The Darkness 2‘s valiant straddling of poignancy and savagery is so deliberate it makes me wonder if it isn’t a commentary on the shooter genre.
This is something of a trend these days with shooters, now that game developers have finally realized there are other avenues for people to get their vicarious violence on. After decades of design refinement, mechanical complexity isn’t usually enough to make a game stand out. But many shooter stories tend to fall under one of two envelopes: maudlin military melodramas or blood-soaked B-movies.
For much of its short single-player campaign, The Darkness 2 falls under the second category. Its hero Jackie Estacado is an unrepentant Mafia man, at one point musing that he slept like a baby after his first murder at the age of sixteen. He lives in luxury, respected and feared by the criminal fraternity. He has the eponymous Darkness to thank for this, a malevolent primordial spirit that’s grafted itself to him and given him inhuman power – at the low, low cost of his dead girlfriend Jenny and eventual enslavement.
Bitter and mournful, Jackie has sealed the Darkness off inside his own head for the two years since the first game and the sequel. But a rival’s hit forces him to let it loose again, and it maintains a hold over him with thoughts of Jenny’s soul in its clutches. He might hate and fear the Darkness, but he needs it – for now.
Mechanically, The Darkness 2 is a fairly standard first-person shooter, with the powers of the Darkness grafted on top in much the same way its two hideous hydra-heads protrude from behind Jackie’s shoulders. The game starts out butchery – the Darkness’ arms can tear victims to pieces, hurl objects with lethal power, or bisect a man crown to crotch, and your primary healing mechanic is to literally devour their hearts. Jackie’s Darkling, a sort of imp created from his id, provides support amidst wisecracks and the occasional stealth section through its eyes. But in bright light the Darkness flees (and your health-recovery powers go with it), and it’s back to first-person shooting with a fairly unremarkable arsenal of firearms.
At first this is merely an inconvenience, but when the backers behind the hit on Jackie reveal themselves, things get more deadly as they weaponize light against the player. It’s a little amusing, and often humiliating, to see this cosmic horror fleeing in terror from what amounts to an oversized flashlight. Still, the light-darkness mechanic spices up things enough to keep the relatively short campaign from dragging, each environment a different maze of safe and dangerous areas. This is good, because the rogue’s gallery of the game is a parade of foul-mouthed gangsters and cruel, inexplicably howling cultists armed with ever-more-bizarre weapons.
The main plot of The Darkness 2 is deceptive. Its human antagonists are shadowy and contemptible figures, but they’re just threats to Jackie’s friends and family. Their real dramatic weight is as an impetus for the deeper conflict between Jackie and the Darkness itself. Both want the antagonists dead, but for very different reasons – Jackie wants the threat they pose destroyed and payback for the wrongs they’ve done him, but the Darkness simply likes killing; and Jackie knows very well it just sees him as a glorified meat suit.
Fortunately, Jackie himself isn’t the empty vessel the Darkness wants. The emotional weight of the game relies on Jackie’s relationships with his loved ones, his fellow Mafiosos, and hallucinations of Jenny that tease and haunt him, rather than a direct conflict with the human antagonist (who barely even gets a name). Conversations with these characters in the hub levels between missions don’t exactly flesh them out – most of the cast is basically one or two-dimensional – but it’s enough to establish a good rapport between the protagonist and the rest of the cast. Solid voice acting helps, even if the cel-shaded models don’t always quite lip-sync properly.
These relationships work largely in tandem with the relief they provide from the game’s bleak tone. Like many good mafia stories, The Darkness 2 doesn’t try to sugarcoat the lifestyle’s emotional costs, and even Jackie’s luxurious home has a kind of sterile emptiness. (A level in a brothel is handled quite well, all disturbing sleaze rather than titillation.) Almost everywhere you go is run-down and decaying, its glory days long past. Appropriately, the visions of Jenny and Jackie become heartwarming, despite their standard romantic fare, as momentary flashes of brightness and humanity in the rotting world around them.
Ultimately, the conflict between the Darkness and Jackie is almost an allegory for the strange dynamic between plot and gameplay in shooter titles. The Darkness isn’t so different from the senseless violence encouraged by many games’ mechanics. Its support is fickle, and Jackie does what it commands only under duress because it holds his beloved Jenny’s soul hostage. Anyone knowledgeable about the Darkness simply refers to Jackie as its Host, and during one soliloquy he admits that while it feels like being in a movie “killing the bad guys,” he knows he’s not the hero – he’s the monster. The cynical, ruthless mob boss is coming into contact with capital-E Evil (an evil reinforced again and again by the game’s conversations and descriptions of artifacts left behind by the Darkness’ bloody history) and it clearly sickens him.
Abrupt and inconclusive, the ending of The Darkness 2 is clearly a sequel hook. (And it loses points for using a Big No, a cardinal sin of writing.) The game’s antagonists are wicked to the point of absurdity, and their motivations are fairly ordinary lust for power and control. There are dozens of small flaws in the game design, the fickleness of light sensitivity, the incomplete characterization.
But the game is solidly enjoyable, and if the developers keep this the story of Jackie Estacado’s struggle against the Darkness, inside as well as out, they’ll have plenty of material for future entries.