The Darkness II: Story

Naturally, this will contain fairly serious spoilers.

I also get a bit graphic in some of my descriptions of the game, in part because the game itself is fairly graphic overall and quite strongly so in... three or so plot points.

One of the devices The Darkness II uses is Jackie (ie the player character) sitting on a throne, in an environment shrouded in darkness such that the player can't see anything else in the room. These cinematic sequences crop up periodically, and involve Jackie monologuing at, as far as I can tell, the player.

I skipped the vast majority of these.

That's really weird for me; normally I only skip cinematics if I've already seen them before, and not necessarily even then. Unfortunately, these sequences are awful. Jackie natters on about a combination of irrelevant childhood memories and his deep angst about being the host to The Darkness, and it's all completely irrelevant, utterly uninteresting, entirely unsympathetic, and takes way too long.

Note that Jackie is a mob boss. And not a nice mob boss who does things like run a tax shelter orphanage as a real orphanage, but the kind of mob boss who gets angry, swears a lot, and proceeds to actually kill people with no regrets or second thoughts. The entire notion that Jackie fighting The Darkness is a moral issue with him is a hard sell, and the game is not only bad at it but clearly disinterested in trying to be good at it.

Further note that these cinematics are our introduction to Jackie (Particularly if you skip the recap of the first game), and then we segue immediately into making it 100% clear Jackie is a mob boss who is completely comfortable killing people. Personally, even.

This is a disheartening start, and the game's story doesn't really get better from there.

Part of the problem with the story is that Jackie doesn't really have any agency over events, a fact the game isn't really doing anything with. (That is, the story isn't about raging against vast forces a single person shouldn't expect to be able to change or stop) The two primary plot threads are thus: Jackie defending himself from wackjob cultists who want his Darkness powers for themselves, and partway through the game Jackie learns The Darkness has his dead girlfriend's soul and if he doesn't do what it wants it will do Terrible Things to Jenny's soul. The latter plot thread is outright taking away agency from Jackie, while the former plot thread is reactive: Jackie only shows any real initiative regarding this plot thread once, when he runs down another mobster to get information on why this mobster attacked him. (It was at the cult's behest) Everything else is Jackie being ambushed by the cult, or following the cult's instructions to go somewhere, or otherwise something in which Jackie has no agency in the story.

The overall result is that I never really found myself caring about what was going on. The story wasn't about Jackie, the character I was playing as: it was about The Darkness and Head Cultist Man (Mostly Head Cultist Man, to be honest), with Jackie happening to be in the middle, and Jackie's choices, character, etc, not really mattering to the story. What matters about Jackie is that he's the host to The Darkness, and that's basically it. I had no motive to pay attention to the plot on a deeper level than getting some context on what I'm doing in a given level, and it's not like I needed much context when the answer was always going to be 'walk forward until enemies appear and try to kill you, at which point you kill them and then resume walking forward, repeat'.

The lack of agency actually ends up cloaking some of the story's other flaws, but not fixing them. Usually when a story has very little story to it, the main character(s) has enough agency for the audience to be able to point to a given sequence and talk about how it could've (or even should've; say you're a firefighter, and so know that some firefighter character on a show is making choices they should know better than to make) gone differently, if only the protagonist had chosen differently. Jackie's lack of agency in the game takes away this tool for thinking through the plot, and also discourages the player from paying much attention to the plot since knowing things is irrelevant.

The most frustrating example of this agency-stealing effect is when Jackie loses a(nother) loved one, and the game has you go to a graveyard to mourn the woman, which would've been a nice moment to develop Jackie as more than a source of bizarre angst and action movie cliches, but instead the game interrupts it before it can properly begin by having the cult attack, and the game never tries to go back to this point. This isn't even touching on the fact that there's one mandatory interaction with the woman in question, and that one interaction pretty well fails to either make her someone to feel bad for in a direct sense and fails to really paint a believable picture of Jackie caring enough about her that the audience can readily feel bad on Jackie's behalf. I personally found her so grating in this one interaction that I made a point of avoiding going near her on all future occasions to avoid triggering her voice clips!

