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.