February 07, 2012
When we turned 21, we enjoyed a night of beer swilling and reckless abandon, but the same can't be said of Darkness hero Jackie Estacado, who was granted the macabre powers of the titular dark force upon turning that very golden age. Instead of going on an all-night bender though, Jackie sprouts toothy demonic arms and goes on a killing spree, as you do. Based on the popular Top Cow comic book, The Darkness II picks up where the first game left off, with Jackie now head of his crime syndicate family, keeping his dormant powers at bay.
If you haven't played Starbreeze's 2007 original, don't fret because before you get started there's a 'previously on The Darkness' cinematic you can watch first to help fill in the gaps. Then from thereon out, The Darkness II is very much Digital Extremes' gig, with its cel-shaded comic book art style and much-vaunted 'quad-wielding' gameplay hook. Like The Darkness before it, the sequel manages to grab you from the off, opening with Jackie being escorted to his usual table at an expensive restaurant, before all hell breaks loose, and you're forced into a situation where your only choice is to embrace The Darkness once more.
Instead of battling rival mobsters this time around, Jackie finds himself the target of the mysterious Brotherhood led by the equally enigmatic crippled man, Victor Valente, who's after the power of The Darkness for himself. The Darkness II spins a violent yarn as Estacado goes from pillar to post tearing the Brotherhood a new one following an attempt on his life, wielding his Darkness powers, which thanks to a well-implemented control system, makes conducting your violent symphony an absolute blast.
Thanks to the ability to dual-wield weapons and grab or slice up enemies with the demon arms, there's a great deal of versatility at your fingertips, meaning you can get a bit creative with your killing. At certain junctures you'll come upon a Talent Shrine where you can upgrade Jackie's abilities using the essence you've accumulated from your wanton slaughter, enabling you to increase the number of tentacle-based executions at your disposal. If you're of a delicate disposition, then The Darkness II's disembowelling, decapitation, impaling, heart-devouring, bisection, butchering, flesh-tearing and copious fountains of blood might not be for you, but for everyone else, it's a glorious festival of carnage.
It's this empowerment that gives The Darkness II its appeal, building upon the gory FPS action from the first game with a system that allows you to expand the range of gameplay options. That and a compelling story of course, which is great while it lasts, juggling surreal, dreamlike sequences that see Jackie hallucinating and trapped in an asylum, wandering the corridors like something out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It's this core conceit that Jackie must strive to unravel, as the line between reality and what he perceives to be hell becomes increasingly blurred, and it also keeps you second-guessing where the narrative is going to take you next.
It's a shame then that it's all over far too quickly, lasting a solid ten hours or so if you take the time to track down the game's 29 relics for essence bonuses, obsessively eat every heart and play the mini-games with Dolfo on the balcony of your mansion. Otherwise, you could easily breeze through the story in about 7-8 hours without breaking a sweat and while it feels like the story is steadily building to a crescendo, it is over all too soon. Thankfully there's replay value in the New Game+, which preserves all of your acquired talents and collected relics for a second playthrough. The Darkness II's single-player story might not be all that lengthy then, but you'll likely want to take a second tour through the game anyway, and there's a gold trophy in it for you if you do.
And then there's the Vendettas co-op multiplayer mode, which offers a separate campaign that can be played solo or with up to three other players. Here you can assume control of one of four characters, each with their very own Darkness-imbued weapon that can be dual-wielded with a gun you can shoot from the hip in your right hand. There's voodoo man JP Dumond with his Midnight Stick for levitating and manipulating enemies, Mossad agent Shoshanna with her powerful Arm of the Night shotgun, the brutal Inugami with his katana blade, Kusanagi and Dark Axe-packing Scottish lunatic, Jimmy Wilson. Each has their own insane personality and their own unique talent trees to spend your essence on, but you'll feel somewhat lost without Jackie's demon arms.
Adjusting to each characters strengths and weaknesses is part of Vendettas, and rather than feeding an entity inside you, you need to feed your weapons by destroying the hearts of fallen foes, so it goes without saying that co-op mixes things up more than just a little bit. Again, Vendettas is rather brief, but there's plenty of replay value with completion of the co-op campaign chapters unlocking additional missions to play in the Hit List, which has you tackling certain objectives including tracking down and killing assigned targets. Like any co-op mode, Vendettas is obviously best played with friends, but you can play alone if you want, although it feels slightly hollow and lacking without allies to back you up. It also ties into certain points in the central single-player story, making it well worth playing.
There are trophies to be snapped up in Vendettas mode too, the majority of which could be unlocked during a single protracted co-op session. It's more likely that it'll take a couple of longer sessions though, as you'll have to beat the campaign, play a mission as each character and execute all of the Hit List targets. As you'd expect, single-player is where you'll find the lion's share of the game's trophies, with simple progression through the story rewarded at the end of each chapter. There are also a few challenges to keep you on your toes, like impaling two bad guys with one javelin or killing a heavy enemy by throwing his own shield back at him and slicing him in two. It's a good, well-rounded list with plenty to do, but you'll probably be able to gain the platinum after about 15 hours or so.
A great sequel with distinctive, eye-catching visuals and a breathless pace, The Darkness II is an immensely enjoyable, yet disappointingly brief shooter with an interesting and entertaining narrative that'll keep you glued from start to finish. It's also indecently fun to play and experimenting with the numerous grisly executions, and other abilities like swarms, black holes and such, is invariably a blast. The Darkness II is a robust shooter with its own line in brutality, weapons that feel just right and a dramatic, satisfying story arc scuppered only by its brevity.
Exemplary voice-acting, atmospheric music and a good use of licensed tunes all add up to make for a fantastic soundtrack. Mike Patton is superb once again as the screeching voice of The Darkness, and Brian Bloom does a fine job of filling Kirk Acevedo's shoes as Jackie. Guns sound suitably savage too.
The cel-shaded art style fits perfectly with The Darkness II's comic book aesthetic, with pencil lines adding to the hand-drawn look. Animation is also excellent, although the lip-sync slips in very rare instances. There's a great deal of personality on show too, with the Darkling providing some comical moments. Environments are also vibrant, exciting and never repetitive, though you do retread some locations in co-op.
With core gunplay that has meaty feedback, the icing on the cake is the increased versatility that the 'quad-wielding' brings to the table. There's a good selection of weaponry and abilities to combine, keeping the action constantly fresh and gratifying, while the talent tree promises more abilities and powers to come. Sections where you also control the Darkling, pushing eyes into their sockets and ripping out throats are also a fun break from Jackie.
A short story lets the side down here somewhat, although a New Game+ upon completion helps matters greatly. There's also a lifeline in the Vendettas co-op mode, with its own campaign that intertwines with the solo story, making it a worthwhile endeavour. Explore Jackie's mansion during the downtime hub moments and you'll find the odd easter egg too, but at face value, The Darkness II is a slender package.
This is a decent list that rewards you for fulfilling the criteria for certain challenges, as well as completing the single-player and Vendettas modes. There is however an over-reliance on accumulating a set number of kills with Jackie's black hole, swarm, execution, thrown objects and dual-wielded guns, which is a bit lazy and uninspired. That said, this is still a good, solid trophy list that's worth taking the time to complete.
Digital Extremes has delivered the goods with The Darkness II, marrying story, action and great gameplay. It might be a little on the short side, but the story warrants multiple replays and co-op adds a little bit of much-needed longevity. So go on, embrace The Darkness. You know you want to.