Maybe this would work better if I'd played the first game, maybe it's just a plot point from the comics faithfully imitated without any regard to whether it worked in the comics and/or any regard to why it worked in the comics, if so, but it feels like a massively missed opportunity, and it's not like the game is unwilling to force the player through technically-gameplay glorified cinematics. (The asylum sequences are a big offender here, but far from alone) I just don't get why the development team chose to derail what could have been real character development and a reason to really feel bad for Jackie and so on in favor of a very plot-baffling combat level. Seriously, why does the cult make this particular attack? How did they know Jackie was going to be there, given he healed up from death only very shortly afterward? Even if they're aware of the fact that The Darkness heals even mortal wounds, I'm not willing to believe they know the healing duration sufficiently precisely to be certain Jackie would heal in time to make it to the burial!

Perhaps the most egregious element of the agency-stealing's deleterious effect on pretty much everything is the issue of the cult leader being a teleporter.

See, the cult leader has a habit of appearing nearby Jackie and saying Generic Villainous Things at him. Initially I wasn't sure whether he was actually teleporting (And cheatingly invincible: if you shoot him, it does nothing, not even force him to teleport away) or a hallucination or astrally projecting or what, but then the teleporting enemies started showing up and they use the exact same effect. Worse, he's the final boss fight to have a health meter and he teleports constantly in it. If he's not supposed to be teleporting, the dev team botched their presentation.

My actual point though is: eventually the villain performs the metaphysically-questionable act of stealing The Darkness from Jackie (As if the cosmic horror that lurks in all shadows and has existed before the universe itself is actually lurking entirely within Jackie's soul or whatever. Really?), and then... keeps on teleport-taunting Jackie and throwing dozens of goons at Jackie to try to kill him. Jackie is explicitly established to have only a fading echo of his darkness powers that will run out eventually, and the villain has accomplished his goal. Why on Earth is he sticking around, let alone ultimately confronting Jackie in a boring and poorly-made boss fight? Shouldn't he be teleporting his way to an airport and flying off to a secret cult base in Europe or whatever and initiating his real plan, confident Jackie couldn't possibly find him before his last shreds of darkness powers fade away entirely?

The complete lack of agency on Jackie's part meant I didn't really think about this when I was actually playing the game. I was not thrilled with the plot, but this particular flaw only occurred to me when I was plotting out some griping about the bad writing of having him do the teleport-taunting at all, and in explaining why this is a bad idea that in realistic writing would get his head blown off by Jackie I got to thinking enough from the cult leader's position that I abruptly realized the entire final portion of the game should never have happened.

It's not like the cult leader has some irrational vendetta against Jackie that's his highest priority. That would make the stupidity in-character stupidity of persisting in trying to kill Jackie, at least, but no.

The game also had the fairly obnoxious choice to largely segregate gameplay from storytelling, and yet put a lot of focus on storytelling. Anytime anything theoretically narratively interesting was happening, I was waiting to get back to the part where I could do anything. The asylum sequences were particularly frustrating, as while they were mechanically gameplay sequences in which you could wander around and do things, they were really functionally glorified cutscenes that lasted too long and required you to figure out how to get the cutscene to end already, and on top of all that they were narratively irrelevant. Just the game trying to mess with the player's head, no insight into Jackie as a person, nothing actually happening as a result of an asylum sequence being a part of the plot. And unlike a regular cutscene, there's no option to skip an asylum sequence if you get bored of it.

I far prefer it when a game manages to deliver dialogue as you go along through the gameplay, build characterization, lay the foundations for plot threads, etc. This was one of the things The Bureau did well, for example: even though its plot is a weird, incoherent mess, I almost never felt like The Bureau's plot was intruding on my gameplay experience in a detrimental way, whereas in The Darkness II I basically always resented any attempt by the game to Do Story. Let me get back to playing the game already!

Frustratingly, the story is rarely enjoyable on an even moment-to-moment basis. Jackie's cast of mafiosos are diverse and theoretically interesting, and the game makes intermittent stabs at telling jokes, but for the most part neither of these things were enjoyable in and of itself. Jackie and Jenny's (Hallucinatory/flashback) relationship was boring. Jackie himself is boring. To compare and contrast with the Bureau again for a moment; I liked its main character, and indeed I found the majority of its cast solid and interesting to listen to just on their own, even though trying to reconcile The Bureau's overall plot into something coherent is not really possible. That and the solid gameplay was enough to get me through the game even though its plot was somewhat weak. The Darkness II doesn't have that, and it doesn't have a strong overall plot.

