If you brush aside mobster entrails and the limbs ripped apart by Jackie Estacado’s demonic appendages in The Darkness II, you will find one of the more endearing love stories in video games. Wrapped in the trappings of comic book cliches, finding the light in the proverbial darkness can feel tedious, even in this relatively short experience. Like its predecessor, flaws mar The Darkness II’s otherwise impressive and interesting potential.
This go around, Digital Extremes takes over from where Starbreeze left off, bringing from their work on Dark Sector some experience designing unconventional shooting mechanics. Dubbed “quad wielding,” Jackie can fire a gun with each hand and simultaneously grab, toss, and rip asunder enemies and objects with the two tentacle-like limbs that jut from Jackie’s back. A smart talking British minion also supports Jackie’s efforts, clawing into enemies and opening them for brutal killings.
While the gun-play suffices, the game is strongest when Jackie’s otherworldly powers take center stage. As the game progresses, players can invest Dark Essence into their darkness powers, allowing them to send swarms of insects to harry their foes or increase the potency of gun combat. For the most part, these investments feel underwhelming, particularly during the first quarter of The Darkness II, which can feel like a nightmarish slog through bland combat scenarios. However, by the time that players reach the carnival scene, one of the game’s better set pieces, Jackie’s powers make tearing into waves of enemies a thrill.
Four unlockable execution maneuvers turn the latter half of the game into a strategic affair by offering bonuses for savaging enemies in particular ways. Having to decide between a health bonus, a shield, ammunition, or speedier cooldowns on secondary abilities heightens the excitement of combat when Jackie is at full power. All of these sinfully sweet powers are useless in the light, which adds a thrilling edge and demands environmental awareness. Unfortunately telling the difference between, well, ambient light and life threatening glare is too often bothersome when even the dark underworld of the mob is illustrated with the flare of the game’s comic book art style.
Pause The Darkness II at any point and the screen becomes a gorgeously cel-shaded comic book panel. The aptly named Digital Extremes takes the comic book inspiration too far on all accounts, filling the story with inane logic and frivolously wasting the game’s genuinely emotional moments by surrounding it with trite action set pieces and ridiculous dialogue—of which there is plenty. The Darkness II is easily the most wordy shooter on the market. While excellent voice acting saves the dialogue from the worst atrocities, lengthy monologues full of poorly timed jokes and mafia cliches seldom inspire confidence in the storytellers.
The characters are so banal that when their lives are threatened little feels at stake. Why should I care if one cardboard cutout loses his life over another? Can I really feel anything for the doting mafia grandmother character or the purple-clad “Jimmy the Grape”? These are stereotypes, not characters.
Jenny, on the other hand, breathes life into the otherwise stale narrative. Jackie’s hallucinations of Jenny and haunting flashbacks throughout the game add a somber tone to an otherwise frivolous mafia escapade. During one scene, Jackie takes a ride with Jenny through a haunted house, beautifully melding the horror of his violent reality with a futile desperation to protect a woman he has already lost. The emotion of these scenes make everything else seem superfluous, as it should be. Jackie would never hesitate to give up his powers and wealth to bring Jenny back and being jolted back to a world devoid of the safe warmth of light is startling and effective.
The simpler story about Jackie struggling with personal loss and depression in the wake of his girlfriend’s death is powerful, even when undermined by a banal meta-story that makes Jackie question reality and the addition of ludicrous plot points that make Jackie far less sympathetic than he deserves. Nothing captures the opposing forces of sentimentality and frivolity as the post-credits conclusion that creates a touching scene and then rents it apart with a campy ending that only exists to seed the next addition to the franchise.
Similar oppositional forces exist in combat. Compelling combat is hidden away and replaced by ineffectual set pieces. Imaginative combat scenarios suddenly give way to horrendous boss battles, none worse than the first, which pits Jackie against waves of enemies and a guy in an incredibly well armored tractor. These encounters too often flood the screen with indestructible light sources that become hard to locate let alone account for, leaving Jackie effectively blind and enfeebled. As these terribly scripted encounters become less annoying, and by the time that Jackie’s darkness powers become engaging and exciting, the game winds down all too soon.
Vendetta missions offer players additional content in the form of action-heavy multiplayer co-op missions. However, players can only control one of four characters, each with limited combat abilities, making play feel like a step backwards after wielding the full power of the darkness in the single-player campaign. The Vendettas also fill some story gaps but bring back cliche-riddled story elements in the process. Can we really find the stereotypes of the black medicine man or the katana-wielding honor-bound samurai forgivable?
I loathe these flaws all the more because I know The Darkness II hides so much potential. Ravaging the world as an agent of the darkness, with the power to rip apart foes, wield car doors as bullet shields, or even toss black wholes into groups of enemies, can be absolutely riveting. Likewise, the tragic tale of Jackie Estacado and his deceased love offers a unique take on traditional video game romance. Like its predecessor, The Darkness II deserves your attention, even if all it offers is a glimpse of light at the end of a very dark tunnel.