To say that 23 year-old mob boss, Jackie Estacado, is different from the rest of his peers would be an understatement. After all, if you’ve been privy to the events of his 21st birthday, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever forget the nightmarish sights that flashed before you. He’s been gifted (or cursed, depending on how you look at it) with an evil force known as the Darkness – a blood-thirsty entity which does not appreciate laying in wait. It’s sick of being dormant inside of its host, after the concluding events of its titular 2007 video game release: The Darkness.
It’s been five years since the gaming community last heard from the haunted mobster, though he’s just returned in The Darkness II, a game that was developed by Digital Extremes as opposed to Starbreeze Studios. Based on the Top Cow comic book series once again, this sequel ups the violence ante with some incredibly gruesome attacks and story content that will make younger audiences queasy. The new creative team has hit the fast-forward button, opting to tell a story set two years after the events of its predecessor.
Things pick-up as a powerful and incredibly well-respected Jackie makes his way to a connected Italian restaurant for a dinner with two dancers. At least, that was the plan. The reality of it all is that a dark group known as the Brotherhood has been planning a hit against the Darkness’ host, which goes into motion on that very night. Gunfire rings out, instantly killing one of the young ladies. A large vehicle crashes into the restaurant, hitting our anti-hero straight on. Normally, that would kill a person, though this specific one is partially immune to death. His leg has been destroyed, but his consciousness is still there. This allows a trustworthy ally to physically drag his superior through the joint, as the aided one uses pistols to dispatch of oncoming goons.
When it seems like things are finally going to turn for the better and that an escape is imminent, things go from bad to worse, leaving boss Estacado in a near-death state. It’s then that the Darkness brings its top sales pitch, asking Jackie to let it out in order to save himself. Thankfully for us gamers, he does just that, growing the visceral tentacles that make digital murder so much fun. Though, unfortunately for him, that happens to be what the power-hungry hit men are after. They’re a part of a dark group known as the Brotherhood, who live under the belief that their chosen god (leader) is the rightful owner of the powers. His desired chance to control the powers, in order to control the world with them, is the exact reason for their hit. Even though it ends up failing, that doesn’t mean the attempt at taking Jackie’s powerful gift has come to an end.
Over the next four to five hours, gamers are treated to a tale of survival that only video games and comic books can properly portray. It’s a blood symphony to say the least, full of brutal executions alongside weapon and environmental based attacks. Having the equivalent of four arms is incredibly helpful and adds a new dynamic to the experience, allowing you to do more than one thing at a time. With heart digestion being the main way to recoup health, the option to hold one deceased enemy while shooting at a living one is a great asset. When the screen starts to turn red, just press a button and health will be added through a crimson meal. Of course, ground-based corpses also provide that type of nourishment without the need to hold or grab them.
Although the above options are incredibly helpful in players’ attempt to stay alive throughout the course of this campaign, health executions can also be unlocked through Jackie’s abilities tree. That specific ability allows for a visceral kill which just so happens to have life-giving powers. A plethora of other abilities are available for players to spend their essence (points earned for kill variety) on, including different types of executions, more powerful weapon-based attacks and some special moves. The latter category includes the devastating black hole and the newcomer swarm, which helps to stun and distract enemies during hectic firefight sequences. Series veterans will notice that the option to send out a tentacle to scout the area up ahead has been removed in favour of these options. Summoning different types of minions has as well. Though, they really aren’t missed in what is more of an arcade first-person shooter this time around.
The Darkness II is not an open-world game. Instead, it takes on the form of a level-based shooter, with each stage being split up into different chapters. Since it is much more of an action shooter, as opposed to more of a thinking man’s experience like its predecessor, this was a smart move. Through this design, the developers had a chance to experiment with unique locations like an abandoned carnival, Jackie’s new mansion and other interesting areas. The story is centred around his remorse after losing Jenny, the love of his life, so a lot of the campaign focuses on that grief. Hallucinations occur where it seems like she’s there, calling out to you, only to disappear two seconds later.
One thing that is great about this franchise is its literary backing. Being based on a comic book series definitely helps, as it allows for an interesting and well-formed narrative. Having played through a lot of the original Darkness recently, I was eagerly anticipating this release. The well-developed storyline was one of the main reasons for this, as Jackie is a complex character who I actually felt for despite his evil ways. This sequel does a good job of furthering the emotional aspects of its gloomy predecessor, which is great. The nice thing is that Digital Extremes were able to do that with a first-person shooter structure which isn’t normally known for writing quality. Sure, parts of this fiction are relatively cookie cutter (having a group who wants to steal a super power to rule the world,) but it’s presented in a stylish way.
