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Oxeye Encounter: An Interview with Indie Developer Oxeye Games

If you dug around the Steam sale in the 2009 holiday season (or if you followed the gaming section over on around the same time), you might have come across a little known 2008 indie strategy title by the name of Harvest: Massive Encounter being sold for an almost criminally low $2.  Personally, I'm sorry to say I hadn't heard of Harvest: ME prior to the sale, but after seeing a bunch of people on Reddit praise its addictive gameplay and quirky personality, I picked it up and was very pleasantly surprised by what I found.

With clear similarities to the tower defense genre, Harvest puts you in charge of a fledgling colony on an alien world besieged by 1950's-style science fiction enemies.  All manner of flying saucers and spidery walkers will march inexorably towards your base as you scramble to put up defenses, and gather the resources needed to power them from nearby energy deposits.  The gathering and transfer of this energy around the base - and the placement of the defenses it will power - constitute the primary strategic challenges of Harvest, and some truly frantic battles will fill the screen before you're finally, inevitably, overwhelmed.

I got in touch with Jens Bergensten, the project leader and lead engine programmer for Harvest: Massive Encounter, and he was good enough to get the team in Sweden together to answer some of my questions.  At their request, some minor grammatical revisions have been made for readability.  Enjoy, and if you're interested in trying Harvest for yourself, you can check out the demo on their website.  If you like it, pick up the game for $10 either from that site or on Steam.

     Q:  For starters, tell me a little bit about Oxeye Games.  How large is the team, and how long have you been together?

Jens Bergensten (project lead, lead engine programmer):  Oxeye Game Studio is a small indie game company located in Sweden.  We formed back in 2003, but it took us a couple of years until we started making games more seriously.  We are now five members, though Daniel is the only one who works full-time on our games at the moment.
Daniel Brynolf (artwork and sound):  Yes, but the idea started forming in late 2002, with Jens' project Whispers in Akarra.  Pontus found out about it and showed me, after which we started offering our help over the internet.  This was strictly for fun, but for me, this was the start of it all.

     Q:  Is Harvest: Massive Encounter the first commercial release from Oxeye?  Looking at your website I see reference to "Dawn of Daria" (apparently discontinued?) and "Strategist", but it says Strategist is "no longer available from our website."

JensStrategist was our first commercial title.  We used it as our test project to learn how to build and sell games, I guess.  We sold the project to a Dutch publisher in 2007, and they've been working on their own version that should be released this year.  They still haven't announced it (and I haven't seen any screenshots yet), so I can't tell you much more about that.
DanielDawn of Daria was a project that was sparked from remembering how much fun it was to work on Whispers in Akarra.  We worked on it for a long time, and even released two public alphas which were a lot of fun, but it was eventually canceled due to the immense scope of the project.  We still have tons and tons of artwork and design documents lying around, which occasionally get used elsewhere.  For example, the trees and cacti in The Strategist are shrunk and reworked trees and cacti originally from Dawn of Daria.

     Q:  What were some of the influences for Harvest: ME?  I feel like I see a little bit of Netstorm in there, and maybe some Moonbase Commander, but I might be just reaching for obscure titles from years ago that only I played.

Daniel:  In terms of influences, Harvest for me is one of those game projects where a prototype suddenly creates this awesome feeling, and you find yourself working fiercely to hold on to that feeling.  At that point, you don't think of influences, you just go around wondering why it's so fun, and try not to screw things up.
Jens:  I've heard the Netstorm reference a couple of times now, but unfortunately I have never played it.  The game started out as a mining game.  The idea was that you were supposed to build miners to harvest resources and connect them to your main base using energy links.   That's where the name "Harvest" comes from in the first place.

     Q:  What was the result of the massively discounted period during the Steam sale for you guys?  I picked up the game after Jens promoted it on Reddit - was that sort of "spreading the word" method successful in getting more people to try the game?  If it did increase sales, did that continue after the discount ended?

