When mob hitman Jackie Estacado was possessed by the demonic force known only as The Darkness a few years back, his life changed dramatically. His boss tried to have him killed. His girlfriend Jenny, who he’d known since childhood, was murdered in front of him. And in the end, he gave himself over to The Darkness completely, becoming its puppet in the name of revenge.
Since then, Jackie’s regained control, bottling up The Darkness and emerging to lead the crime family he once served. But nothing good ever lasts, and after a violent run-in with a shadowy group known as The Brotherhood, The Darkness reawakens – and once again, Jackie’s in way over his head.
If you’re a fan of the original Darkness (and have touched it recently enough to remember how it plays), The Darkness II might be a shock at first. Where the original had a starkly realistic look and an unusual, strangely fluid approach to shooting, the sequel has an almost cartoonish look (its developers call the art style “graphic noir”), and a firmly grounded, linear, almost conventional approach to shooting. Well, except for the tentacle-like demon heads, of course.
As before, when Jackie manifests The Darkness (something can only happen when you’re standing in shadow, meaning you’ll shoot out a lot of lights over the course of the game), it shows up as a pair of dragon-looking heads that take up a big chunk of the screen. This time, however, they’re a lot more versatile, and – once you get used to using them in tandem with Jackie’s guns – they can turn you into an unstoppable dynamo of horror that tears effortlessly through everything stupid enough to stand in your way.
The head on the right is used for slash attacks, and can slice enemies and obstacles in half. The slash technique (hold down a button, push the right stick in a direction, release the button) takes a little adjustment and can be easy to forget in the heat of combat, but there isn’t much more to it than that. The head on the left is more interesting, as it can grab objects and enemies. Grab a car door, for example, and the arm will hold it in front of you as a shield – and then hurl it like a sawblade when you’re sick of it soaking up bullets for you. Stray pipes become impaling javelins, propane tanks become hurled explosives, and locked doors become kindling.
That’s nothing compared to what happens when the arm gets hold of an enemy, though. You’ll need to stagger the thugs to get a good grip on them, either with a couple of bullets or a quick demon-arm swipe, but once you do, The Darkness will hold up their helpless forms and give you the choice of either throwing them at their friends, or executing them messily. The latter option results in some of the game’s most vivid gore; depending on how you grab them, goons can be sliced in half, decapitated in close-up, ripped to pieces and – once some of the more elaborate executions have been unlocked – get their spines yanked out through their asses. There are a lot of these to watch, they’re all insanely brutal (in spite of the odd plasticky sheen the art style puts on the gore), and somehow they never quite get old.
Executions aren’t just about nasty ways to put down enemies, though; along with eating the hearts of dead goons, they also refill your health (or have other positive effects, as you unlock more of them) and give you Dark Essence points, which you can put toward unlocking and upgrading new powers. Fill up enough slots on Jackie’s skill trees, and you’ll eventually be able to imbue your bullets with Dark Essence (and shoot through walls), stun your enemies with locust swarms, grow protective armor or hurl miniature black holes, which spawn randomly in place of hearts in the chests of dead enemies.
Once Jackie’s sufficiently powered up, he feels damn near unstoppable. Again, though, he has one big weakness, and that’s light, which causes The Darkness to retract and throws everything into blinding black-and-white. Usually this can be remedied by shooting out whatever nearby light bulb is endangering your life, but some lights require following a wire and blowing up a generator before they’ll go out. Then there are the handheld spotlights and flashbangs wielded by the Brotherhood (who are generally more competent and militaristic than the rival mafia goons you’ll kill in the game’s early stages), which present their own problems.
Luckily, you’re far from defenseless when the lights are on, because Jackie has access to a small but impressive assortment of firearms that work just fine even when he’s cut off from the rest of his cool powers. Able to carry three guns at a time (one rifle or shotgun and two sidearms), Jackie can dual-wield pistols and submachineguns, or single-wield for more accurate aim. It doesn’t really get much more complicated than that, except to say that the guns all pack a satisfying kick, and that you’ll rely on them an awful lot, considering the demonic powers at your disposal. Especially in later stages, when the game starts piling on tough, armored Brotherhood commandos by the truckload and swarming you with them.