Game Review: 'The Darkness II'

Translating comic books to video games is just as big of a cross-media challenge as adapting movies, with something usually becoming lost in translation from ink-and-paper to interactive. While Batman has been successfully adapted to games with the last two Arkham titles, and Spider-Man has seen his own moderate success in the field, usually you wind up with stinkers like Aquaman: Battle for Atlantis or, heaven help us, Superman 64.

The rarely-cited success of comic-book video games was 2007's The Darkness, a dark (natch) and gritty first-person shooter based on Top Cow's demonically possessed hitman Jackie Estacado. While it took liberties with the source material, shucking off Jackie's organic armor and roping in the heavier aspects of the mythology, it was nonetheless a fun, first-person romp through New York City.

With original Darkness developer Starbreeze tied up with updating EA's Syndicate, development on The Darkness II fell to Digital Extremes, who took the sequel in a bold departure from its predecessor in graphics, scope, and gameplay.

In the years following the first Darkness title, former hitman Jackie Estacado used the power of the Darkness to become the Don of the Franchetti crime family, before bottling the demon away.  Unfortunately for Jackie, a game-opening hit on his life leaves him mortally wounded and with only one hope for survival: releasing the Darkness back onto the world.  What starts as a simple hit quickly escalates into a mob war, where Jackie learns that the hit on his life was actually orchestrated by The Brotherhood, an order almost as ancient as the Darkness itself and who have their own plans for Jackie's power.

The first major difference of The Darkness II from the original title is the amazing art direction.  Gone are Starbreeze's trademark inky shadows and photorealism, replaced with a cel-shaded, hand drawn style that apes the look of a comic book while still maintaining the weight of a real-world environment.  Textures are shaded with cross-hatching and the color palette almost tips into being garish, giving the game an incredibly unique and beautiful style. 

The second difference comes from the slightly overwhelming quad-wielding system.  Jackie can wield a gun in each hand, controlled with the left and right triggers, as well as control his twin Darkness tentacles with the left and right shoulder buttons.  While initially unwieldy (I normally don't keep my first two fingers parked atop the controller), the gentle learning curve quickly turn you into an almost unstoppable killing machine.  The ability to shoot an enemy to stun them, followed up with a quick grab of the left tentacle became second nature, paving the way for the game's grotesque executions.  Enemies held aloft by your left tentacle can be dispatched in a number of horrific ways, which yield additional benefits like health, ammo, or a shield made of the Darkness itself.  I don't quite understand the correlation between tearing a man's spinal column out through his anus and receiving a shield, but the executions are psychotically satisfying and add a layer of strategy to the game, as they also yield the player more Essence, which can be used to upgrade Jackie's already impressive repertoire of murderous abilities.

Finally, there's the matter of the story.  Darkness comic scribe Paul Jenkins was brought on board to flesh out Jackie's tale, and he added an incredible amount of depth and emotion to the game's campaign.  In addition to reinserting the deeper parts of the Darkness mythos, he also added a remarkable sense of emotional depth to Jackie Estacado.  Between-level loading screens are showcases for Jackie's ruminations on life, hosting the Darkness, and his lost love Jenny (who was murdered in the first game by Jackie's adopted Uncle Pauly).  Jackie's reminiscing over an ice cream cone with Jenny is surprisingly powerful stuff, and his relentless guilt over her death makes him a tragic character.  Adding to the tragedy is the near-constant anguish he goes through, never truly feeling like he's in control of himself or the Darkness, and even the quiet moments in his life are quickly dismembered by horror, death, and loss.

While the brevity of the game's campaign—a lean 5-6 hours—may turn some people off, I found it to be pretty much the perfect length for the story Jenkins tells.  I wasn't left wanting for loose ends to be tied up (except for the huge, post-game stinger) and the story moves at a natural pace.  While I certainly wanted to spend more time in the game, I didn't feel cheated as far as story goes.

However, there is still more to The Darkness II than the continuation of Jackie's story.  In a fascinating co-op mode called Vendettas, players can choose to be one of four Darkness-fueled assassins, grinding through a series of missions for Jackie that fall roughly in line with the game's storyline.  While interesting in theory, each of the game's four racially stereotypical characters (an Israeli soldier named Shoshanna has her name written in—I shit you not—Hebrew-style whorls with a star of David for the "o.") only possess a fragment of the Darkness powers, thus leading to a less satisfying experience than the game proper.  It's still a decent hoot, even in single-player, but it feels far less enjoyable than Jackie's part of the game.

The Darkness II improves on its predecessor in every way, changing out what didn't work while maintaining the great qualities that the previous game had.  Faith No More frontman Mike Patton returns as the voice of the ancient evil, and he's as amazing as ever, but the rest of the game is a different—but brilliant—beast.