Jens:  Reddit really made the difference for us!  I posted there because I was starting to get frustrated that I didn't know how to find more people who would enjoy our game.  I knew there had to be somebody, but it's hard to reach out from the back of the Steam catalog, so I decided to take matters into my own hands.  I expected people to downvote me and was greatly surprised to find my thread with 800 upvotes the next day.  Sales-wise this really helped, and we managed to double the amount of money we have made from Steam.
Daniel:  We have always been really bad at trying to spread the word in general regarding out games, so I was overjoyed when I found that the Reddit people responded so positively to our link.  As a small independent studio without any financial backing from anywhere, we rely almost entirely on the viral factor, and Reddit so far has been one of the most effective ones.

     Q:  Speaking of the Steam sale, I saw Jens mention on the Oxeye blog that he spent over $100 in that sale, as I know many people did.  What did you buy, and what are Oxeye's favorite games to play when you're not making games?

Jens:  Hmmm... I bought the ID Super Pack and the Unreal Deal... and Bioshock, Overlord, Aquaria and Braid... and KOTOR.  I think.  I have duplicates of many of the games, but it's simply so handy to have them on Steam too.  Recently I've been playing a LOT of different games because I've been judging the Independent Games Festival, so there hasn't been time to have a favorite.  I love to watch Korean Starcraft, though... I do that almost every day.
Daniel:  I bought Company of Heroes with the Opposing Fronts expansion, Total War: Rome and Braid.  Otherwise, my favorite games to play normally, in counted hours, are Counter-Strike, Starcraft and Fistful of Frags (a Source mod).  However, lately I have almost exclusively played our upcoming title.  I would like to sneak in a mention of my all-time favorite games, which are: Passage and Fallout II.
Jens:  Ah yeah, one of my all-time favorites is Don't Look Back by Terry Cavanagh.
Pontus Hammarberg (artwork, building design):  I'm the kind of guy who get all consumer crazy when I see a sale, then change my mind when I'm about to hit the "confirm" button, thinking I really don't need it after all, and then finally end up regretting my decision a week later and buying everything at full price.  In other words, I'm the sucker who make sales profitable.  This year I bought GTA IV, actually during the last few minutes of the sale.  But I compensated that smart move with the fact that I already have GTA IV.  There hasn't been a lot of time lately for leisure gaming, except the time I spend playing our own upcoming title... but I guess that counts as development.

     Q:  Jens, since you like Don't Look Back, have you played Terry Cavanagh's latest, VVVVVV?  It's something we've featured on the site and in the [Immortal Machines] podcast - if so, what did you think of it?

Jens:  Yeah, I've played it multiple times, it's a great game!  I think my "record" is to beat the game with "only" 250 deaths or so.  The music is great too, you can get the OST from SoulEye's (Magnus Pålsson) website.

     Q:  I didn't know that, I'll need to go look into getting the OST.   Back on track: I'm a big fan of the enemy design in Harvest: ME - the alien ships feel kind of Mystery Science Theatre 3000-inspired, the sort of thing you might find in 1950's sci-fi / horror movies.  How did you arrive at that art direction?

Pontus:  Often when we draw concepts or work with prototypes we draw inspiration from movies and tv-shows.  In the case of Harvest however I think it started off with Daniel just whipping up a random sprite to use as an enemy in the early concept of the game.  It ended up looking like something from a 50's sci-fi flick, so we kept working with that theme.  But you're right, it does resemble Mystery Science Theatre 3000, only I'd never heard of that show!  Something to remember for the next game maybe.
Daniel:  I think the art direction must have been the result of our mood the day we made the first graphical overhaul of the game.  It might have been because we had recently looked at "They Came From Hollywood"'s home page.  If it helps to understand the chaos, both the prototype and the first graphics were made over a single weekend, so there wasn't much time for thinking.

     Q:  Was there a time when the "decorative" buildings in the creative mode (living quarters, barracks, a theatre if I'm remembering correctly) served a gameplay purpose?  Or were they always just there for flavor?  It was neat to make my base feel "lived in", but I couldn't help but wish there was functionality behind them.

