The lights are on
I remember when I first played The Darkness. The game was a gritty magnum opus that interwove a mobster revenge quest, a personal tale filled with love and pain, and a journey investigating an ancient evil, all into a gripping supernatural horror story. It was one told with a singular emotional verisimilitude that pierced me greater than Mass Effect ever did.
While certain aspects of The Darkness' gameplay weren't as strong, I was introduced to Jackie Estacado, a man tormented by a demonic eidolon that lent him its power in exchange for his body as its host. Unleashing its Darkness powers, I did everything from summon Creepers and Darklings to assassinate targets from afar, to impale mobsters with its vicious tentacles. I used special guns powered with its dark energy, and even summoned black holes that could topple helicopters.
In the shadow of night itself, I was invincible. Yet, by the time the story had reached its climax, the price of this terrible power had become all too apparent- the one woman I loved remained beyond my reach. In a touching closing scene we saw the two meet a final time before parting ways, and all hope for Estacado was lost... or so it seemed.
The Darkness II continues the moving narrative of the first, and while dramatically revamping the action, sacrifices length, story, and some of its environmental freedoms in favor of linear and relatively unpolished gameplay. While unsatisfying in this case, The Darkness II does have moments where it shines.
Players are reintroduced to Jackie Estacado at the beginning with a re-cap of the game's events. After becoming leader of the mob family, Estacado's been fairly successful, keeping the Darkness that thrives inside of him at bay until a chance incident reawakens it with a vengeance. As we come to learn, a mysterious group known as the Brotherhood seeks to claim the power for themselves. Yet, for personal reasons, Jackie is forced to fight them. The ensuing chaos leads to a battle not only for the woman of his dreams, but also his sanity.
Throughout the story, his deceased girlfriend Jenny is the driving force of the plot, and as we travel through the game's various locations, we're treated to scenes where Jackie's memories with her are revived, sometimes with disturbing force. Yet, while a genuinely touching element, you can't help but feel that certain aspects of the sequel's story are in essence poorly-reused fragments of classic moments in the first. One such moment however, succeeds by creatively injecting these events with a shot of suspense and adrenaline. But, for all the times we're reminded of how important Jenny is to Jackie, we're ultimately left disappointed by how mismanaged this conflict is and starving for more.
The Darklings, which were faceless extras, are also given more character through a sidekick that assists Jackie throughout his exploits. While it lacks a sufficient backstory, the superbly written character has more than enough personality to invest the interest of players. The same can't be said of the Brotherhood's leader, who never becomes more than another stand-in for an all-powerful antagonist in a story that strangely never seems to blossom completely, or the rest of the cast, whose presence never rises above cameo appearances and cutscenes.
Players expecting macabre trips through the psyche of the Darkness will nonetheless be disappointed, and rightfully so. The hell depicted in the first- an unending battle set in a subverted World War II era - not only gave us a glimpse at the origin of Jackie's curse, but also an intimate journey through the very nature of the titular evil. In this game, hardly any time is spent inside the mind of the Darkness, and while a new environment places an interesting spin, the game's linearity and lack of freedom - along with the final levels' uninspired design- especially breaks the suspension of disbelief.
Fans of the comics will easily recognize another plot element that was cut from the first, sadly nothing more than a background reference that suddenly gains incredible significance at the end, in an absurd plot development that is blatantly telegraphed. The cliffhanger will probably confuse players unfamiliar with the series even more, and players will feel like Estacado in the first game, as they watch helplessly as a story with so much potential is halfheartedly executed and cut short. But, there are some glimmers of light in this game.
The gameplay is as sharp and hectic as ever, with a quad-wielding system that allows players to operate two weapons and both arms of the Darkness simultaneously for maximum carnage. The ability to interact with the environment -such as destroying objects, hurtling others, and using them for a shield- makes for fast-paced action that focuses less on strategy than on-the-fly innovation.
The introduction of a leveling system that gives you varying amounts of experience for your kills also adds to the depth, allowing you to unlock anything from gruesome execution upgrades to defensive boosts, even new abilities- the fabled Black Hole being one of them - that allow you to customize Jackie as you see fit. A couple scenes where you become your Darkling partner are entertaining and provide a nice bit of stealth, but suffer from a lack of depth combat-wise. However, the game's beautiful cel-shaded animation makes each experience worth the trip.
You'll watch with satisfaction as you rip, smash, and dismember your enemies with wondrously brutal animation, but you'll also experience more than your fair share of hiccups. Serious glitches, AI problems - I watched an enemy I'd grabbed slip through the Darkness' arms, among other things- a lack of enemy diversity (they begin to feel like mindless fodder after so many killed), and framerate drops - especially in multiplayer - lead to some frustrating experiences that will annoy you. However, they are tolerable. The multiplayer, while not a frequent destination, does at least offer some time to kill with friends, playing as Estacado's allies with customizable Darkness powers in missions that tie into the story.
In closing, my experience with The Darkness II reminds me of my interactions with the soldiers trapped in the hell of the first game, or even the dilemma Jackie is later faced with. Due to the lack of polish, you're left feeling as though something is inherently wrong with this game, in spite of all the positives you can point out. Relatively interesting ideas are either subdued entirely or cut short, while some aspects are echoed ad nauseum to the point of nearly provoking the opposite of the intended emotion. Yet, for those willing to take their time and explore the sequel for what it is- in essence, an experiment of sorts that tries to reinvent the series- you'll find yourself rewarded with a visceral and excellently-paced gaming experience, even if relatively short and jaded in comparison.
8.25 out of 10 points