The Darkness 2 – Final Review

The Darkness 2 boasts a highly ambitious narrative, setting out to communicate a very grounded, human tale, eagerly clutching at the psychological. At the core of this narrative is the protagonist, Jackie Estacado, a youthful hitman for the mob, and his deceased – murdered – lover, Jenny, a friend from the orphaned Jackie’s boyhood. Frequent are her appearances despite her deceased status, as she emerges in the game’s myriad flashback sequences, which only serve to flesh out and enhance the narrative proper. In a stroke of mastery, every one of these sequences was met with eagerness, marking some of the most compelling narrative moments. Jenny is instantly likeable, alternately playful and grave, and the complexities existing between Jackie and Jenny are readily apparent; their portrayals are both excellent, both featuring endearing voice acting and charming, almost gritty character designs.  

Still, this grounded, human dimension alone does not dominate the entire narrative – a second key pillar centers around the titular darkness. The presence of this power, this entity dwelling within Jackie, results in a forced supernatural component, which is far less compelling than the relationship between Jackie and Jenny. For a fair duration, Jackie has suppressed this power, perhaps realizing its corrupting effects, its usage gradually depriving Jackie of his humanity, making him more monster than man. At the narrative’s opening, though, the power is reawakened; Jackie is targeted by a hostile force while dining in a lavish restaurant, and had he not drawn upon the darkness, death seemed an inevitability. And so he does embrace it out of necessity, perhaps out of a repressed secondary lust for power, then sets out to uncover why precisely he was attacked, what the attackers desired; the narrative, then, becomes a sort of slow burn, adopting a mystery-like element which is quite engaging, as the mythology of the darkness is further communicated, and gradually – indeed, the narrative overall is remarkable, even as an imbalance is in place, one narrative pillar stronger, more enduring than the other.

Much of the narrative is communicated in an unconventional – and therefore effective – manner. Bookending every mission are protracted exposition sequences, seeing Jackie deliver some monologue, musing upon current affairs, though more often speaking of the past, of his childhood, his existence in an orphanage, his longstanding relationship with Jenny. In an interesting maneuver, these cutscenes are presented in the third-person, only heightening their cinematic qualities, a bold decision in that so many FPS titles are determined to maintain the first-person perspective always. Not so here. But learning of Jackie’s past, often tinged in tragedy, only furthers his inherently endearing attributes. He may have a literal monster dwelling inside him, may be superhuman in his abilities, but still he is a man, with a man’s beating heart. The recollections of Jenny are especially impactful; even the most mundane of encounters between them in the distant past adopts great significance, so engrossing is the narrative and presentation. Writing, too, is adequate, deftly balancing a dark tone with a light one, Jackie usually somber, his entire existence one seemingly characterized by pain and hardship, though he does not let that pain consume and destroy him entirely – life remains within him, as does the motivation to make Jenny proud, seeing in that achievement the ultimate expression of love.

Furthering the narrative are clever, protracted asides, seeing Jackie navigate a mental asylum, housing not only him but also his loyal mob associates, some of them patients, others orderlies. The former are often depicted as fractured mentally, while naturally that latter group exists in a position of authority, though perhaps the figure of greatest authority is Jenny, occupying the position of head doctor. Seeing her, discoursing with her, is again compelling and rewarding, as she shows genuine sincerity for Jackie’s supposed plight, all staff therein considering him as fractured, too, seeing the darkness as some delusion, dominating Jackie’s life, ruining it in turn. Of course, the darkness is real, which only amplifies the tragic dimensions of these sequences, fairly numerous and appreciated, owing to their more tranquil nature, marking a periodic break from the bombastic. Highly sanitized aesthetically, with an abundance of green, the area is quite beautiful, richly detailed, Jackie’s room especially elaborate, manifold markings on the wall alongside other indications of life. Fairly open-ended, the white and green corridors can be navigated at the player’s leisure, the other NPC’s interacted with, some showing insanity with their words, with the delivery of their words. Writing again shines through in these sequences, developing Jackie’s character and also contributing a world-building purpose. 