Pontus:  Personally I think I initially was pretty psyched about adding doodad buildings.  You know, to get that cozy colony feel to your base, something worth protecting!  But as always, there was more prioritized work left to do and as time went by I just wanted to see the game released.  The few buildings that were already done were left in, in the hopes that somebody (or ourselves) would make something of them.
Daniel:  I remember the plans... hover-car queues, inhabitants, spaceship landing and lifting off, neon signs, a cinema showing old public domain movies!...  the visions.  aye!
Jens:  Yeah, we didn't have the time to do it ourselves, but we hoped that players would use the mod system to add custom behaviors to the buildings.  Like making a small SimCity game or something.

     Q:  ...I wasn't even aware the game had a mod system, to be honest - can you tell me a little bit about it?  I didn't see anything in the in-game menus about it, and the PDF readme that came with the game doesn't mention mods either.

Jens:  Heh, that's true.  We haven't updated the documentation since version 1.03 or something, and the version you get at Steam is 1.16, so all the documentation is in our forums.  Mods are currently only allowed in Creative Mode, but the nice thing is that you can combine how many mods you like.  For example you can activate "Infinite Credits" and "Emulate Normal Mode" if you want to play something that looks like Normal Mode, but with lots of money, of course.  If time allows it, I'll try to enable mods for the other game modes in the next patch, but limited to "cheat safe" commands.

     Q:  Are there plans to update Harvest: ME with DLC, an expansion or a sequel?

Jens:  We are working on a patch which will add some smaller features and better mod support.  We don't plan to release any major new versions at the moment.  We barely have enough time to work on our current project!
Pontus:  I think it's pretty common among developers that once a project is finished and released, you're pretty fed up with it.  ...Actually I have no idea if that is common or not, I'm just basing that on personal experience.  With Harvest we worked pretty hard with things that "had to be done," but that didn't necessarily mean fun development time, and it took quite a heavy toll on all of us.  Still today, thinking of working with Harvest or any possible sequel isn't accompanied by an "oh that sounds like jolly good fun, mate" feeling.  But on the other hand, Oxeye consists of strategy-buffs, and Harvest is a pretty neat concept, so who knows what time will bring?

     Q:  What's next for Oxeye Games?  Feel free to pitch your next efforts.

Jens:  Our next game is going to be great!  It's going to be a platformer game, and since we're building the whole game in our Lua engine "DaisyMoon," it will allow for lots of mods and even total conversions.  We haven't released any screenshots or anything yet, but we hope to do that soon.  The plan is to release the game in early 2011.
Daniel:  It is very hard for me to describe objectively what it is we are doing since I feel so strongly about it.  No matter in which way I think about it, I cannot seem to exclude the word "Awesome".  It's a platformer, yes... but it's Awesome!  I don't think I can describe it any other way...
Pontus:  Once a prototype steps over that boundary of being something interesting to being something you actually find yourself getting lost in playing even though you've spent the past week working on it 24hrs a day, you know you're on to something good.  Harvest had that effect on me, so does this game, and then some.  Keep in mind that we come from a country where boasting is considered the ugliest of sins, and you have a pretty good idea of how excited we are about our next game.


A big Thank You to the Oxeye team for taking the time to chat with me; I hope you enjoyed reading it.  Harvest is an impressive effort and I definitely recommend giving the demo a spin to see if it's up your alley.  They also sent me the following "meet the team" collage, painstakingly cobbled together from several different pictures (one of which came from the Harvest release party, complete with a custom-made alien invader cake), so I'll close with that.

Cradling the animals: Daniel Brynolf
Cradling the Macbook: Alexander Persson
He of the long hair (without animals): Jens Bergensten
Sitting down and looking annoyed: Jonas Johnsson ("he does a lot of
tech research and handles our bookkeeping")
CSI: Miami shades guy: Pontus Hammarberg
This interview also appears on Immortal Machines.

In Which I Am Sad About Ubisoft.

My computer downtime caused me to miss most of the excitement and fury over Ubisoft's announcement that their upcoming PC titles - starting with Assassin's Creed II and Settlers 7, but theoretically extending to all future PC releases - will have a heretofore unheard of level of DRM for a single-player game: they require a constant internet connection, active at all times while playing.  No 'net, no game.  Should your internet connection drop, you'll be more or less immediately (after around 10 seconds) booted from the game, and won't be allowed to play again until the connection is restored.  Of course, logically this will also happen if there should be a connection failure on Ubisoft's side, but naturally they've assured us that such a thing will never happen.  Mmm-hm.