Also, while this isn't precisely narrative, the game is gory and sweary as all heck... which isn't a criticism in and of itself, just a warning for those that have trouble with such, and also a ground for some actual criticism:

The gore and swearing is used badly.

The swearing almost never feels like it's because the cast is a crew of mafiosos who just Talk Like Dat. Real people who are casual with swearing usually still end up attaching a kind of meaning to it, even if that meaning is to treat the swear word as a somewhat more extreme version of 'really'. (As in: "I really hate that guy" vs "I [swear word] hate that guy") The characters in The Darkness II just seem to throw swear words anywhere the writers thought it was vaguely plausible for them to fit in the sentence. In conjunction with how the game uses gore, the game as a whole ends up coming across like the kind of thing someone makes when they desperately want to be treated like a serious adult while having no idea what gets adults taken seriously, and so they adopt 'adult' language and topics without understanding what makes them adult or how actual adults utilize and talk about these things. Which is weird coming from a game with such a large development team behind it. It's the sort of thing I'd expect from a game made by one person, or a handful of people of similar age and whatnot.

Anyway, the gore is almost as gratuitous, and unfortunately has seeds of potential that are unrealized. For example, during the portion of the game where you're fighting mafia thugs, they verbally react to you performing an Execution on one of their number with shock, horror, and disgust... which has no effect on their behavior. Mafia thugs don't panic and run when a demonic monster attached to a man rips a man in half, or chestbursters through them for funsies. They don't drop their gun and surrender, hoping to not die gruesomely at the hands of a satanic figure. They don't puke in response to the unexpected sight of their best friend's entrails exposed for all the world to see.

That would make for some interesting gameplay, for one, but it would also do a much better job of selling the idea that the world perceives Jackie to be a horrifying monster when he's powered by The Darkness, which in turn would better sell the idea that The Darkness is a kind of elemental evil whose very existence is awful for humanity. As-is, you've got mafia goons throwing themselves suicidally at a demonic and invincible killing machine with no second thoughts, even as they loudly exclaim that they find Jackie's actions quite disturbing to witness. (But with more swearing and less posh) It just feels weird, and the switch to cult goons only moderately addresses the issue because the plot doesn't really touch on much of anything about the cult.

See, the cult has armor. I mentioned armored troops in the previous post, and they're all cult troops, and I didn't mention that said armor is weird biological-looking stuff with a visual style similar to The Darkness' visual style. Why do they have this apparently Darkness-derived armor?

No idea.

I mentioned teleporting troops. Again, cult troops, and the visual effect is some shadowy thing, implying they've got their teleportation from... The Darkness?... somehow? Note that Jackie doesn't have any kind of teleportation in the game, nor even a super-acceleration. And, again, where did the cult get this?

No idea.

If you listen to cultists talk, there's a distinct masochistic streak to their dialogue, and they'll even indicate that they're glad to die for The Darkness. This is never reconciled with them coming at you guns blazing, and indeed we're never given any kind of hint as to what's up with this. Narratively, everybody who isn't the head of the cult or his right-hand man exists only as 100% loyal guns that do whatever the cult leader tells them to do because... that's just how villains and their minions work in fiction, I guess.

Like, okay, the suicidal/masochistic dialogue to the cult troops kind of explains why they fail to recoil in horror when you gruesomely Execute one of their own, except that just raises a bunch of more important and narratively interesting questions the game has zero interest in touching on. Indeed, the cultist dialogue contrasts so strongly against what their leader says that I'm honestly not sure if the player is really meant to treat the regular cultist dialogue as meaningful contributors to the actual story. When a game's story in no way acknowledges a gameplay element, this usually means it 'doesn't count'. Cultist dialogue is easy to think of as a narrative element instead of a gameplay element, but enemies talking does serve gameplay purposes, letting the player know when combat is starting, indicating whether it's over or not, hopefully letting the player pin down enemy locations, letting the player work out the makeup of the enemy force based on a given chunk of dialogue being specific to a given enemy type, and even forewarning the player on moment-to-moment tactics. (ie enemies will say something if they're going to break out of cover and charge the player) So it's actually entirely possible the cultist dialogue is there purely for gameplay purposes and is in no way representative of what the narrative intends the cult to be like.

