Red Herb Review - The Darkness II

It’s been years since I’ve visited Starbreeze’s original adaptation of The Darkness.  Far removed from my time with it, I still hold its single-player narrative up and above as one of my favorite campaigns to have played through this console generation.

The Darkness – based in large part on the Top Cow comics of the same name – introduced gamers to the tragic anti-hero, Jackie Estacado.  Despite two decades of shuffling through life as a small-time mobster, Jackie’s story didn’t begin until his twenty-first birthday, the day that The Darkness manifested itself within him, like so many victims beforehand.  Using Jackie as a host, The Darkness feigns subservience to its user – allowing control of a bevy of demonic powers like summoning Darklings (little obedient goblins), the power to toss destructive whirlpools, and – most notably – the ability to harness two rabid serpents that protrude from Jackie to do his…wet work.  The catch: the Darkness is rendered completely useless in the light.

Of course, things didn’t work out so peachy keen for Mr. Estacado once the ultimate evil plopped into his lap.  Betrayal from Jackie’s “family” rocked his world, taking the only loving and grounding force he had in his life when his girlfriend Jenny was executed before his very eyes.  The original Darkness told a fascinating, humanistic tale of loss and revenge, good and evil, hopelessness and hope.  Gameplay faltered from time to time, and design decisions interrupted the overall flow, but the story made it all worth it, turning the game into a cult hit.

The Darkness II, headed by a new developer, Digital Extremes, goes to great lengths to right the first installment’s wrongs, but flips the script to where the gameplay is often more engaging than the storyline.  That’s not to say the story isn’t up to par.  No, the biggest complaint I have towards the narrative line is how much it attempts to tug the same heartstrings Starbreeze did with their title.  But don’t let that stop you from trying The Darkness II.  You’d truly be missing out on a thoroughly entertaining entry into a series that could’ve ended with the first, but now is interesting enough to call for expansion.

Jackie Estacado’s situation has reversed since we’ve last seen him.  The crime family he once bowed to is now at his heel.  The Darkness that had plagued him dwells at bay within, under control for two years now.  Jenny is gone.  Well enough can’t be left alone, though, and an attack on Jackie and his crew coerces him to once more unleash the Darkness (with guttural mastermind Mike Patton thankfully reprising the role).

Once the ball gets rolling, we’re reintroduced to Jackie’s powers in a newer, context sensitive form.  You utilize a demonic tendril to snatch ammo, environment items, and idiots with a death wish by simply pulling a shoulder button; the opposite shoulder button whips or slashes enemies (plus pesky fluorescents) and, if held, allows you to precisely tendril-hack in any direction using the right stick.  That’s just half of the “quad-wielding” control scheme the developers implement.  Your triggers will get a workout simultaneously as you rain fire with an assortment of shotguns, machine guns, and pistols – the latter two giving you the option to dual-wield.  Slashing, shooting, and especially grabbing baddies for grotesquely animated executions is a disgusting amount of fun.  After you adjust to the control scheme, there’s a real sense of empowerment when you unleash your quad-wielding tornado of Italian doom.

Your foes aren’t all tentacle fodder, however, and you’ll run into bruisers that’ll put a serious hurt on you even in the safety of the dark.  There’s enemies that must have their armor worn down before you can get to the soft, screaming center and some that must have shields yanked away before they bash you into a tight spot.  Some enemies will equip themselves with Jackie’s kryptonite, shining UV’s at you rendering your powers useless until you can pop a shot off that breaks their lights.  Other enemies have their own iota of darkness, allowing them to pull off feats like superhuman speed.  Tangling with varying sets of bad guys makes up the whole of your job in the game’s run time, and mastery of all four means of death becomes necessary in harder chapters.

Digital Extremes just layers on the goodness by offering a stat wheel that lets you dump points accumulated from kills in order to buy skills that boost your Darkness, your weapons proficiency, and even add strange but very useful abilities like earning a shield from performing an execution or gaining health from eating human hearts (well, that’s not so strange as much as it is logical).  Despite the skill building, The Darkness II is ironed and streamlined into a more rigid FPS than the original game, which featured tactility in its use of powers and open-world environments.  The change is sure to alienate fans of Starbreeze’s effort, but the way Digital Extremes plays with the Darkness’ dynamic never deviates from being fun – whether or not that comes at the cost of dumbing down features set forth by the first game.

If the devil’s in the details, The Darkness II is certainly the devil.  In what could’ve been a sore mistake on the eyes, the game has a comic book art style that nicely offsets the abundance of blood and darkly macabre visuals.  Little graphical flourishes like the way your tentacles slither and writhe or the fact the game proves enemies are anatomically correct by displaying their innards every other second go a long way to ground you to Jackie’s tale.  Levels are meticulously detailed and rarely suffer from the comic-y stylization.  For a game that embraces the dark, there’s plenty of vibrant color and spectacle to be had.

The story truly does play out well and kept me immersed, but emulations of legitimately touching moments from the first game fall flat here and feel extremely forced.  By the third or fourth time the game makes you have a tender moment with Jenny, you’ll start to feel suffocated by the chick.  And the titular Darkness’ personified presence is sadly downplayed in favor of Jackie’s mumbled “fuck’s” and “shit’s” (still, the few times Patton’s gravel throat bellows at you sent an effectively unpleasant chill up my spine).  Digital Extremes’ storytelling gets the job done, sure, and certain characterizations (along with awesomely crafted hallucinations of a mental ward) round out the script, but I still couldn’t help feeling hunger pangs for a more fulfilling narrative.  I found the gameplay leading up to the ending was more enthralling than the written conclusion.

Don’t ignore the multiplayer, I’ll say it now.  The co-op mode (which can also be taken on solo) is a clever supplement to the main campaign.  Instead of assuming the role of Jackie and his ancient evil pal, you don one of four seedy personalities imbued with their own manifestations of dark powers.  The basic principles of the campaign still apply; you wield multiple weapons (some enchanted with darkness like a kitana that craves blood), you can destroy enemy hearts for a health recharge, and you’re even still able to allocate points to your multiplayer character’s persona – and the semi-cliches you play as are dripping with decent characterization.  But seeing as how you aren’t demon gods like Jackie, you’ll have to work together to stave off cultists and mafiosos in either story missions that run parallel to Jackie’s exploits or take on one-off hits where hunting down a boss target is your main objective.  I went in apprehensive and came out of multiplayer fairly impressed.  It’s short, but sweet.

The Darkness II may come across as a simplified actioner compared to its predecessor, yet genuine care and witty design went into the project.  The controls require a small learning curve, but feel smooth and intuitive once you adjust.  Voice work, artistry, and overall presentation hit the right spot, but spotty storytelling and a short multiplayer offering definitely hurt the package.  Even so, The Darkness II still manages to stand tall amongst the tirade of uninspired shooters to vanilla-up our collective palettes over the last six months, and succeeds at carrying on one of most compelling story-driven franchises born from this generation.

(This review was done on the PS3 version of the game.  The Darkness II is also available on the Xbox 360 and PC.)

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