And I thought I had bad breath.
When we last met Jackie, the adolescent mobster had exacted revenge upon the men responsible for his girlfriend’s death at the cost of giving his heart to the Darkness. It appeared the two lovebirds had been reunited in the afterlife, so it seems stranger still that we should see a continuation of Jackie’s past adventures. With few references made to the original beyond Jenny’s murder, The Darkness II feels more like a reboot to the story than a full-blooded sequel.
With his love gone – or perhaps not as Jackie’s hallucinations would have it – Jackie seeks to protect his surviving family lest he lose them too, but his ordinary dinner reservation with two busty, blonde bombshells goes awry thanks to a disfigured man and his army of jumpsuit-wearing goons. After a brief restaurant shootout, Jackie’s body remains crippled and torched, leaving the young mob boss to once again call on the Darkness. I can’t say the ensuing plot, however, feels extraordinary or creative no matter how steeped in the paranormal the settings or characters are portrayed. Despite the emotional tone Jackie’s deadpan delivery tries to convey, I could not connect with his plight.
Now in the original Darkness, Jackie lost his girlfriend on his 21st birthday. Some present, huh? Jenny’s death was the catalyst for Jackie’s revenge. I sympathized with his need for vengeance. He failed to save the one shred of light in his miserable existence, after all, and in the words of Darkness expert Johnny Powell, “Jackie not only had nothing left to live for, he had nothing left to lose.” Not so in the sequel. Two years later, all he does is think about her. Imagine the reversed role's of the Twilight movies' protagonists. Jackie’s obsessed to the point where he envisions Jenny still alive, but we quickly learn that may actually be the case.
As the young crime boss tries to comprehend this revelation, the Darkness begins to fabricate illusions to toy with its host’s mind. Jackie is often transported to a psychiatric ward where the henchmen that live or die by his hands occupy the asylum as patients and doctors. This raises a major question: Which reality is fictional, and which reality is physical? Ultimately, you decide, yet this driving force fumbles all momentum by the second act.
Now that's a face not even a mother could love.
A new art style accompanies this narrative redo. The presentation resembles a graphic novel fleshed out in shades of gray, black, and red. And I do mean red. While some people will say the comic book visuals squander the eerie atmosphere that made the first Darkness special, the cel-shaded artwork allows the developers to plumb the bloody depths of the human anatomy without the gore seeming overly excessive. Believe me, there are still plenty of decapitations and limb amputations to make Jason Voorhees jealous, though that didn't stop me from cringing the first time I witnessed a man’s spinal column being removed through his anal region.
For this, you can thank Digital Extremes’ “quad wielding” approach to combat. The Darkness' left serpent is now the grabbing arm while the right is the slashing arm. Although Jackie still dual wields a mix of pistols and machine guns, the game plays to its strengths when you snare enemies by the ankle and lop off their torsos in one fell swoop. It also appears the developers took notice of last year’s Bulletstorm, indicated by their implementation of a point scoring system.
Ripping the skin from your opponents’ bones rewards your visceral efforts with dark essence (the equivalent of experience points). Sure, you could shoot an enemy for a paltry ten points, or you could grab the unlucky soul with both tentacles and tear him apart like a wishbone, splitting him from groin to head. The four talent trees further tweak the style of play to each gamer's liking. You may allocate points to suspend enemies in midair with an upward slash, or channel the Darkness’s powers through your weapons for a temporary firepower increase. Sadly, this encouraged experimentation eventually falters due to the limited enemy variety. Not counting the men in orange jumpsuits or innumerable gangsters, there are merely five total opponent types – those that carry shields, those that teleport, those that carry spotlights, those that disarm your weapons, and those that blindly charge you – and none of them prove impervious to the dangers of summoned black holes.
Do you love to howl at the devil in the pale moonlight?
As in the original Darkness, light remains Jackie’s Achilles heel. While the initial glow of pool halls and assembly warehouses did little to detract from my enjoyment, the constant illumination ambushes led by head villain Victor ruin any semblance of empowerment I should feel when controlling razor-toothed tentacles. For reference, I’m thinking mainly of the carnival level, in which the light becomes so bright it’s tough to determine where Jackie stands in the environment, much less locate the source of his blindness. Several times I had to restart from a checkpoint because I could not see the enemies redecorating Jackie's face with their cudgels.
This would not be a glaring problem if Jackie's foes didn't receive a progressive, artificial boost in health. Couple that with the Darkness’ fear of even the dimmest nightlight and you have a recipe for frustration. Hearts exist as the one source of regaining health, but how can I grab the still-beating muscle of my foes when the power of the sun has conspired against me, stripping me of the ability to grab the inert organs?
You no longer summon particular Darklings to satisfy your unhealthy amusement with dismemberment, either. Only one Darkling aids Jackie, sort of like an escort, as he eagerly leads his master through tight linear shootouts. The developers clearly tried to inject some personality into the little minion – as evidenced by his English accent and UK jersey – but his constant use of the word “monkey” became too obnoxious for me to consider him remotely funny. Thankfully, I dispelled some of my annoyance by grabbing the lil' bugger and throwing him against the nearest solid surface.
"Eh monkey, I'm gonna rip out your throat, monkey! Then I'm gonna urinate on your corpse, monkey!"
I found the remaining character cast be to more sufferable, at least, as I appreciate classic mobster lingo and their stereotypical accents. While the schizophrenic Johnny Powell and smartass Vinnie seem especially noteworthy, the Darkness steals the show. You wouldn't think an entity that shouts endless commands like “feast,” “eviscerate,” or “mutilate” could be so expressive, but the being’s bloodcurdling pitches deliver some of my favorite voice work in recent memory.
Yet the single-player is just one side of this coin. Multiplayer, while not a first for the series, has been given more attention this time around. You and three others participate in a brief class-based campaign called Vendettas, shooting, slicing, and maiming your way to recover a stolen Darkness artifact. However, each member receives one power from Jackie’s arsenal, whether it be summoning black holes or channeling essence through your firearms. As such, your group feels more like the Darkness B-team, barely better than the poor fools you slaughter. The addition of upgrades advises consecutive replays, but clocking in at an hour or so completion time, Vendettas was a one-and-done ordeal for me.
The original Darkness was a surprising cult classic unafraid to push the shock factor when it launched amid a sea of mediocrity. Nearly five years later, the sequel still feels like a piggybacking attempt on the appeal of its predecessor. The executions employ brutality, the graphics capture a symphony of gore, and the “quad wielding” complements the smooth controls, but Jackie’s inability to let his sleeping girlfriend lie is often as painful to watch as it is to play.
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Digital Extremes
Release Date: February 7, 2012
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign), 2-4 (Cooperative)
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3, PC