Which means the fact that the main plot doesn't touch on it at all is a big problem.

(To be fair, the Vendettas campaign touches on the nature of the cult a little bit more... but still not enough to really clarify this particular issue. Worse, the hints at answers seem in contradiction of the actual dialogue of cultists: if it's a Cult Of Evil that's all about its members getting to do Bad Things to the rest of the world, what's with the masochistic dialogue? The welcoming death dialogue? Seriously, what? Why are they willing to die so readily for this cause if it's all about selfishly evil indulgence for themselves?)

Speaking of the cult and its vagueness, one issue is the game just takes it as a given that the cult getting a hold of The Darkness is some big deal, that they'll use its power to conquer the world or something, but... there's really no reason to believe this. Certainly, the Darkness is a metaphysical entity on a vast scale, but its manifestation through Jackie is only really impressive on a small-scale level and is completely stopped by standing under a moderately bright light. The brotherhood has the demon-flesh-armor or whatever that is and teleporters, neither of which is at all impaired by bright light. If capturing The Darkness is enough for them to be able to conquer the world or the like, why are their teleporters who shrug off gunfire not already able to do that? And obnoxiously durable teleporters are their standard troops; there's multiple boss fights against enemies with other supernatural abilities. The cult already has a big leg up over conventional militaries!

Worse, we get to see The Darkness channeled through not one but two cultists as boss fights. The first one just constantly summons exploding Darklings and occasionally throws a blob of toxic gas at you or something. The second teleports around a lot, fires what amounts to sword-beams at you (Which are slow projectiles you can cut out of the air), and occasionally unleashes a shockwave on top of you. Neither of them hints at anything that would be gamechanging on a modern battlefield, not any more gamechanging than, again, teleporting line troops.

Most stories that involve stuff like capturing a vast eldritch entity attached to the protagonist and claiming that the bad guys stuffing it into a Pokeball will Doom The World at least have the good grace to claim that the bad guys are going to use their newly-caught Pokemon as a power source for the real problem. That reconciles these issues. After all, the protagonist's powers do go on infinitely, even if their moment-to-moment manifestation isn't like a nuke vaporizing a city in an instant. So it's just weird to me that The Darkness II messed this up so badly it just ends up feeling like everyone is being melodramatic over things that don't even really matter that much.

It's also frustrating since one of Jackie's recurring Angst Speech elements is blathering about how much it sucks that he has to constantly keep The Darkness under control, avoid giving in, etc, and it clearly never crossed the writers' minds for a second that it might seem more logical for Jackie to be relieved to be free of this burden they've put so much effort into emphasizing how burdensome it is. Shouldn't we at least be getting Jackie having second thoughts, and then shrugging them off because anyone else who gets a hold of The Darkness isn't likely to hold back and avoid helping it get its extinction-goal ways? That would've been nice, show us Jackie has at least one genuinely heroic impulse in him. But... nope, nothing doing. The plot just takes it as a given that this all makes sense even though it really needs more exploration and also ignores golden opportunities to do decent stuff with the story.

Another, probably-related problem with how The Darkness is handled?

It's not evil enough.

The Darkness is supposed to be basically elemental evil. It's Jackie's Dark Side, only his Dark Side isn't just him getting angry, it's him drawing on the vast power of an alien force that literally wants all of humanity dead, no negotiations, no tolerance, just dead. Yet... it never really came across as particularly awful. A demanding taskmaster, perhaps, with little respect for Jackie's volition, and of course it claims to be eternally tormenting Jackie's dead girlfriend's soul as part of bending Jackie to its will, but A: it becomes clear at the end that it's lying with the truth ("She burns" is what it says: what's actually going on is that Jenny is host to some angel-being called Angelus, and the implication is that The Darkness is being burned by her soul, even as it tries to contain Angelus) and B: that's more ruthless than anything else. It's not like The Darkness is inflicting eternal torment on all humans as punishment for daring to ever exist and be mildly annoying to it, which would be petty cruelty of an unimaginable scale. No, it's just holding onto Jenny, and the primary point is to contain a dangerous opposition. Manipulating Jackie with misleading truths is a bonus of a (very contrived, by the way) situation, not even the primary point.