Anyhow, I don't want to waste too many words going into the details of the implementation, why I think it's a horrible idea, or why I believe it will fail (quick prediction: low sales for Assassin's Creed II on the PC will still be blamed on piracy, the thing this is theoretically being implemented to prevent).  The rest of the internet covered that last week while I couldn't post.

But I do have to take a moment to express regret, because in my view this ends badly for everyone.  I've liked Ubisoft as a company for years.  A lot of their titles - the Splinter Cell games, the Prince of Persia games (Warrior Within notwithstanding), the Far Cry series, Beyond Good & Evil, the Rayman Rabbids games on the Wii, and most recently the Assassin's Creed games all come to mind - have been really high quality games, and it seemed to me like in most cases they'd been rewarded for those with both critical and sales success.  I played Assassin's Creed I on the PC and loved it.  It looked better, it came with exclusive content, and it had the typical $10-less-than-console price.  My plan had been to re-sell my 360 copy of Assassin's Creed II, and pick up the PC version instead when it came out, so that I could enjoy the game again on my platform of choice.

As it turns out, in addition to the laughable connectivity requirement, the PC version of Assassin's Creed II is releasing at a $60 price point.  Never mind the fact that almost all PC games (Modern Warfare 2 notwithstanding - another game I didn't buy) cost $50 or less; ACII in particular can be had right now, brand new, for under $40 on the 360 or the PS3.  So this time around, the PC gets a product with no new content, an unprecedented level of restriction, and we're asked to pay almost $25 more than the game's current value on its other platforms.  As far as I can see there is no goddamned reason to even consider the PC version if you have access to either of the console ones.  You'll get a worse experience, and pay more for it.

To see Ubisoft acting this way towards an entire platform baffles and upsets me.  I want to give them my money to play great games.  Again, my plan was to purchase ACII twice just for the pleasure of playing it again on the PC, and I was excited about it.  But they are actively coming up with reason after reason for me not to do that.

So I won't.  And I recommend you don't, either.  ...nice job, Ubi.

Requiring that your players maintain a constant internet connection in order to play your single-player game is absurd, full stop. It is in fact one of the most serious problems people had with the idea of Steam, before their "offline mode" was better understood and shown to work.

Had Steam not had that offline mode - if every game you bought through Steam was unplayable without a constant net connection, and dumped you out if your connection was interrupted - I can't imagine they would have ever gotten over the skepticism hurdle so many people had about them in the first place.

Temporarily Out of Commission

As some of you may know (and if you didn't, now you will), I live in Pittsburgh, PA, and we had what I believe was referred to on the news as the fourth largest snowfall in the city's history this last weekend.  I measured about 20 inches of snow where I live, with several more added on top of that in the days following.

On Friday night (the first night of the storm), my wife and I lost power, and when it came back on Saturday afternoon, my computer wouldn't boot up.  There was an period of intermittent success where I got it to load to my desktop, but a couple more power failures later, it was no longer loading anything from the hard drive at all.  Clearly, an uninterruptible power supply needs to be a purchase I make in the near future.

For now, though, we narrowed it down to probably being just the hard drive that's in trouble - the rest of the machine seems fine - so I've got a new HDD on order and will probably also take this opportunity to upgrade to Windows 7, which I hear is shiny.  I'm tapping this out on my netbook (an HP Mini-Note 2133 I purchased for just such emergencies), but it's not much for gaming, and between the Snowpocalypse and work I haven't been playing much this week anyhow.

So.  Hopefully this weekend or next week I'll have my desktop back up and running, and will be back to semi-regularly scheduled programming.  In the meantime, go play some games yourself, and stay safe and warm wherever you are.


