When someone is said to have a darkness inside them, it's usually meant figuratively. Not so with Jackie Estecado, the leader of a New York crime family who also plays host to an evil, ageless entity known as "The Darkness."
Jackie's locked into an abusive relationship with the demon. He despises it for what it's done to his family and those he loves. His father was the entity's host before him, and it was indirectly responsible for the death of his girlfriend. However, he also relies on its deadly power to let him dispatch his enemies. The people who are after him want to siphon the evil from his body and exploit it themselves, but he can't allow them to take it because the Darkness is the only way he can free his girlfriend's soul from Hell.
Confused? Don't worry. London, Ontario-based Digital Extremes, which took over franchise development duties from Starbreeze, the Swedish studio that made the first game based on the cult comic book series back in 2007, somehow manages to ensure everything makes sense.
More than that, they've crafted a genuinely interesting tale that manages to make us sympathize with Jackie, a born-and-bred thug whose noble and enduring devotion to his dead girlfriend is more like that of a fairytale prince than a mafioso.
I also enjoyed taking in the gritty, Sopranos-ish goodfellas who surround Jackie. They're trying to cope as best they can with a decidedly supernatural phenomenon completely at odds with everything they know. The humour is inky. Imagine a movie like Innocent Blood with demons in place of vampires and you'll be close.
Digital Extremes did a decent job with the game's relentlessly gory action, too, though the combat isn't without some annoying quirks.
The Darkness manifests itself as a pair of hellish tentacles growing from Jackie's shoulders. He uses them to lacerate and execute enemies in gruesome fashion (you can probably imagine what attacks like the "wishbone" and "butcher" look like).
These supernatural appendages also eat enemies' hearts to restore Jackie's health, and can pick up and toss environmental objects, slicing and impaling foes with fan blades and posts. The more brutal the kill, the more points we earn to level up Jackie's powers via a simple skill tree – a traditional but solid growth system.
We also get to use a small assortment of pistols, rifles, and shotguns. These weapons are less interesting than Jackie's demon tentacles but necessary when we find ourselves exposed to the light. In a twist the polar opposite of Alan Wake's fight-with-light mechanic, we need to stay in the shadows in order to retain the power of the Darkness. It's a neat idea, but it leads to some of the game's most infuriating moments.
Some enemies wield giant spotlights, rendering Darkness abilities useless. That means we have to rely on weapons. However, the spotlights also make the screen go white and wonky, which leads to problems aiming our guns. Add to the situation an enemy type whose primary skill is to use a weird magical whip to latch onto and yank weapons from Jackie's hands and suddenly you're left defenseless, with no way to fight back. Kudoes to Digital Extremes for coming up with this complex and highly original piece of A.I. teamwork. However, I wouldn't be surprised if it leads a group of angry gamers to launch a class action suit claiming compensation from the studio for creating a game scenario so frustrating they were forced to chuck their controllers through their televisions.
The visuals, meanwhile, are hit and miss. Digital Extremes went with a comic book feel that occasionally works well for the game's environments (a couple of missions set in a dilapidated carnival stand out for their authentically creepy vibe), but tends to flatten characters. Some of the mobsters we chat with in Jackie's house almost look like JibJab personalities, with two-dimensional faces floating above paper bodies.
It's a brief game – only around eight or nine hours, by my count – but I didn't mind. It has a story to tell and tells it without wasting our time with repetitive missions and overly long action sequences.
Plus, the experience can be extended with bonus levels in which we take on the roles of other underworld personalities infected by the Darkness. These missions, which explore events concurrent to but separate from the main story, can be played alone or with others. They're short, but give us the opportunity experiment with and level up unique powers possessed by a fresh cast of characters.
The Darkness II isn't likely to win any statues come awards season, but it's a safe bet to satisfy older gamers with a taste for gory action and good storytelling.
The Darkness II
Platform: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PlayStation 3, Windows PC
Developer: Digital Extremes
Publisher: 2K Games
Release: February 7, 2012