Certainly, combat is gruesome, and Executions in particular are gruesome, but real combat is not a clean affair. I have difficulty holding the brutality of its fighting tools against it on a moral level, when humans have weaponized stuff like anthrax, sarin gas, etc. Watching a man be torn open by a demonic tentacle is perhaps more viscerally horrifying for any nearby witnesses than watching people die to a chemical weapon, but it's honestly not any more cruel or horrible for the victim -at least The Darkness kills people quickly, with minimal pain.

So that leaves focusing on the narrative, and one of The Darkness' 'big crimes' is rather implied to be basically an act of self-defense (It's heavily implied that Angelus is an actual existential threat to The Darkness) it happened to be willing to spin in an uglier way. What else is there in the game? Well... the one time The Darkness came across as both fairly evil and in particular more evil than Jackie was a sequence where Jackie is attempting to interrogate a mafioso and The Darkness uses its tentacles to murder the guy before Jackie is finished getting the information he wants, over Jackie's objections, and with its only explanation being that the man 'was nothing'. Even that is surprisingly tame for a being operating on a cosmic scale that ostensibly is working toward humanity's extinction, and frankly Jackie's actions throughout the game have me suspecting he would've killed the mafioso once the interrogation was done. So compared to Jackie's probable course of action, The Darkness' premature murder is notable more for the premature part than for the murder part -and later on, Jackie rips open a man's ribcage and with a human hand tears out their heart (While the man is still alive!), on absolutely no prodding from The Darkness. The Darkness needs to top that to have a chance, and it never does.

Certainly, The Darkness is not nice, but the game really wants me to view it as Pure Evil, and it just didn't take. The first game arguably did a better job of selling that idea, in that a plotpoint this game fails to cover in its review of events is that when Jenny died The Darkness deliberately prevented Jackie from saving her... but of course the stinger ending of The Darkness II makes it clear that killing Jenny wasn't really about making Jackie suffer, or even about taking a human life, but rather was about getting Angelus boxed up before her host was ready to channel her or whatever is supposed to be going on there.

Extra-weird is the Darkling. We get told toward the beginning of the game that the Darkling is generated from Jackie's subconscious, and while this is frankly questionable in the context of stuff that happens later and stuff we're told later, if we accept the premise that the Darkling is representative of impulses of Jackie's he doesn't express with his real body, then the Darkling does a really good job of selling how warped Jackie's psyche is. It desecrates corpses for giggles, is deliberately disgusting for the sake of being disgusting, etc. How did the devs manage to do such a good job of selling the idea that Jackie's mind is a dark and disturbing place, and yet make what's pretty much a Satan-expy seem downright reasonable? I wouldn't want The Darkness as my boss, certainly, but I can easily think of historical figures who would probably win an Evil-off with The Darkness, going off its in-game behavior.

To be fair, the game is a sequel to The Darkness (Which I haven't played) and in turn is based on comics I haven't read, but that excuses things only so far, and in particular The Darkness II is pretty clearly conscious of the probability of players coming in with zero familiarity with both the comics and the previous game. It's a pretty big omission to fail to make your Elemental Evil seem... you know... evil.

Also, while it's not precisely a part of the story, I'm not a fan of the game's art direction. It seems to have shot for a 'base' of photo-realism-type stuff, like Call of Duty or the like, and then layered atop it some effect that attempts to comic book-ify the graphics. I can see the motive, given the game is based on a comic book, but the actual result ends up disturbing for all the wrong reasons, in part because the comic book-ification actually isn't strong enough. I've literally had cases where from one angle a character looked like a reasonably realistic-type person, and then I walked a little over to the left, or they turned to face another character, and suddenly the comic book-ification effect was noticeable enough that they stopped looking like a real enough human being for my brain. The abrupt transition is jarring on its own, but it's especially bad when in any of the group scenes, as you end up with what feels like a comic book character standing next to some real people, or vice-versa. That'd be fine for a game that was trying to do something Who Framed Roger Rabbit?-like, but coming from a game that's trying to do a fairly gritty supernatural story it's just screwball.