Free and Worth Every Penny - Issue 32

Hey guys!  Remember how last time I did one of these, I threw a big pile of games your way, because there was just too much stuff out there and I couldn't choose?  ...Yeah, well, here we go again.  But hey, at least it's themed this time!  Over the last few weeks I've played a whole mess of clever, simple, or downright weird RPGs - all leftovers that I didn't get to from the Assemblee Competition, from which I featured Realm of the Mad God, and on which voting just wrapped up this week.  Rather than pick one to focus on, I've decided to highlight my favorites in... RPG-PALOOZA.  Hold on to your wands, kids!

That was a figure of speech.  Please put that away.

A glance at the screenshot above should bring back fond memories for anyone who cut their teeth on the classic Western RPG - the Wizardrys, the Bard's Tales, the Might & Magics.  It speaks of taking a party deep into a perilous dungeon, fighting for their lives to gain riches and fame untold.  The twist of ro9 is that you aren't controlling a party.  You're controlling 9 completely independent rogues... all at the same time.

The Assemblee entry of Justin Smith (crackerblocks on TIGSource), ro9 gives you only the arrow keys and the spacebar [for pausing] to simultaneously control all nine adventurers as they plumb the depths and fight for their lives.  It's a fascinating and sometimes infuriating mechanic, as pressing forward to attack with one character necessitates moving each other character forward, even when you really, really don't want to.  Keeping your rogues from going down a ladder to a dungeon level they can't handle yet is maybe the game's biggest challenge, but there's a lot of satisfaction to be had in leveling these characters up and watching them trounce their enemies.

A word to the wise - the most surprisingly difficult enemy I encountered?  Giraffe.

ro9 is a tiny Windows download that you can find right here.

This submission by "Ivan" to Assemblee takes us a little bit less far back in time, and harkens much more to the straightforward action RPG rush of Diablo than to the more careful tactics of Wizardry.  It also took home the honor of winning the Assemblee contest, so bravo to Ivan on that!  I think you'll agree that his victory was well earned, after giving this a spin.

Bitworld really is a full package - taking control of a Knight, Wizard or Archer, you'll hack & slash (or magic-bolt, or arrow-pierce) your way through a range of foes on your way to the bottom of an abandoned dwarven fortress.  The action is tight, the music is catchy, the classes play very differently from each other, and the graphics are adorable - seriously, you need to download this one just to see the procedural walk animation.  It's awesome.

I didn't survive terribly long with any of the character classes, sadly, but I recommend trying the wizard to get the most versatile experience - while the knight can only swing his sword or block with his shield and the archer can only fire arrows, the wizard has both an ice bolt to freeze enemies with and a magic missile for destructive power.  I found the strategy of retreating to fire off ice bolts and then advancing my attack really engaging, and the game also employs a perspective-flipping mechanic to keep you on your toes.  I wish the lighting hadn't been quite so dim, only because I would've been able to admire the simple aesthetic more, but really, this one is a must-try.

Bitworld is a 12MB download for Windows or OSX - go get it here.

With all of the kind words I had for Bitworld, Dungeons of Fayte (which was the 2nd place prize winner in Assemblee) is actually my favorite game out of this roundup.  In some ways, it's the most traditional RPG out of all of these games, but in others, it's different from most everything else I've played.

The game's author (against whom I will not hold the moniker "pulsemeat" - we all make bad choices sometimes) describes Dungeons of Fayte as "a mash-up between Zelda: Four Swords and Princess Maker", and as bizarre as that sounds, it's quite accurate and a joy to play.  Supporting co-op for up to 4 players, which sadly I didn't get to try, Fayte plays out on a strict timeline.  You have four months to prepare your hero(s) for the coming of the evil Bone Lord, at which time you must defeat him or die trying.

Each month, you'll get to choose four week-long actions for your hero to pursue - beat up thugs for the local constable, maybe, or work as a farmhand - which will raise their stats and earn precious coin.  You'll then get a chance to tackle one of the game's dungeons, earning you further treasure and letting you try out your class skills (classes may be swapped out each month, for a fee).  Build your avatar up enough over the four months, and you may win the climactic battle at the end.  I didn't, but you might.  Combat plays out differently depending on which of the 12 classes you're playing as, but generally works on a dodge-and-counter mechanic, and there's a wide variety of enemies and scenery to enjoy.  Also, one of the training regimens?  Drinking in a tavern.  How awesome is that?

