To be honest, the original Darkness sat on my shelf unplayed for more than three years. Amazon.com gave it away for free with the purchase of BioShock back in late 2007 and I snapped it up. Since I was going to buy BioShock anyway, why not get a freebie, right? It wasn't until last year that I decided to take off the shrink wrap, and what I found was miles beyond the dreary first-person shooter I was expecting.
The kills in The Darkness II are as over-the-top as the premise.
The Darkness II continues the story of mafioso Jackie Estacado. In case you're still neglecting the series (buy the game and break that shrink wrap!), allow me to get you up to speed. Jackie is a young man who has a single overarching light and a singular horrific shadow dominating his life. The beautiful part is in the form of his girlfriend, Jenny. The dark part . . . well, it's embodied in the demonic arms Jackie sprouts - arms that devastate human bodies and feast on still-warm hearts. Yeah, Jackie's got a lot on his plate.
Like its predecessor, The Darkness II begins with a bang. The game overall is faster paced, playing much more like a traditional FPS. Gone are the parts of the game where you wander around the city, maybe bumping into Jimmy the Grape for a side quest, maybe watching some TV on the set in a homeless person's shopping cart. This time, you're led around from point to point much more deliberately, and the biggest area you can wander around in outside a mission is Jackie's penthouse mansion, which isn't terribly interesting.
But you do get a lot of things to kill, and the kills are as over-the-top as the premise.
Jackie's demon arms excel at dispatching its enemies - impaling them from yards away with debris, splitting them into pieces in various ways (make a wish!), using a car door as a shield before flinging it with razor precision at a gunman's neck, and generally making some Mortal Kombat fatalities look like a bad fall in comparison. Some kills are mapped to the same command, but the game rotates them for you to keep your psychotic mind from getting bored, and you can unlock "fancier" kills later in the game. Besides the arm fatalities, you can cast a few spells and dual-wield guns, so this is a quad-wield game mechanic with some Hell magic thrown in. Not a bad deal at all.
The voice acting and the loading-screen bumpers where Jackie relates his thoughts are handled well in The Darkness II, but I must say that they were just a bit better in the original. Jackie has a more generic anti-hero look this time and the darkness itself (voiced once again by Mike Patton) verges at times on being a ham more than a horror. The supporting cast, however, is still superb and believable. Well, as long as you don't talk to them too much.
See, the developer (Digital Extremes this time, not Starbreeze) packed in an afternoon's worth of one-liners. To hear them all, you have to talk to everyone up to a couple of dozen times. Much of the content is pretty funny, and almost all of it is entertaining, but I have mixed feelings about it. It does provide relief from all the heavy-handed gore and depression in the game world. And you don't have to listen any further than you want. But it doesn't work for every character, and it seems better suited for an extra feature or even as an accompaniment to the closing credits.
Maybe it's in there to pad out the game length, since The Darkness II is shorter than you might expect. It took me eleven-and-a-half hours to beat the main story, a figure that sounds respectable, but I was very meticulous and listened to all the dialogue. I can definitely see someone beating the story in six hours. You can't unlock everything in one play-through, so there is a big reason to play a second time, but a little more story could have worked wonders.
There is a challenge mode that allows you to replay certain areas from the game with four different characters. Each of them is based on a broad characterization (Asian swordsman, African-American voodoo shaman, Israeli military bad-ass, and Irish brawler) and none is nearly as cool as Jackie powers-wise. They all play the same areas (one of which is [online] multiplayer only), so you're only realistically looking at about two to four hours extra game time from this mode.
But, hey, that means even those rushing through are getting a minimum of eight to ten hours of gameplay with the potential for much more. And the game is very fun and has an interesting setting and storyline. A recurring sequence in a mental hospital is fascinating in the way it makes one wonder whether Jackie is really who he thinks he is or just a deluded man confined to a home that cannot tell when he's awake and when he's asleep. Does the mafia don dream of being a madman or does the madman dream of being a don?
Figuring out the answer to that question and musing on the true nature of love are a fine cerebral balance to all the visceral thrills. The main enemies this time are a religious order, smart enough to use portable flood lights to counter Jackie's darkness powers, ruthless enough to push him to the edge, and dislikable enough that you could feel just a smidge worse eating their hearts. Not relying on a pure Mafia adversary paid good dividends. In fact, The Darkness II is an excellent game overall, even though I think it's taken a step back in some ways. There will likely be a sequel and I'll be all over it.