The Darkness 2 Review

By Jeffrey Matulef - Posted Feb 07, 2012

The Darkness 2 is a smart, beautiful, exhilarating slice of horror-action mayhem with combat, art direction, and acting being noticeably enhanced since its predecessor. A messier storyline and unnecessary boss fights work against it, but it still stands out as an extraordinarily inspired shooter.

The Pros
  • Balanced, flexible combat
  • Gorgeous graphic novel aesthetic
  • Great dialogue and acting
  • Intriguing story. . .until the end
The Cons
  • Story eventually loses its way
  • Poor boss fights
  • Weak multiplayer

The Darkness 2 Review: 

There's a scene in 2007's The Darkness where mopey mafioso Jackie Estacado uses the demonic tentacles that have possessed him to reign havoc in his vile uncle Paulie's mansion. Henchmen run and panic as Jackie murders a group of goons in one fell swoop, tosses a guy around like a ragdoll, and creates black holes to absorb his opposition. It was a mesmerizing scene and a fitting climax for a bitter tale of loss and revenge, except there was one problem: it wasn't interactive.

Certain moves like the horizontal tentacle swipe weren't even in the game, and actually playing as Jackie was much slower and less empowering than this cutscene made it out to be. As such, it highlighted what the game should have been all along. Now, nearly half a decade later, development duties have shifted from Starbreeze Studios (The Chronicles of Riddick) to Digital Extremes (Dark Sector) and the potential we saw is finally realized in this hyper-violent, sophisticated sequel.

 

Skills for Kills

The Darkness 2 takes place a couple years after the events of the first game. Jackie has risen to become a mafia don, but his life of hedonism is hollow, as his beloved Jenny's still dead. It's not all doom-and-gloom though. Jackie has a new found purpose looking after his aunt Sarah along with his wonderfully endearing mob empire. After a hit on an Italian restaurant leaves many of his men dead, Jackie succumbs to the Darkness yet again as he investigates his mysterious assailants.

Perhaps the biggest improvement this sequel makes is its approach to combat. First off, you no longer move like a snail. More importantly, the Darkness techniques are integrated far more efficiently than in its predecessor. Your left tentacle grabs items and stunned enemies, while the right can swipe for a devastating melee attack. Additionally, you have two Darkness powers. One lets loose a swarm of insects ala the wasp plasmid in Bioshock, while the other temporarily boosts your guns' power as they fire off rounds of magical ammo. Both abilities are on a cool-down timer, so they must be used sparingly. There's also an upgrade tree with options for greater health regeneration, deadlier attacks, and the cathartic black hole launching from the first game.

Darkness 2

In an inspired choice, how you eliminate enemies dictates what you get out of it. Taking a page from Bulletstorm, every kill grants experience points. Simply gunning a foe down will work, but rewards fewer points. A headshot is better, but dangling an goon by their ankle and ripping their skull out from their anus is best. A clever execution system adds even more depth. Once an enemy's been stunned or injured their heart will be shown like an x-ray. This means they're vulnerable for a grab with ol' lefty and you're given a choice how to execute them. Do you want to rip their heart out and gain health, or consume their cadaver to manifest a shield, more ammo, or a quicker recharge rate on your Darkness powers? Each type of execution comes with their own set of animations based on where you grab an enemy so you won't have to wait through the same ones ad infinitum. 

Besides combat, The Darkness 2 is a marked improvement over its predecessor visually. Hand-drawn, cel-shaded textures make the whole thing look like a comic book with subtle use of cross-hatching and thick black lines. This is a vastly more colorful game, where the night sky is always a bold deep blue and a lavish underground brothel is bathed in red curtains. It's a testament to the art direction that a gritty game about darkness contains so few grays and browns.

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"I'm a Goddamn Marvel of Modern Science"

Despite The Darkness 2's penchant for ultra-violence, this is a very narrative-heavy game with lengthy sequence where you do nothing but talk to people. There's loads of extra dialogue for patient players who eavesdrop on NPC's conversations, and optional exchanges can go on for some time. The Darkness was already memorable for its intimate character moments, and The Darkness 2 improves on this rock-solid foundation with a well developed cast, beautifully staged setpieces, and some of best voice-acting in gaming. Despite the grim subject matter The Darkness 2 has a lot of heart. And not just the ones your tentacles feast off of.

The Darkness 2 also surpasses its predecessor is in its otherworldly episodes. In the first The Darkness, Jackie's trips to the underworld were portrayed as a crimson wasteland modeled after a hellish vision of World War I. This time around he finds himself a patient in a mental ward that's a cross between One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Wizard of Oz, where characters from the rest of the game reappear in vastly different roles. Here Jackie is told he's delusional and was never a mob boss (let alone one possessed by a demon). In a brilliant ironic twist, the asylum is the brightest environment in the game. Digital Extremes wisely realizes that fire and brimstone are too fantastical to summon real feelings of dread, but the shockingly earnest hospital scenes hit much closer to home, creating a far more believable -- and horrifying -- Kafka-esque nightmare.

 Darkness 2

While individual scenes sparkle, the overall plot is murkier than the last game's. Rather than an emotionally charged revenge fantasy, The Darkness 2 follows the series' supernatural elements further down the rabbit hole. The main villain and his Illuminati-esque followers are ultimately forgettable, and the final chapter is more confusing and silly than everything leading up to it. 

For a game with such a strong narrative pull it's a shame The Darkness 2 occasionally lets its more "gamey" elements get in the way. Each level has a collectible relic or two to find that grant a big XP boost, but seeking them out flies in the face of the otherwise breakneck momentum the story encourages. Also, the addition of boss fights ultimately does not work and feels ungracefully tacked on.

This is the case with multiplayer as well. While the co-op campaign loosely ties into the main story, the writing is several leagues worse where you play as one of four outlandish stereotypes (drunk Scottish guy, solemn samurai, witch doctor, etc.) who have weapons infused with the Darkness. Each one plays like a scaled down version of Jackie with only a fraction of his powers and finishing moves. Watching the same one or two execution animations per character gets old really fast. While a serviceable Darkness-based take on a traditional co-op template, it pales in comparison to the main game.

Darkness 2

We Are Eternal

Despite the anticlimactic ending, shoddy boss fights, and lackluster multiplayer, The Darkness 2 is an extremely impressive game. It oozes style, packs an emotional punch, and manages to be effectively balance bombastic violence with understated character development, ensuring that when the Darkness is unleashed you care. Just as Jackie finds himself a puppet of the Darkness's will, I found myself unable to give up its seductive allure when the end credits rolled after a scant nine hours. Instead, I started straight away on new game.

Editor's Note: The Darkness 2 was reviewed using an Xbox 360 copy of the game. If further investigation reveals any differences in the PC and/or PS3 copy of the game, this review will be updated to reflect those differences. 

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