This game will be staying on my desktop for awhile, because there's a LOT to see here.  It's the largest game in this writeup, at 20MB - Windows download here.  I recommend running the "DoF (Fuzz Scaling).exe" executable, as the "DoF.exe" one put ugly black boxes around the characters on my machine, but try both and see what works for you.

I know, you're tired, I gave you a lot to look at, you want to go home and give this all some time to digest.  I'm sympathetic to that, but stick around for one more.  This one's quick, I promise.

Mr. Kitty's having a lousy day.  His owner constantly puts him down, he has no friends, and now he's been told that if he doesn't come back with some milk, he's out on the street.  Luckily, he's only a loaned blaster and a somewhat-epic adventure away from proving his worth to the world.

If it isn't clear yet, Mr. Kitty's Quest is the least traditional of the RPG's in this list, though its WASD + mouse-to-shoot control scheme does in some ways resemble Realm of the Mad God from a few weeks back.  pgil's action adventure sees Mr. Kitty braving the menaces of Dog City and its surroundings in search of coins to pay off his weapons, macguffins to satisfy pointless quest requirements, and, of course, the all important gallon of milk.  Light fun is poked at RPG cliches throughout - I got a chuckle out of seeing a note left on an empty house saying "I'm not home, please don't take all my stuff!"  (I took all their stuff.)

Sadly, an alpha transparency bug in Game Maker made parts of this almost unplayable on my machine, and I didn't finish it, but it's still unique and fun enough to be worth taking a look at - hopefully you won't run into the same problem.  This Windows download will only set you back a few MB - go pick it up here.

That's it for now - hope you guys enjoyed.  I definitely came out of this feeling that Assemblee was an awesome contest, and some really great games came out of it.  I'll be looking forward to finding out what the next wacky idea TIGSource comes up with will be; whatever it is, you'll probably read about it here.  See you next time.

"Free And Worth Every Penny" is a column I collaborate on with Mike Bellmore at Immortal Machines. This piece also appears there.


The Legend of Zelda: The War Waker (Darksiders)

Reams have been written and much hot air expended talking about how many gameplay mechanics Darksiders lifts directly from the Legend of Zelda series - specifically the 3D Zelda games from Ocarina of Time on - since its release at the beginning of January.  Having put a few hours into it now (I just cleared the first major dungeon and defeated Tiamat, for anyone who's played or is playing the game), I can confirm that this is completely true.  You will gain pieces of heart - sorry, skull shards - which will grant you new heart containers - sorry, life skull things - and you'll also get a full one of these every time you defeat a major boss.  You will find a boomerang hidden in the first dungeon, and you will use it to carry fire to unlit bombs, which will explode wall pieces to clear your path.  You will open small chests containing keys, and take those to conspicuous locked doors.  It's absolutely the most Zelda you can get on a non-Nintendo system to date.  It's also the most Mark Hamill you can get outside of the Batman franchise... according to the credits, he only voices The Watcher, but I swear there are at least 4 characters in that game that sound remarkably like him.  Sorry, losing my train of thought here.

The amount of "inspiration" Darksiders takes from Zelda doesn't bother me in the slightest, really.  The Zelda series is one of the longest-running and most successful game franchises in history, and it does a lot of things right.  It's remarkable that it took this long for someone in the current hardware generation to imitate it wholesale, and it's a blessing that they didn't make a giant mess of it.  Honestly, Darksiders plays really, really well.  It's the HD Zelda the world doesn't have yet, complete with a new skin and some tricks taken from more fighting-oriented games like God of War.  I'm glad it's out there.  But there's another element here, a side-effect just under the surface of the gameplay that I'm not sure was entirely intentional: it shines a bright light on how completely ridiculous the Zelda dungeon formula really is.