During certain parts of the game, the gruesome action will take a backseat. This occurs during dialogue sections that take place at the aforementioned mansion, where a couple of mini-games are provided. However, the more notable departures happen during dream-like sections where Jackie appears to be a patient at a mental institution. These sections make you wonder whether it really is all a dream, as every person involved in the character’s mob life is present inside of the white-filled hospital. For example, most of the family’s members are fellow patients, while Jenny is the head nurse. The staff keeps trying to tell us that the Darkness and its related storyline is just a hallucination, stating that Jackie thought he was something other than a mob boss during the prior year. Whether these segments are reality or just a dream can be debated, but they definitely add a different type of feel to the experience.
Despite its emphasis on a well-crafted storyline (which has a couple of confusing elements that they could have explored further), The Darkness II does not skimp on action whatsoever. There are breaks from the norm, but that allows for a breather and a chance to learn more about the hero. Though, during action-filled stages, the gas pedal is all the way to the floor. When it’s all or nothing, the game runs well and happens to be very fun. It’s also relatively challenging, which is nice. I recommend going through once on normal in order to level-up Jackie, then using New Game + for a Don difficulty playthrough. Doing both will take upwards of 10 hours or so, with your total time depending on the amount of skipped cutscenes. Some will complain that five hours long is too short for a $60 game, but the campaign is fun and replayable. Having the aforementioned powers also makes it a unique game experience. Though, most of its boss fights could have been a lot better.
The Darkness included what was a rather retro multiplayer mode, which harkened back to old-school PC shooters. That competitive option did feel like it was unnecessary and ended up being mediocre overall, but there was some fun to be had for fans of arena shooters. This time around, there’s no competitive mode to be found. However, a new co-operative campaign has been introduced. Referred to as the Vendettas Campaign, it allows up to four players to take on relatively standard missions, which borrow heavily from the game’s main campaign. In fact, the online-enabled action takes place during the core storyline. The supporting cast helps the four available characters (each with his or her own special abilities and weapons) search for lost Darkness relics, as well as one specific type of blade. It’s nice to have this expanded option, but the narrative isn’t incredibly riveting.
Most of the missions are structured around finding something (or someone). Quite often, that ends up meaning that players must face an onslaught of attackers. Since their numbers are overwhelming, it’s recommended that you play through these scenarios with friends. However, I had a hard time finding anyone else online and ended up playing through the campaign alone. That, as well as some separate missions that fall under the Hit List moniker. There, players can pick and choose campaign missions to re-play. Or, they can launch one of six mode exclusive objectives. Generally speaking, both modes are of a decent quality, but they don’t compare to the main campaign in terms of immersion or quality. There’s far too much of an emphasis on surviving against a ton of enemies.
In keeping with its fiction’s artistically drawn roots, The Darkness II features a brand new art style. It resembles a moving comic book, with hand-drawn and cel-shaded visuals. Going that route makes complete sense, as the game looks beautiful, especially during the institution scenes. I was impressed from start to finish, though; with regards to its art design and sound design. Both presentation-based categories are incredibly strong in this production, as the voice cast does a quality job (with a couple of notable exclusions,) complemented by a loud set of sound effects and original music. That soundtrack also includes some well-known licensed tunes like “Wild Thing” and “Black Betty”, which adds extra immersion to the single player campaign.
Fans of well-made and action-packed first-person shooters should definitely give this sequel a chance, even if they have yet to spend any time in its fictional world. There’s a nice “Previously On The Darkness” feature which will aid newcomers who would like to see what this release is all about. It gives an in-depth recount of what happened in the series’ 2007 debut, and sets the tone for what is a very entertaining sequel. Normally, I don’t play through games right away after finishing them for the first time, but I was thoroughly entertained from start to finish during my second play through of this one.
With The Darkness II, Digital Extremes has crafted an interesting, complex, emotional and very mature experience. Not only that; they’ve also managed to keep the original game’s atmosphere and emotion, despite creating a more action-centric shooter. Sure, there are some flaws to be found, but the experience is a heck of a good time, from start to finish.