The Darkness II

FBT is in The Darkness. With the lights on.

When The Darkness II came out on PC I didn’t bother, even though it looked cool; why plonk down money when I’d never played the console-only original? Why was it successful enough for a sequel but not a port? Lazy, 2K. But, DII started appearing in the sales and after reading reviews that likened it to Bioshock (DII was from Digital Extremes, who had swam in the Bioshock universe) I decided to give it a go – Plus, The Darkness is voiced by Mike Patton; sold.

As explained by a manic flashback chap, we learn The Darkness existed (quite happily) in the great nothingness until God decided to let The Angelus (the light) into the universe to help create Earth; The Darkness isn’t happy about this, and The Angelus isn’t a fan of the Darkness either but since they can’t exist simultaneously The Darkness takes advantage of this Earth gaff and inhabits humans to do its dirty work, allowing them free-will knowing it’s powers will corrupt them and plunge the universe into Darkness again.

The Angelus meanwhile, takes over humans completely and creates ways to imprison The Darkness and claim earth for itself. Get a room. On his 21st birthday, the only light in mob hitman Jackie’s life is Jenny, his childhood sweetheart. A mob boss murders her but Jackie is unable to stop it – the Darkness, which was passed down from previous generations manifested and held him back. Jackie fully embraces its corrupting nature and rage-driven, slays the entire mafia. Or something like that, it’s hard to keep up with the yammering narrator and it’s based on a comic book, a medium not known for its continuity. With the mafia dead and him the new Mob Boss, Jackie, with the help of our panicky exposition expert Johnny, then suppresses The Darkness, until … Darkness II presumably.

The look of DII is somewhere between XIII and Borderlands – fitting, given it’s based on a comic and from 2K, they must have had some spare Borderlands render knocking about. It gives DII a surreal, saturated comic-book look which helps with the ultra-violence the Darkness has in mind – had this gone for realism I’m not sure I coulda stomached some of the things The D gets up to. We open on Don Jackie being shown to his table by mob friend Vinne. All the Soprano and Italian clichés are here; we know everyone in the joint, someone is complaining about the spaghetti and Don Jackie is seated at his special table with two stripper sisters for the evening’s entertainment. Unfortunately, one entertainment is shot through the eye and the other hit by a van that crashes into the restaurant, delivering a bunch of mobsters intent on whacking Jackie. Badly hurt, Jackie is dragged through the chaos by Vinne, shooting mobsters as we go. One gas explosion later and a burning Jackie hears the Darkness begging to be let out and save him from death. Jackie agrees; then all hell breaks loose as two … appendages sprout out of somewhere over his shoulders and lay graphic waste to the mobsters. I wish I’d picked this up sooner. This is awesome.

The Darkness’ representation is pure horror. The slithering, snake-like arms end at snarling, jagged spiky teeth and look like the bastard child of a Xenomorph and those nightmarish deep sea fish. They have a life of their own, look around (sometimes at Jackie which is weirdly unnerving), squabble with each other and are deadly. You never really see what Jackie looks like with his extra arms but judging by the reaction of the mobsters (‘what the fuck is that?!’ usually) I look hideous. But who cares, look at those things.

One arm, Grabby, picks up and throws things while Whippy slices and dices. Mobsters can be grabbed, thrown, eviscerated or sacrificed in imaginatively disturbing ways, the tendrils can pull out and eat hearts to regain health and smash their way through obstacles. Those moments are so good (one references the Alien John Hurt scene), that I often chose to take a battering just to reach a mobster and watch my arms do their graphically slimy, bloody work, wondering if it’ll be the Alien death, the one where they grab each leg and rip the mobster in two or ‘just’ cut them in half – then use a half to throw at another mobster. The way the mobsters scream when they get grabbed, the slithering sound, the growling, it’s unsettling … and that’s before they start tearing them to pieces. Grabby can also lob things at enemies; the real finds are stuff like poles that can skewer, doors that can be frisbeed to decapitate - sometimes Grabby can miss a gas canister and throw a coffee mug instead, but these things happen. Whippy meanwhile has a fun time belting mobsters into bloody messes like a demonic cat o’nine tails and can be upgraded to grow blades down it’s back – actions that The Darkness likes will gain you xp to unlock its powers like Darkness Armour (which only works in the dark) and pulling ammo, health etc out of the mobster’s viscera once they’ve done their work. As the arms get more powerful you wind up using them as primary weapons while guns are for those hard to reach mobsters and shooting out lights.