When regarding gameplay, the title makes considerable innovations, much uniqueness naturally stemming from the darkness, imbuing Jackie with immense power, opening also many opportunities for creativity in combat. But first analyzing the gameplay outside of these abilities, the game is a mostly traditional shooter: Jackie can wield three weapons at any time – two one-handed weapons and another which requires both hands to use. The smaller weapons can all be dual-wielded, no matter the combination of weaponry – submachine-guns can be fired alongside pistols or revolvers, for instance. This mechanic, while novel, is rather flawed, lacking in actual gameplay usefulness; sheer firepower is increased, but the accuracy penalties are immense; accordingly, I rarely employed this feature. The arsenal, though, is quite exhaustive, if devoid of any real creativity – every expected weapon is included, from shotguns and assault rifles through towards a myriad of pistols. Creativity may be lacking, but the gunplay overall is very engaging, the weapons featuring excellent modelling, while the audio accompanying shooting is often punchy and impactful.

Exoticism may be lacking with these weapons, but exoticism is abundant within the darkness powers. In addition to his guns, Jackie has a pair of darkness tendrils flanking him, the leftmost present largely for environmental manipulation, while the right tendril serves the role of melee weapon. Immensely empowering and imaginative, these arms elevate the gameplay further. The potentials for synergy and creativity are immense, the controls graceful and seamless, as Jackie blasts out a hail of gunfire, while flinging deadly objects at distant foes, ending them in spectacular, visceral fashion, the game never shying away from violence, instead embracing maturity in narrative and gameplay. Especially visceral are the execution abilities; once a vulnerable enemy has been grabbed, they can literally be cleaved in two, or wrapped about and squeezed to death by the demon arm. The melee tendril is rather underutilized, being very situational, but this minor misstep does not detract from the engaging novelty of these collective abilities, the modifications they make to gameplay.   

The gameplay, then, shows considerable depth, a depth which is only enhanced by the inclusion of an upgrade system, abounding in powers which can alter the gameplay substantially, only increasing player flexibility. Every kill is rewarded with essence points, the amount rewarded proportionate to the creativity of the kill – a headshot rewards more points than a regular kill, while executions are more valued than headshots, and so on. This fact actually incentivizes creativity and experimentation in the slaughter, as more points means a better, more refined gameplay experience. Still, in somewhat of a frustrating admission, these abilities, while well-implemented and sometimes complex, are never truly necessary for success – the player can rely almost exclusively upon guns and the default abilities for success; the difficulty overall is lacking, though there are periodic, unexpected spikes. But depth is present, as aggressiveness and cautiousness must be monitored in turn. Cautiousness results in less gameplay frustration, though such hesitation is counterintuitive to player growth, as access to abilities will be limited; boldness in combat is actually encouraged, and resultingly the game overall is perpetually intense and riveting, surprisingly robust.   

This upgrade system is divided into various trees, permitting a fair degree of customization. Certain abilities are mundane passives, like an expansion of carriable ammunition or an increase in magazine size while shrouded in the darkness. These abilities are useful, certainly, but rarely exciting, revolutionary. Active abilities, however, can be quite revolutionary, such as one which imbues Jackie’s weapons with darkness essence, increasing overall fire rate while also dampening ammunition expended in the process of firing. This ability, when enhanced by support abilities, can easily quell much opposition, and it is but one illustration of these more dramatic abilities. As further illustration of these powers, one skill prompts at random the spawning of a blackhole from slain enemies, which can promptly be picked up and thrown, drawing in nearby enemies, whirling them about erratically, leaving them helpless and vulnerable. The presentation here is almost comical at times, while the ability is very useful in combat. The late game is decidedly different from the early game, player progression being immense. In so many non RPG games, mechanics like these skill trees and progression systems often feel like lazy insertions, included out of expectation. The Darkness 2’s progression systems never make this failing; they feel like natural and organic inclusions, and help to draw out the game’s inherent uniqueness, as the darkness grows stronger, ever stronger. 

