It’s said that instinct is the reason humans are afraid of the dark. Thousands of years of evolution kept tree-dwelling hominids afraid of the crawling, biting, slithering things hidden in the dark and that fear kept them alive. Now, in the year 2012, The Darkness 2 seeks to retake the night on behalf of every hairless ape that ever felt the need to keep his or her nightlight burning. And while the game might be best left out of the light, it strikes more blows for our simian forebears than it misses.
The Darkness 2 actually begins with a fairly satisfactory recap of the original game. Series lead Jackie Estacado is living large as the head of a mafia syndicate and keeping the call of the titular, demonic superpowers of the Darkness at bay. This seems to be working out pretty well until a shadow group of occultists put out a hit on Jackie and his organization. He is forced to once again call on the abilities of the soul-eating super-villain residing within him to save his own life and track down those responsible.
The core narrative behind The Darkness 2 never really tries to be more than it is – the continuing adventures of Jackie Estacado and the Darkness. However, the tale is told with enough panache to keep the player interested. With more quiet moments of contemplation than any shooter in recent memory, the player has just enough time to come to sympathize with Jackie and his clique of stereotypical Italian mobsters. A side-story concerning Jackie’s sanity keeps things just grounded enough to make up for the otherwise over-the-top violence and the occasional bit of graphic sexual imagery. All the while the Darkness, backed by the vocal stylings of Faith No More front-man Mike Patton, is there to comment on the depravity of the world around you Patton’s interpretation of the Darkness is striking, to say the least. Much like the game itself, which clocks in at around a solid-feeling seven hours, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. And there’s always New Game Plus for those that want to make the experience last.
Perhaps the reason that the game feels just about the right length is because of the combat. It’s quite easy to lose track of time while tearing apart enemies limb-from-limb from out of the shadows. Much like its predecessor, The Darkness 2 provides a vital sense of being the biggest badass in the room. There is less emphasis on challenging the player and more on providing an open field on which to toy with your opponents. Launching enemies through the air, skewering them on spikes and tearing open their chests to consume their hearts for experience points all give the sickly satisfying notion of playing with one’s food. A smattering of RPG talent trees feed into the desire to obsessively seek out new and sadistic ways to rend cultists into tiny chunks. It’s great fun and proves that a game doesn’t have to be strangled with over-long or too difficult gameplay to forcefully wring the enjoyment out of the player.
It’s all the more jarring, then, when the game tries to synthesize an unnecessary spike in difficulty during boss fights.
To say that the bosses in The Darkness 2 are poor would be an understatement. Most are just rehashed enemy types with larger health bars and the ability to jump out of harm’s way. The entire concept of boss fights in games is beginning to feel more and more antiquated; less like a logical conclusion to a scenario and more like a box that must be checked. The Darkness 2 should stand as an example that, while some games can make fantastic use of the boss fight formula, their very inclusion can actually be a hindrance.
While the fact that each plays host to a modicum of Jackie’s own power should make them fairly interesting, the fights themselves amount to little more than over-extended shooting galleries in which the player is not allowed to use his or her more addictively potent abilities.
With the Darkness providing Jackie with such an overpowered arsenal, you would think that the game’s superpowers would overshadow the gunplay. That does not mean that developer Digital Extremes ignored the gunfights altogether. The more mundane weaponry in The Darkness 2 actually boasts some heft. Guns feel weighty and significant while still pointing where you want, when you want them to. While the game’s antagonists don’t stack well in terms of variety, they are well suited to forcing the player to switch between the mystical and the ballistic.
In comparison to the The Darkness 2’s predecessor, especially, the gameplay is a standout. The Darkness was an intensely interesting title that carried a lot of its own weight through presentation alone but often faltered when one was actually tasked with playing it. The game often smacked of a project that wished it was being presented in any number of other mediums. The Darkness 2 assuages this issue tremendously, as any sequel should be expected to.
Inheriting a great deal of the fun from the single-player is the ‘Vendettas’ co-op campaign. Featuring a 4-player cadre of assassins and running parallel to the main story, these ‘Vendetta’ missions are contain everything that The Darkness 2’s single-player offers in a leaner package. Fewer powers, less story and a shorter campaign over-all means that it’s just about perfect for quick bouts of multiplayer goodness. Each character has their own subset of Darkness-lite powers and abilities which, while far more reasonable than Jackie’s nigh omnipotence, still feel like they have weight to them. The end result of this is that each player feels like an important part of a larger whole, while still maintaining an imposing presence in their own right. While the ‘Vendettas’ don’t throw around the same level of charm and sympathy present in the main campaign, they remain likable enough and their story interesting enough to propel one through the extra two hours or so that their tale requires.
With as much verve as The Darkness 2 brings to the table in terms of its gameplay and storytelling, it’s a shame then that the game can feel so cheaply made at times. Dull, uninspired menus, low-resolution text and HUD elements, and some of the worst looking lip-syncing seen in any game this generation all add up to an overall sense of a game that was made on the cheap.
The graphics lean into the comic book aesthetic (specifically the style of Marc Silvestri, the original artist of the comics on which The Darkness games are based) more successfully than any game of this type. Even so, it’s easy to acknowledge that the engine has seen better days. The most glaring example of the engine’s age is that The Darkness 2 serves up some of the worst lip-syncing seen in modern times. You would hope that voice acting as well done and dialogue as well-written as it is in The Darkness 2 would not look as though it were coming out of sock puppets, but you’d be disappointed.
Perhaps a slightly lower-than-usual budget is the only reason that we’ve even received a sequel to The Darkness after all this time. The original game is a full five years old at this point and never did reach far beyond a cult status. With Digital Extremes’ spotty track record, it’s possible that this sequel was something of a passion project. It doesn’t seem too far-fetched as, despite its low-budget trappings, a lot of love seems to have gone into The Darkness 2.
For whatever reason, I am grateful that The Darkness 2 managed to coalesce in the way that it has. The game is concise, well-paced and tells a story worth telling. There is no denying that some parts of the game look better in the shadows. But if you decide to slink along with it, you’ll discover the appeal of being what everything else is afraid of for once. If nothing else, do it for all of those hairless apes that didn’t make it.