If there’s one thing that can be said for The Darkness II, it’s that it’s not just another shooter; the distinct visual approach, the emphasis on post-watershed content and the two demonic arms growing out of protagonist Jackie Estacado’s shoulders make sure of that.
What you can’t say about it, is that everything works just as it should. Perhaps a more accurate statement would be to say that not everything is given the breathing space to work as it should, all of the time.
The core mechanics here are great, the demon arms in particular are among the best and most satisfying weapons that I’ve seen in an FPS for a very long time. Combine them with a firearm (two if you opt to dual wield) and you’ve got a “quad-wielding” system that presents a plethora of opportunities with which to dispatch of your foe in the most bloody, sadistic method possible.
Hello Kitty: Happy Party Pals this isn’t.
When you’re granted the freedom to make best use of your arsenal The Darkness II is a great ride. You can pick items out of the environment with your left demon, and then use them as a projectile, an explosive or a shield – expanding your weapon set even further.
Alternatively, you can grab an enemy and tear them apart (treating you to one of a number of animations that make Saw look like Saturday morning Nickelodeon), behead them with the right demon and his knife-like teeth or simply dangle an adversary upside-down for fun while shooting someone else.
The majority of your abilities can be levelled (and new ones learned) by interacting with purple portals dotted around each map. Points for levelling up are earned through a number of ways – kills, headshots, finding hidden ‘relics’, destroying lights (your demon friends don’t like light) – and provide you with increased health, faster reloading, improved demon arm abilities and such like.
(If you want to make your life easier, I recommend purchasing and upgrading the ‘Swarm’ ability – it traps enemies in a demonic mist for a short amount of time, making them easy pickings for which weapon you’re most fond of.)
You’ll never be stuck for options, and you’re always given the chance to create new ones. That is… when you’re given the freedom to do so.
For some reason, the game’s middle third has been designed in such a way as to remove much of that freedom. The result is an experience much closer to any number of today’s other FPS’s; enemy numbers increase in line with levels becoming narrower, meaning you’re often caught in what feels like a swarm with no obvious way to escape other than spamming melee attacks and shotgun blasts.
The intensity of the second act’s combat removes many of the options you had earlier in the level(and, eventually, later), as you’ve simply not got the time to take in your surroundings and available tools. A second playthrough solves many of the issues, thanks to your increased knowledge of the maps and the available weapons, but the first time through can be a bit of a grind.
Considering how fun the opening act is, that second portion feels like a real missed opportunity. Things are brought back towards the end, but the single player is short (around 7 hours) and the middle act is a significant chunk.
There are a couple of other missed opportunities. Accompanying Jackie is the ‘Darkling’, a two-foot nothing British demon complete with Union Jack vest and a love of farting and pissing on the deceased. Vulgar habits aside, the little guy is actually pretty useful. On occasion Jackie’s soul/mind/spirit is transferred into the little fella and you take direct control of him when you need to make your way through a gap too small for human exploration.
While quite basic, these moments are fun and do a decent job in further diversifying the gameplay by offering a pinch of stealth seasoning. So, it’s disappointing then that they’re so few and far between, their inclusion feeling tacked on rather than meaningful.
The storytelling could also do with an upgrade – the finest games either focus on their story or avoid it altogether, The Darkness II falls into the awkward middle ground. There’s clearly an interesting story to be told here, but the delivery is ungainly and sloppy. Hints of Shutter Island and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest ‘is this all real’ make things interesting as a narrative concept, but it’s not delved into deep enough to indulge your hunger or the expectation it sets up.
Much of the early game’s plot is driven through conversations in Jackie’s mansion that break up each level. These moments are comprised of walking from one member of the cast to the next and play out in the Fallout 3 style of looking at a head and shoulders with minimal animations (and without the speech options or ability to wildly affect the characters/story). It could have been handled much better.
Accompanying the campaign are a variety of multiple modes, the most interesting of which is the four-player co-op ‘Vendettas’. A mini-campaign in its own right Vendettas sees you take control of one of four colourful characters (a samurai, a Scottish thug, a secret service agent and a voodoo preist) as you wreak havoc through various maps.
Vendettas is more arena based than the single player, with the emphasis being on performing kills rather than ‘experiencing’ a well paced map or mission. Each of the characters have their own unique abilities, although none are as impressive or entertaining as Jackie’s demon arms. It is a fun old romp, though.
There’s no doubting that The Darkness II is a fun game, but it could have been so much more than that. Improved pacing could have solved the second act woes and defining a more meaningful way of communicating the narrative would have made the plot and character development more engaging.
It’s while it lasts but leaves little lasting impression.