“The Darkness II” is, in a way, the future of gaming; perhaps the whole franchise is. Taken purely on the merits of its gameplay, it’s fairly middling, but thanks to a singularly gripping story, masterful control of tone, and some world-class voice acting, your hand stays glued on the controller.
I wouldn’t say “The Darkness II” is better than “Halo” or “Gears of War,” but I’d gladly tell you it made me feel more. And maybe as narrative grows more sophisticated in gaming, that should start mattering to us.
The original “Darkness” was also deeply emotionally affecting (remember when Jenny got murdered right before your eyes?), but it had serious gameplay problems, and some of them remain here. The franchise’s Achilles heel is that most of the Darkness powers just aren’t much fun; some are finicky and only useful in very narrow circumstances, others are so fleeting that you never get a chance to really enjoy them. There’s just no godlike rush to these games, manipulating the tentacles is more of a hassle than anything else. You’re not free to open up these powers whenever you feel like, the developer has to give you the right prop, or environment for them to be useful. The result is, it’s all spoon-fed and kind of dry.
With that said, “Darkness II” is a vast improvement over the original. The combat encounters here are more varied and fun, the powers have been tweaked so they’re more functional and intuitive than last time around, and there’s even a boss battle or two that actually works (along with one or two that don’t). Also, “Darkness II” turns protagonist Jackie Estacado’s mansion into kind of a hub, where the player can wander around, talk to people, look at artifacts collected in-game, and even participate in a few small mini-games. In any other game this would be a waste, but when the story and dialog are as well-written as they are here, it’s actually a pleasure to languish in the atmosphere the game provides for a few minutes. The original also had this cocksure “smell the roses” attitude (you could stop everything and watch “To Kill a Mockingbird” with your girlfriend), and I’m glad they retained it.
As for the transition to cel-shaded graphics, it’s a wash. Some of the environments really pop as a result, but the character animations, especially on Jackie during his monologues, aren’t quite as good as they used to be.
But oh, the story. “The Darkness II” finds the cross-section between the gothic mobsters of “The Godfather” and the blood-soaked demon infestations of “Constantine.” It’s a potent mix, one that fits like a glove. Jackie Estacado, a protagonist who should be as unsympathetic as Kratos, appeals to the player directly in a series of loading screen monologues (like the original), and we’re won over by his wit, sensitivity, and broken heart. He’s a dark man, but not a bad one, and the beating heart of “The Darkness II’s” story is the bitter sting of his loneliness. The woman who brought light into his life is gone forever, and her memory haunts him in a way that even the demon possessing his body could never hope to do. Jackie’s struggle in DII is not simply to survive, but to live, to finally be free of his past.
Where the story goes is a blast, especially as developer Digital Extremes has fun toying with the player’s assumptions about reality, eventually forcing a very difficult choice which I won’t spoil here. It’s very “Bioshock” in its fondness for making the player question their own decisions and assumptions. Many people will tell you there’s a “right” and “wrong” answer to this 3rd-act Sophie’s choice, but I’ve played through both, and I think that either could be very effectively argued as the “truth.” You are presented with two realities, and at some point you must commit to one, but it’s very difficult to say for sure which is ontological terra firma.
All in all, “The Darkness II” is a mediocre shooter, but a superb dark fantasy. I don’t know if this franchise will ever crack the code of its gameplay, but they’ve got their characters and world down to an absolute science. I really don’t know if this is a great game, but I think it’s pretty damned good art.
demons, come on