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.
So that covers the basic gameplay, but inasmuch as The Darkness II is a fun shooter to stomp through, the series didn’t become a cult hit just because of blazing guns and flying viscera. Like its predecessor, Darkness II centers around a surprisingly strong, character-driven story that’s part mob drama, part surreal comedy and part supernatural revenge romance. And once again, the whole thing is narrated by the vicious-but-charming Jackie, who speaks to us through monologues in a dark room about his history with the mob, with The Darkness and with his dead girlfriend Jenny, who once again winds up at the center of the story.
Jackie and Jenny are the focus, but they’re far from the only memorable characters, and we’re frequently treated to lengthy conversations and incidental dialogue with his lunky henchmen and lieutenants (most of it around Jackie’s freely explorable penthouse), who end up surprisingly endearing despite being kinda moronic. They’re joined by Jackie’s tough old Aunt Sarah, a skittish occultist named Johnny Powell (who takes most of his behavioral cues from Woody Allen) and The Darkling, Jackie’s ever-present, likeably foul imp sidekick. For the most part, the characters are cleverly written and well-acted; if they weren’t, it wouldn’t mean quite as much later in the game, when the emotional hits start pounding home and the game pushes us to start questioning Jackie’s sanity.
It’s not a plot that produces anything as weirdly striking or moving as that unforgettable moment in The Darkness when Jenny cuddles up next to you on the couch and falls asleep, but it tries. Oh, how it tries. And it comes close to succeeding, delivering a fantastic narrative wedded to around eight to 10 hours of gruesomely satisfying action in the process. Sure, it all leads up to an annoying cliffhanger of an ending, but until then it’s a great ride.
If the game’s ending leaves you cold, take heart: there’s more. The four-player co-op Vendettas mode tells a self-contained storyline that runs parallel to the central game’s plot, focusing on four creepy mercs who work for Jackie (but never show up in the single-player campaign). Each of these has a weapon powered by “Dark Essence,” and each has one of Jackie’s powers. Mossad agent Shoshanna, for example, uses a pistol that fires charged shots and can use Jackie’s Darkness-powered bullets, while voodoo practitioner J.P. Dumond carries a Darkness-imbued staff and can open up black holes. Street-samurai Inugami wields a dark sword and has Jackie’s locust-swarm ability, and Scottish stereotype Jimmy can summon Darklings and wields a mean axe. And they've all got custom executions, some of which can get pretty nasty.
Their story cuts a fairly straightforward swath through armies of thugs, although it culminates with a boss fight considerably more epic than anything in the single-player campaign, and it’s an enjoyable extension that’ll tack at least a few hours onto the experience. (It’s especially fun if you can find teammates who don’t go berserk destroying the health-restoring hearts from your kills, leaving you in constant need of revival – although if things get too hot, the host can always adjust the difficulty on the fly.)
Above: Mikel Reparaz and Hollander Cooper run through 49 minutes of the game and explain their scores
The Darkness? Yes, but that comes with a sacrifice. Darkness II is unquestionably a more coherent and more focused (and also more conventional) shooter, but at the same time it loses a lot of what made the original Darkness special, like the open-world structure, unusual gunplay, gritty visuals and watchable TVs. Story-wise, however, it still presents a smart, nuanced continuation of the first game’s narrative, and fans won’t be disappointed.
Bioshock 2? No. Bioshock 2’s action, plot and mythos are more fully formed and intriguing than Darkness II, and its story is oddly more personal for not having a very clearly defined main character. Darkness II’s Vendettas multiplayer is a lot more compelling than Bioshock 2’s Plasmid-infused deathmatches, though, so there’s that.
Aliens vs Predator? Yes. It might seem weird to compare them, but Darkness II actually has a few things in common with 2010’s AvP. Sure, it’s a cut above the three-way sci-fi/horror shooter in terms of production values, writing and action, but Jackie Estacado combines traits of all three of AvP’s protagonists into one charismatic package. He can’t turn invisible or climb on the ceiling, but the gore, guns and brutish unstoppability are all there – and the overall experience is a lot better.
While it lacks some of the openness and emotional pull of its predecessor, The Darkness II is a highly polished, immensely fun shooter that delivers a stellar mix of over-the-top gore, furious action and clever, character-focused storytelling.