Graphically, the game exhibits further strengths, embracing a unique, vibrant art style, rather than safely clinging to the grimy and gritty. The color palette is crisp, blues especially dominating, the skies above during exploration and combat being arresting aesthetically, featuring a brightly shining moon and an abundance of thick clouds seeking to obscure that beautiful orb – everything is majestic, tranquil. A hub world of sorts exists – Jackie’s mansion. Arresting in its architecture and furnishings, it is similarly beautiful, and, being situated in the heart of some sprawling city, towering skyscrapers are visible from within the apartment, when standing upon one of the structure’s many balconies. True, the aesthetic – the coloration – is quite beautiful, though the precise nature of the environments is rather unoriginal; subway tunnels, cemeteries, construction zones are navigated in turn, and while mundane at their core, something indefinably graceful is attached to them, probably attributable to the overall stylized nature of the presentation – the mundane is elevated, nearly reaching greatness. One area – the concluding environment, actually – is particularly beautiful, that environment being an abandoned, dilapidated amusement park, in considerable disrepair though somehow still inviting, especially when considering the gaiety which once transpired there, when the complex was in its prime. Crisp coloration is very noticeable here, and given the strictly exterior nature of the environment, that beautiful moon is visible overhead always. Still, no matter these aesthetic strengths and vibrancy, the environments are characterized by great, restrictive linearity, with relatively few options for exploration; some branching pathways are present, and they often house relics, which confer essence points, though these paths are quite infrequent, these collectibles very lazily hidden. This linearity does have some advantages, but a more open-ended approach would elevate the gameplay and environments further.    

­The Darkness 2 is not a long game, fitting in with the tropes of the genre, the campaign lasting roughly seven or eight hours, even on a rather elevated difficulty level. A brisk pacing is present throughout, gameplay frustrations minimal – the game is highly enjoyable to play, the progression systems heightening that enjoyment, Jackie growing as killer just as he grows as man, discovers pain, heartbreak, damning even for him who knew already pain and heartbreak. The narrative, meanwhile, is characterized by much poignancy, occasionally distressing, owing to the frequent, exaggerated violence on full display – the game is abounding in mature themes, having a message to tell, unflinching in the act of communicating that message. As illustration of this bleakness, roughly half way through the campaign, Jackie’s mansion is assaulted, damaged heavily in the attack. The greatest casualty, though, is the elderly, kindly Aunt Sarah, murdered brutally, even as she committed no real wrong; an innocent is slain, merely to demoralize Jackie, when this murdering has the opposite effect, only heightening Jackie’s nerve, his frustrations and bitterness. With this slaughter, nothing is sacred; everything is bleak.  

Jackie’s desire to preserve the darkness within him, to combat those who seek to snatch it away, to avenge Jenny and Aunt Sarah, results in a constant struggle, the narrative never possessing a relaxed moment, save perhaps the sequences which transpire in the asylum, which offer a brief reprieve from the game’s abounding, characteristic intensity. Alongside this constant combat is anxiety, the game occasionally tiresome to play; when the game is loud, it is very loud, gameplay fast and frenetic, almost overwhelming – it is unique, clinging to an arcadey component, though never departing fully from realism; a perfect balance is struck, and gameplay overall is accordingly elevated. But a disappointing ending marks a major blemish, as the frustrating supernatural elements of the narrative are embraced, Jackie transported to another dimension peopled by bizarre, monstrous constructions, while Jenny is strung up on a cross, whispering sweet nothings to the fractured Jackie, tempting him; ultimately, though, matters conclude in an unresolved cliffhanger, the narrative incomplete.

A further failing is attached to the game’s secondary modes, lazily fashioned in, their inclusion quite pointless. One such mode is the vendettas campaign, which deprives the gameplay of much of its complexity, greater darkness powers conspicuously absent, while the overall narrative – its ambitions – is also scaled back, becoming totally lackluster, devoid of heart, strangely adopting a forced and obnoxious comedic aspect. In skipping over this mode, nothing would be lost. It is a co-op mode, true, so playing along with a companion may elevate the experience, but as a solo player it was rather disappointing, unengaging; it is a mere, unneeded novelty. Still, when considering the primary campaign, The Darkness 2 is an excellent achievement, with solid, inventive gunplay, an engrossing narrative, and compelling progression systems.     

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