The plot of Darksiders is, so far, largely throwaway, so I'm not going to worry too much about spoiling things here, but I guess if you're really concerned you may not want to read this paragraph: a century after the apocalypse has been unexpectedly triggered, War (Horseman War, not God of) has been blamed for it and stripped of his powers.  He must search the devastated Earth fighting both demons and angels (Heaven and Hell are fighting over the husk of Earth, naturally) tracking down the one actually responsible for the premature extinciton of man.  This largely involves being pointed towards a big bad demon animal (Tiamat is a giant bat, for example) and trudging your way through their lair before destroying them.  Pretty standard level-boss, level-boss stuff.

Here's where the disconnect occurs, for me:  the Darksiders team clearly spent at least some effort making the destroyed landscape of Earth feel familiar, and inserting at least a little bit of logic into the fiction of the game world.  Cars lie abandoned along desolate highways, darkened electronic billboards dot the sides of buildings, and empty department stores have only bare shelves;  presumably first looted, then left to decay.  It feels - at least at first - like a plausible replica of a modern city, were it stripped bare of humanity and then taken over by mindless creatures who didn't care for its original purposes.  I got a strong sense of place as I was leaping between crumbled highway segments, and then highjacked an angel's flying mount for an on-rails sequence that took me between city skyscrapers, then underground, then to Tiamat's cathedral fortress.

And it fits, right?  Tiamat, the bat demon queen, hiding out in the rafters of an old cathedral?  Sure, where else would she go?  Time to get up there and kick her ass!  So how do I go about doing that?

As it turns out, you go about doing that by solving a series of elaborate lever and switch puzzles, collecting special swords which must be slotted into special statues, hitting bombs with your boomerang to destroy marked sections of wall, and finding key-daggers to stab into eye-locks to open magical barrier doors.  So presumably, I'm the first - last - only person to EVER get to the top of this building to speak to Tiamat.  She must have been getting seriously lonely up there, and her first visitor came to kill her.  That kinda sucks.

Don't get me wrong, these were pretty decent puzzles - even as a Zelda fan who therefore knew pretty much exactly what to expect, I still appreciated the design of some of the rooms.  It was fun.  But it immediately and totally shattered any immersion or illusion that the game's fiction had crafted up to that point.  I was no longer following the story of War, clearing his name and enacting terrible vengeance on the ones who had sullied it.  I was controlling Link with really big shoulder pads, trying to figure out which order I had to hit the magic switches in to make the next path open up.  There was even a chest with the dungeon map in it.  Seriously?  Tiamat leaves that lying around in a special chest for her would-be assassins to find?

Maybe I'm expecting too much here - after all, I don't remember these things irking me in the Zelda series, where I've been doing them for over a decade now.  But those games are pretty plot-light, especially on the part of the protagonist.  You're the hero, there's a princess, you need to rescue her.  The rest generally gets fleshed out as you go.  In Darksiders, I'm being asked to buy pretty heavily into these characters; War engages in lengthy, angsty dialogue with his foes before taking them down, and there's a lot of cognitive dissonance going on between the words they're speaking and the gameplay that transpires around them.  In context, I would at least expect him to ask Tiamat how her minions ever manage to come up and collect their paychecks.  Or maybe suggest to the Jailor (a miniboss in the same dungeon) that if he really wants to kill anyone who enters his chamber, leaving health bonuses in glowing chests all over his room may be poor preparation.

I guess what I'm saying is, there are certain gameplay elements that have perhaps worked in the past because of the abstraction layers already contained in the game around them.  Link never speaks, so I don't have to wonder why his dialogue is out of sync with what I'm doing as a player.  And since Zelda dungeons aren't claiming to be repurposed human relics, I don't find myself thinking "Really? They built an elaborate rope and pully system in this cathedral just to haul that giant statue in and out of lava? That's odd."  They're asking me to accept less, so they don't have to sell it as hard.  I feel like Darksiders asks me to accept quite a bit, and doesn't sell it very well.

I'm still enjoying the game, and I recommend it, at least as a rental.  The fighting is fun, the puzzles are good, and the aesthetic is entertaining if not entirely consistent.  But I don't think I'm ever really going to be sold on Darksiders' world;  not even when I find the ice arrows, the hookshot, and the iron boots.  Those boots just don't seem to fit quite right, here.