On more specific events, there's one scene in particular that bugs me, particularly in the context of a later scene.

Partway through the game, the cult captures Jackie and starts trying to siphon The Darkness out of him with a Mcguffin. They know his capabilities, so they've nailed him to a cross and made sure to have a spotlight shining on him, ensuring he can't escape even with his Darkness powers. I was clear Jackie was going to escape somehow, and partway through the scene I thought I had the answer: Jackie's Darkling!

See, while the Darkling instantly dies when exposed to light (It's fine; it just respawns after a bit), it doesn't die when the player is exposed to light, and in fact I'm pretty sure it can respawn even if you're currently in light. Thus, I figured Jackie would escape by virtue of the Darkling sneaking in and, say, smashing the light shining on Jackie, at which point Jackie would have his Darkness powers back and get free and fight his way out using them.

The actual answer is that Jackie just sort of... willpowers his way through tearing himself loose.

I was tremendously disappointed. I'd worked out The Answer, and it was such a clever answer I was giving the development team points for having done such a good job on this, and then instead it's just generic 'the protagonist breaks out of an impossible situation for no actual reason' nonsense?

Okay, but fine. There's a lot of understandable reasons this could've happened. Maybe the development team only added in the Darkling fairly late in development, too late for it to be reasonable to really overhaul the plot to accommodate its presence here. Maybe the Darkling was in the game more as a game mechanic than as a plot element, and so it was just an unfortunate casualty of the Gameplay And Story Segregation. Maybe the Darkling's gameplay mechanics were at odds with the plot intention, with the plot taking it as a given that the Darkling despawned anytime Jackie was in light and the gameplay just failing to reflect that.

Later on, Jackie gets captured again. It's an even more complete trap.

What's the answer this time?

The Darkling to the rescue!


I just... what? It's bad enough that the Darkling didn't rescue Jackie the first time, but having it rescue him the second time just calls attention to the fact that it didn't do it the first time! It makes it almost impossible to explain away the first sequence not using the Darkling! If they weren't going to use it for the first capture, they shouldn't have used it at all! This isn't even getting into emotional considerations: say the first scene spelled it out to the audience that the Darkling was Jackie's only hope, and then it succeeded, and then the second capture escape sequence involved a brief hope that the Darkling would rescue Jackie followed by that hope being quashed when it turns out the cult accounted for the Darkling this time, leaving the player suddenly unsure what Jackie could possibly do to escape. I wouldn't be a fan of Jackie willpowering out regardless, but it would certainly be more emotionally powerful than what we got.


On the positive end, it's genuinely amazing watching Bradford depict a not-entirely-there guy. Anytime his character was getting to talk and especially flail wildly while talking, it was a fantastic bright spot. I also liked the minor character of the Chief, one of Jackie's men who never responds with anything except a dispassionate grunt, and other characters' interactions with him are great, what few we get. The game is capable of having enjoyable and interesting characters, it's mostly just the main thrust of the plot is centered around Jackie and the cult leader, both of whom are fairly one-note non-characters.

A subtle touch I liked that's basically the only bit that was fairly competent at selling The Darkness as really bad is that anytime The Darkness speaks to Jackie the screen does a thing with red intruding in from the edge of the screen and stuff. I didn't think anything of this for a pretty good portion of the game, but eventually I noticed that this is the exact same effect that comes in when Jackie is really low on health. This strongly implies that The Darkness speaking causes Jackie pain! If that's deliberate and not simply a coincidence, kudos to the team. Even if it's not deliberate, I like it and would love to see other games steal the basic principle.


I don't really have many nice things to say about the narrative stuff, ultimately. The gameplay suffered from 'I could be playing a similar, excellent game instead of this playable-but-not-that-great game', which is unfortunate but not truly a lack of positive things that exist in the gameplay. The plot though... I'm not comparing it against some other story and thinking to myself 'it did The Darkness II's story better'. It really is just this... lacking.

Next time though, things are looking up, as I cover the Vendettas mode.


  1. The link at the bottom of this page links to... this same page. Just letting you know.


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