If there’s one thing I enjoyed about The Darkness II, it’s that it does a good job of letting you play an anti-hero who’s not afraid of raising a lot of hell in order to claim vengeance against those who’ve wronged him. And with some particularly impressive and gory action on top of an intriguing (albeit profanity laden) story, The Darkness II is one of the better anti-hero games I’ve played in recent memory. Unfortunately, as much fun as the game is, it’s held back by one unlikely flaw.

If you missed out on the first The Darkness, here’s a quick summary. Our hero Jackie Estacado, a young mobster, is cursed with a power known as the Darkness, granting him superpowers but at the cost of his sanity and soul slowly being eroded. After his girlfriend Jenny is killed, Jackie goes a little crazy with the Darkness to avenge her death before suppressing it and trying to live the good, quiet mafia life for a while.

Things don’t stay quiet though, and The Darkness II opens with a particularly loud and messy assassination attempt against Jackie in an Italian restaurant. Turns out, some mysterious and evil organization known as the Brotherhood is trying to get at the Darkness, and is willing to do anything to get it from Jackie, up to and including murdering everyone he’s ever known. And given Jackie’s constant monologues about his grim life leading up to acquiring the Darkness, he’s none too happy about letting it out again after years of keeping its raspy voice silent. Jackie’s also having a hard time controlling the Darkness, and is starting to have a mental breakdown complete with hallucinations of his dead girlfriend Jenny and occasional trips to a mental hospital that may or may not be real.

The combat of The Darkness II is incredibly fun. Not only can you shoot and blast your way through various mobsters and Brotherhood cannon fodder with a full assortment of automatic weaponry, but your primary weapon will be the Darkness itself. The Darkness takes the form of two snake-like creatures hanging off your shoulders, which you can use to grab, slash, and do all sorts of nasty things to your enemies. You won’t exactly feel like a one-man army when using it, but being able to throw enemies up into the air or stun them does foster the feeling that you’ll always have an edge over your opponents. Plus, there’s a little bit of tactical thinking in how you use your arms to pick up objects in the game environment. Sometimes you’ll have to decide when it’d be a good idea to use a car door as a bullet shield or if you should try chucking some metal pipes at your foes instead.

The goriest weapons at your disposal are Executions, which allow your Darkness appendages to grab stunned enemies and horrifically butcher them in ways that approach absurdity, which quickly became a guilty pleasure of mine. They’re fairly satisfying to pull off, especially against the tougher foes that show up later on, and are useful in giving you health and ammo when you’re running short on either. Each ‘type’ of execution-style cycles through a series of about three or so different animations, which helps keep them from getting old, but seriously, though, when one of the Executions involves ripping a guy’s spine out through his colon, you start to wonder how exactly the design team came up with that one. You’ll also have a sidekick in the form of a Darkling (an imp-like creature from the first game), who helps you out by breaking open doors, leaping onto opponents faces, and doing crude things to their corpses, but other than some comic relief and a few sequences where you control him, you’ll mostly be doing all the dismembering.

In a nice twist, your main opponent in the game won’t always be some guy with a gun, but any streetlamps or bright lights that will send your Darkness powers receding in fear. I found myself having to reload quite a few times because I didn’t pay enough attention to my environment, and ended up getting caught out in the open. It’s a nice mechanic that gives a good sense of vulnerability and helps prevent each fight from feeling like it’s a boring, straightforward “See enemy, kill enemy” formula. Paying attention to where the light is gets even more important once Brotherhood enemies start wielding high-powered flashlights themselves, leaving you with just your trusty shotgun to defend yourself.

By eviscerating your foes, eating their hearts, or finding Darkness relics hidden in each level, you’ll also gain Essence, which is used to buy special Talents for Jackie. As your opponents get tougher and more resistant to your darkness powers, choosing your Talents adds a nice layer of strategic thinking to how you compliment your style of play. The Talents help boost your abilities, focusing on improving one area of combat by letting you perform different kinds of bonus-granting executions, overcharge your weapons, release swarms of demonic flies and the like.

There’s quite a few to choose from, and on your first run through you’ll probably only pick up about half of them or so. If you’re a gun-happy fellow and prefer shooting your way around, you might want to focus on getting more ammo and explosive bullets, or if you’re a fan of using the Darkness, you’ll drop points on special powers that boost your toughness whenever you’re in the shadows or add sharp blades to your arms for use in melee. Some you’ll probably end up using more often than others. For example, I never really needed to summon a personal “Darkness” shield more than once or twice and usually only did it so I had something to throw at people.

The biggest issue with The Darkness II is frankly, it understays its welcome, and starts to lose some of the steam gathered up in the game’s opening by being too short. You’ll probably be able to beat the game in just under 6 hours of regular playing on the normal difficulty with a fair amount of exploring. And since a good chunk of the game is spent on story points like the “Is it real or not?” mental hospital and occasional visits to your mansion, some may find it to be a downer for things to wrap up so abruptly, especially after tense mini-boss fights and brutal gunfights. And not to get heavily into spoilers, but The Darkness II’s sequel/DLC-hook of an ending was one of the most frustrating things I’ve encountered in a game in a long while.

There is a co-op Vendetta mode, which lets you pick from one of four assassins with their own Darkness powers to take on various side missions to kill off rival mob/Brotherhood targets, either by yourself or with a few friends. The Vendetta missions are a nice touch, add on to the main game and are a decent challenge, but I would’ve preferred to have a few more hours with the game’s single-player campaign instead.

I wanted to like The Darkness II. I had a ton of fun massacring my way through my enemies and experiencing the intriguing story, but I was pretty disappointed that as soon as things got rolling, well, it ended.

Bottom Line: The Darkness II is fun while it lasts, but sadly doesn’t last very long.

Recommendation: If you’re looking for a pretty unique action game with a decent plot, The Darkness II delivers, but don’t really expect anything substantial.

[rating=3.5]

This review was based off the Xbox 360 version of the game.

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