The cult classic returns with a different developer. Can The Darkness thrive without Starbreeze at the helm?
Apologies to Bastion, but my real favorite game of 2011—despite having been released four years earlier—was The Darkness, which I picked up for a few bucks last summer. Starbreeze’s 2007 shooter featured a premise that, by all rights, I should have hated: young mob hitman inherits supernatural powers; his girl is taken from him; vengeful slaughter ensues.
Yet in typical Starbreeze style, The Darkness won me over by virtue of its quirkiness. Over the course of the story, protagonist Jackie Estacado, superbly voiced by Kirk Acevedo, becomes an endearing, sympathetic character, with a sensitivity that belies his savage exterior and thoroughly sells the conflict with The Darkness, the malevolent spirit possessing him. Other characters, including Jackie’s girlfriend Jenny and elderly Aunt Sarah, are portrayed with the subtlety needed to transcend the story’s mafia trappings. As is the norm with Starbreeze games, The Darkness suffers from some serious mechanical over-reaching; Jackie’s Darkness powers, like shooting out snaking tendrils that can scale walls, don’t work just as often as they do, and combat sequences become largely frustrating intervals between story beats. You get the sense the developers made some very ambitious choices but couldn’t quite pull them off. Still, with its spartan yet effective world-building and its refusal to hold the player’s hand, the original Darkness is, if nothing else, an utterly fearless game. It is not hesitant to make you figure it out.
Digital Extremes’ sequel is, for better and for worse, an entirely different animal. It’s immediately clear how The Darkness II distinguishes itself: it employs the cel-shaded art style popularized by Borderlands, with colorful and busy environments, unlike the dour, sparse spaces of the original. Character animations are generally smooth and even lovingly detailed on occasion, like in Aunt Sarah’s hobbling gait. Its aesthetic feels much closer to the franchise’s comic book roots than the original’s surrealist take, the first clue that The Darkness II is more a reboot than a sequel.
The story picks up two years after Jackie, having taken revenge on his traitorous Uncle Paulie, became Don of the Franchetti crime family. He’s managed to subdue The Darkness—the evil entity that gives him supernatural tentacle-powers but also gnaws away at his soul—fearing its control over him. When he’s wounded in an attempted hit at a restaurant, he reluctantly lets The Darkness free, and the vengeance-fueled mayhem begins.
And said mayhem is notably more satisfying than in the original. Dual-wielding Uzis while slashing enemies in half with tentacle strikes is about as great as it sounds. Unlike in the original game, the sequel’s combat is fluid and frantic, with Darkness powers and gunplay each feeling smooth. One welcome new feature is the ability to use environmental objects in firefights. Tired of chucking lead pipes at guys to impale them against walls? Yank a door off a car, hold it up as a shield while you shoot, then fling it at a bad guy to decapitate him. Jackie can select from a variety of execution moves to perform on a captured opponent, granting him extra health, ammo, or armor. And the gore is copious and glorious. I thought Mortal Kombat had taught me everything I needed to know about which orifices a man’s spine can be pulled out of, but apparently not.
The slaughter continues in Vendetta mode, a series of mini-campaigns built for co-op that feature four playable characters who each have a Darkness-infused weapon. Although these bite-size missions slot into the main story in tangential ways, you won’t play them for the narrative—or for the ancillary characters, stereotypes so dopey they’re just shy of offensive. No, Vendettas are mostly an excuse to murder a bunch of dudes with your friends. Happily, the sequel’s multiplayer component works much better than the original’s.
In both modes, The Darkness II takes a cue from Bulletstorm in awarding the player “essence” points for different types of kills. As in that game, part of the fun becomes seeing how creatively you can massacre enemies to max out your score. It’s arcade silliness reminiscent of everyone’s guilty pleasure, 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand, where the whole affair is so preposterously over-the-top that you’re quite content to leave your skepticism sulking in the corner for a while.
But in spending those essence points on skill upgrades, you may feel the chaotic joy of The Darkness II start to dissipate. To buy upgrades you need to stop at portals peppered periodically throughout levels. This feels so transparently video-gamey that it breaks up the sense of flow, especially considering the emotional weight the story’s trying to convey. Then you start to notice, hey, hunting for collectible Relics feels that way too. And what’s with this Cockney Darkling creature who keeps beckoning me on? Doesn’t he know I can press a button to see a Darkness trail point me to the next objective? And can’t he tell the levels are oppressively linear to begin with? As if to underscore the point that The Darkness is finally a Real Video Game, there are now boss fights.
It’s this overcompensation that perhaps defines The Darkness II. The game strikes an odd balance between reverence for the original—particularly in how it clumsily tries to replicate the first title’s powerful emotional moments—and apologizing for Starbreeze’s missteps with its eager use of proven genre conventions. It is, despite its horror trappings, a thoroughly safe game. Very few chances are taken here, mechanically or narratively.
Start with Jackie himself. The new character model is a dead ringer for late-90s Trent Reznor, broodingly attractive in a way that’s more corporate than tortured. New voice actor Brian Bloom does a commendable job opposite Mike Patton’s returning Darkness, but the script doesn’t give his Jackie much that’s truly unique to work with. Jackie’s personality, delivered through in-game dialogue and the returning interstitial monologues, feels more dudebro than emo, although he does plenty of whining as well. “I must be losin’ my fuckin’ mind,” he says at multiple points, despite the fact that he was eating the hearts of zombie Germans in World War I Hell as recently as two years ago. In the original game, you could hit a button to deploy The Darkness, scaring the crap out of any bystanders. The fact that you can’t choose when to deploy The Darkness here, that the game does it for you at scripted points, speaks volumes about Digital Extremes’ approach. This is not an open world, even a miniature one like The Darkness’s strangely empty New York. This is an amusement park ride.
Then there’s the story. It’s so exposition-heavy, so laden with convoluted mystic mumbo-jumbo, that it feels more like a 1970s Marvel comic than the surreal love story it’s trying to convey. (I kept waiting for the Brotherhood goons I was shooting to shout “HAIL HYDRA!”) Everything is explained—even the requisite hallucinatory sequences. Consider Jackie’s associate Johnny Powell, a mashup of Woody Allen and Billy Babbitt from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (which is explicitly referenced in the game). His function, like the text of the Relic entries, is to explain every last detail about The Darkness mythology. The generic mad scientist villain and the Darkling play similar roles, as if begging the player to please, understand what’s going on. Add the lengthy red-sauce-fuhgeddaboutit mafia banter with the goombas who make up Jackie’s gang, and you arrive at a curious conclusion: for a game whose primary strength is its frenetic combat, The Darkness II is awfully talky. And a lot of that talking isn’t particularly interesting.
That’s not to say the game isn’t fun. Maybe the best analogue to The Darkness II is J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot of Star Trek. As a long-time Trekkie, I found the film perfectly agreeable, with taut action scenes, an appropriately loopy plot, and clear reverence for the source material. I didn’t think too much about whether it was a worthy addition to Star Trek canon or whether it would stand the test of time. I just munched my popcorn and enjoyed being entertained.
J.P. Grant is a Boston-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Kill Screen, Gamers With Jobs, and other outlets. He blogs about games at Infinite Lag and is also on Twitter.