Since Light and Dark don’t get on, any light means the Darkness retreats, leaving you exposed. Shooting out the lights brings it back and it’s a great extra dynamic to the game; trying to fight while avoiding light sources or find and remove them in the middle of a firefight is thrilling and the bad guys get wind of this and start setting up traps with flood lights and using high-powered torches, and later light grenades to keep you in check. The Darkness won’t let Jackie die, as without him it’ll be rendered useless, but you have to stay out of the light to gain its rejuvenation powers. Most games have a dynamic to set it apart from others in its genre; Plasmids, bullet-time, power-ups etc., but being afraid of the light is a new - and welcome - one. It’s a nice change to be the monster in the shadows instead of the other way around.

So now The Darkness is back and Jackie’s empire is under attack from another crew, time to figure out what’s going on. Jimmy is brought to the mansion and a long fidgety story later, there’s a group calling themselves The Brotherhood who’ve found ‘the Syphon’, an object created by our old pal The Angelus to contain The Darkness. Problem is, Jackie has to give up The D willingly so they’re all about making his life as horrible as possible, including capturing and crucifying him, killing his friends and family and generally being as despicable as possible; promising to stop if he just lets The D go. To stop Jackie considering it, The D reveals a secret – It kept Jenny’s soul. She’s trapped in Darknessland and since The D really doesn’t want to be given to The Brotherhood, it cuts a new deal; Kill’em all and you’ll get Jenny back. Jackie arms his arms and obliges.

As we shoot and eviscerate more mobsters than Max Payne could dream about, we work through some killer set pieces. An abandoned fair ground, warehouses and whorehouses and even our own house after it’s attacked by The Brotherhood are tense and exciting shootouts, with bullets and bodies being flung every which way. While this blood-letting is going on, it’s clear The D is up to something and maybe a little worried – It's in a difficult position; It needs Jackie to stop The Brotherhood, but that means Jackie may get the Syphon himself; it begins to taunt him with memories of Jenny and flashes of her in Hell to keep him in line and not get any ideas about using the Syphon himself. Even though I’ve not played DI, I can see why critics often point to their relationship as one of the best in gaming – and Jenny’s death one of the most heart-breaking. Jackie doesn’t care if The D is setting a trap and neither do we. Saving her is the only thing on Jackie’s mind – or maybe it's all in his mind.

On occasion, Jackie will suddenly find himself in a mental asylum. Here, surrounded by people from his ‘hallucination’ including a kindly nurse called Jenny, Jackie is led to believe The Darkness, his role as a mafia don and The Brotherhood are just figments after a major breakdown. You never really believe the asylum is reality but it does seem more likely – we do have demonic tendrils for shoulders. It’s also more welcoming, as Nurse Jenny begins to warm to her patient. This reality might be a better option for the heartbroken hitman. It’s interesting to have this level of uncertainty - real or not, Jackie might chose it; Jenny's alive here - and not everything is cleanly laid out - Jackie and The Darkness need each other, but Jackie is a psychotic killer and The Darkness is not exactly trustworthy. There’s just this fatalistic, uneasy sense that pervades DII. It’s all just so horrible. Additionally, each mission is preceded by Jackie describing his life as a Darkness host and a mobster; but who is he confessing to, and in which reality? As a mobbed up criminal or a mental patient describing his delusion? Or somewhere else? He looks how he looks in the main game not the asylum, but is that how he sees himself? Where is this happening?

