you'll encounter a few spikes, but nothing you can't conquer with a little determination.
Visually, Darksiders is a beauty. Guided by Joe Madureira, a successful comic-book artist, it goes for a sharp, graphic-novel style that makes its more bloodthirsty elements palatable and adds rich colour and texture to the post-apocalyptic world. Each area, each creature and each dungeon has a real sense of character and place, and while Darksiders can't rival Bayonetta when it comes to sheer, jaw-dropping spectacle, it certainly never looks dull.
Most of all, Darksiders is what you'd call a grower. Much as we love Bayonetta's manic intensity, we also appreciate the way Darksiders takes time to build, layering on new concepts and new mechanics so that you're always wondering what's next. Some fall a bit flat, with on-rails shooter sections and a spot of gunplay sticking out like a sore thumb, but at no point do you feel like the game has run out of ideas - even if those ideas aren't necessarily its own.
Does Darksiders have its faults? Sure. We found the boss battles well-staged, but needlessly over-extended. You want a challenge, but do they really have to go on quite so long? There's also a sneaking sense that certain repeated elements have been jammed in to extend the game to epic lengths. Neither of these issues is a deal-breaker, though Xbox 360 buyers should be aware that there are reports of painful screen-tearing on this version (a patch should soon address this). The PS3 version tested was pretty much faultless.
Darksiders doesn't do anything new - indeed it deliberately harks back to a bygone era of gaming - but that doesn't make it any the less enthralling. This isn't a short, blink and you'll miss it action game, but a real epic that you'll lose yourself in hours at a stretch. Call it "God of Zelda" if you must, but Darksiders doesn't just accept such comparisons, it glories in them.