Although Jackie is very much a lone gunman in DII with only The D’s Jenny-taunting for company, he’s not totally alone. In-between missions he can roam his mansion, chat with the other mobsters and reminisce about Jenny –who, thanks to The D, appears on occasion to relive their past life together. But, his only true friend/fiend is his own personal ‘Darkling’ - possibly the best side-kick/follower ever. Wearing an oversized Union Jack vest that makes him look like a gremlin ginger spice (with, inexplicably, a dead cat on his head), Darkling chatters in an Eastenders accent, takes the piss out of Jackie (or Monkey as it calls him) and generally lads about causing trouble. Despite being a servant of The Darkness sent to aid him, he seems to have some measure of self-determination; He knows The D can’t be trusted and tries to make Jackie see beyond his grief, knowing Jackie will do anything to get Jenny back even if it’s a lie. He often suggests they give up and go have some fun. He’s like that friend you know better than to invite out for drinks but do anyway because the fun on the night outweighs the apologies the next day. He’ll rip apart mobsters, distract them, piss on them, point out shortcuts and ammo and can’t be killed. He behaves exactly how a three-foot-tall immortal gremlin from hell would. Grabby can even pick up Darkling and throw him at mobsters, which he’s not very keen on. Several scenes put you in his mind to sneak about and ripping open mobsters’ throats with his fingernails is a whole new grotesque experience. He’s a fun sidekick without falling into comic relief, a great -if maladjusted and deeply disturbed- character and his loyalty to Jackie is oddly touching.

Not quite so touching is the game’s treatment of women. As it’s a mobster fantasy, it’s a strictly male-view cliché game which is fine, but apart from Jenny who’s romanticised to the point of perfection (but since she’s in Jackie’s mind, she would be), the only other women are Jackie’s shrew of an Aunt and a prostitute who helps Jackie sneak into a brothel; her brutalised body is seen later but Jackie doesn’t react and the brothel is an uncomfortable scene - sex slaves kept in plywood rooms, dressed in ragged and dirty clothes as they dance or perform. Jackie does burn the place down but not to free them. It’s a grim moment in an otherwise hyper-real game; we’ve got tendrils sticking out our back and we’re accompanied by a gremlin; is this really the game to offhandedly have us shoot through a sex trafficking location? There’s also the two sister strippers and a gratuitous ass shot followed by bouncing boobs in a scene that would put Elexis from SiN to shame.

As we make the final push towards The Brotherhood’s stronghold (having been crucified, shot in the face, locked in an iron maiden, forced to see Jenny in hell, watch family members murdered then have those family members’ funeral disrupted, chose which friends are killed), the two realities converge and Jackie must make a choice – which one does he believe in; or rather, which he’d rather live in - Stay with Nurse Jenny or descend into Hell and see what The Darkness has been keeping from us; It’s a tough choice.

DII is a short game and has an unforgivable cliff-hanger ending - it ends on such a great ‘awww’ moment, then jumps to 'ohhh' and as the credits roll, 'agggh'. That's assuming you reject the asylum; that ending is ironically better given there’s no DIII.

Although DII had no DLC to continue the story, there is ‘Vendetta’. A co-op (or solo) set of missions, you pick one of four mob hitmen assigned to aid jittery Johnny in his investigation. You don’t have the arms at your disposal and its basically surviving waves of villains to reach a Darkness artifact so story-wise it’s redundant but they’re good little shoot’em-ups and Johnny has some nice lines (especially if you play as Shoshanna, a no-nonsense ex-MOSSAD agent he develops a crush on) and it provides some background to Johnny’s main-game exposition. Still, I would have preferred an ending. Or a DIII.

Despite it’s shortness, The Darkness II packs a huge amount into that time and it gets you invested. It really shouldn’t work – mobsters, horror, comic-book look, a psychotic gremlin sidekick, murderous tendrils and a demonic voice in your head while a love story plays out in flashback and fantasy? Yet it works because apart from being a really good shooter with those arms brilliantly utilised rather than just being oddities, it’s got heart; we want to see Jackie and Jenny together again. I am so moved by Jackie and Jenny’s love affair, plus the fun of playing with Grabby and Whippy that I’m annoyed I’ll not get to play DI and see how it all began; I’m almost tempted to buy a console just to play it. Almost. Nearly convincing a PC Gamer to buy a console? That’s a good game.

2012 | Developer Digital Extremes | Publisher 2K Games

Platforms; Windows | PS 3 | Xbox 360