Welcome to Ghosts of Gaming Past — here we’ll be reviewing older horror games, classics and non-classics we missed when they were originally released. Have a game you’d like reviewed? Send us an email.
Written by T. Blake Braddy, @blakebraddy
Almost every horror author, from Edgar Allan Poe to Stephen King, has written on the subject. There is even a Cherokee legend about it. In a struggle within you involving two wolves, one evil and one good, which one will win? The one you feed, the answer goes.
The Darkness is that metaphor taken to extremes. In the game, based on a comic series created by Garth Ennis, you play as Jackie Estacado, a kid who has something worse than a hangover coming on his twenty-first birthday. Failing to retrieve some money for his “Uncle” Paulie Franchetti results in a hit being put on Jackie.
However, the kid isn’t going down that easily. He’s armed with whatever pistols he takes from the goons he murders and has a sidekick in the form of The Darkness: evil, demonic snake creatures that recharge anywhere there is a lack of light and become more powerful through feeding on human hearts. (There we go with the metaphors again.)
The problem is, the more Jackie feeds these “wolves,” the stronger the evil power grows within him, so that controlling it becomes impossible. The longer he pursues his ultimate target, the less he is his own person and the more he becomes a mere puppet of his otherworldly companion.
And that’s about where the depth of the story ends, because the story is merely a backdrop for all of the pain, torment, and suffering you find yourself committing against the unwitting, dunderheaded mafia stereotypes littering the streets in the game, and that makes all the difference in the world.
A sort of herky-jerky first act makes the game feel almost like a rail shooter, because you storm from room to room, gunning down corrupt construction workers, until you find out you’ve been double-crossed by your Uncle Paulie, who has basically put you on notice. Your life is no longer valid in his eyes, and he won’t stop until you’re dead.
Once The Darkness appears, though, the game’s enjoyment multiplies exponentially. Some games make the unfortunate choice of creating a secondary weapon type and then making it unimpressive and therefore useless. However, perhaps because the entire game hinges on The Darkness working as a concept, its powers dwarf the guns and place the game outside of the normal realm of the first person shooter.
And the game is definitely entertaining. Though the story is sort of a generic revenge plot, the gameplay is anything but, and the fun comes through in devising new and interesting ways of dispatching the Scorsese cast-offs that make up the game’s bad guys. In that way, each encounter is kind of a miniature puzzle, giving the player a chance to experiment with various combinations of guns, Darklings (demonic creatures summoned from portals in the ground), and the aforementioned dark tentacles to kill off scores of enemies.
Jackie controls several different variations of the same force. One iteration of The Darkness slithers along the ground and attacks unwitting enemies, while another is an arm that impales victims and destroys any light in the area. The powers are limitless but must be recharged through being in an area utterly without light. Stand under a streetlamp, for example, and players can hear their evil companions sizzling uncomfortably. Knock out the light, and the powers are almost instantly recovered. Finding and then destroying lights, then, become an integral experience in playing The Darkness.
Personally, I felt completely over-leveled (if that language can be used here) because most of the enemies freaked out and ran away whenever I appeared with the undulating H.R. Giger paintings on my shoulders, and I could just chase them down and kill them indiscriminately.
Not only that, your powers are well-integrated into the gameplay and are smoothly controlled throughout. Sometimes the Creeping Dark gets caught up on something or isn’t responsive, or the Demon Arm can’t quite knock out the light you want to hit, but for the most part, they’re really well-designed. The game would have been a walking calamity, if not for how smoothly the Darklings are controlled.
It should be repetitive. It should be a one-trick pony. The idea of using phallic demon arms to penetrate cast-offs from a Scorsese flick seems utterly pointless beyond the first hour, but the increasingly violent and entertaining power upgrades make the game worth playing all the way through, even if you don’t quite understand why the story takes so long to get there.
The game isn’t even that long, but each and every plot device just seems to be another reason for you to go and kill some generic enemies with your (admittedly amazing) supernatural powers. You are basically The Crow, and your wrath is nothing if not insatiable.
Along the way, Jackie encounters various characters and character types, all unusually willing to help him along in his mission. None of the other people in the game have an ulterior motive in helping you, save for boo! hiss! to Paulie.
And, granted, both Uncle Paulie and Eddie Shrote (the evil Police Commissioner in collusion with the mob boss) are pretty uncompromisingly bad, so far as villains go. However, they always feel distant and unconcerned directly with the mission at hand. They’re kind of one-note Andrew Ryans with bad Jersey accents, orchestrating all of the evil from some remote location. Anytime you forget who it is you’re up against, they sort of appear through various means (including beepers!) to remind you that, hey, they [expletive deleted] hate you and they want to see you [expletive deleted] dead…for some reason.
The plot points are convenient and meant to just drive the narrative forward. They aren’t interesting, and none of the back-and-forth dialogue sequences are interesting or varied. They are more or less just variations on a single theme: Paulie hates you and wants you dead, so kill him before he kills you.
Beyond the narrative shortcomings, including a strange, short, and unsatisfying subplot involving Germans, cannons, and one of your ancestors, the game is entertaining and interestingly paced throughout.
The Darkness itself is given a personality due to the versatile talents of former Faith No More singer Mike Patton, whose throaty comments provide something otherworldly to the otherwise monotonous gangster patois found throughout the game. The dude can really bring out the weird when he needs to, and it benefits the game in ways that are almost indescribable here in the review. However, it is largely a one-sided conversation, as Jackie seldom, if ever, responds to the not-so-subtle manipulations from his constant companion.
However, The Darkness is not without its share of flaws. Graphically, it is a mixed bag. Whenever the game is in the first person perspective, it’s fine. However, sometimes the game switches to third person, and everything goes to hell. The game is quite talky, but the faces all look like people trying to have a conversation through cheap, unwieldy Halloween masks. The lips barely move or don’t move at all, which doesn’t help the sometimes understated performances from the voice actors, and all the textures on Jackie, especially, look quite flat and underdeveloped.
Also, controlling Darkness powers is sometimes clunky. In the event that you have climb a wall or some other structure, you can get stuck or turned completely upside-down, which can be frustrating. Luckily, the enemies are terrible shots, so you’ll have plenty of time to gather yourself together for a concerted attack. If you really want a challenging, varied AI, you won’t find it here.
As far as openness goes, side missions and collectibles are sprinkled throughout the game, but they are somewhat uninteresting and simple, so they can really be avoided without ruining the gaming experience whatsoever. Otherwise, it is a fairly linear experience, and though the subject matter would make one think there is a morality-based choice to be made in the game, any and all choices lead to the same place, so players need not freak out over story choices whatsoever.
The game finds Jackie getting progressively closer to his arch enemies, but since the villains play such a small role in the overall journey of the main character – which turns into more of an internal struggle in the second half of the game – reaching the end feels less like a satisfying act of vengeance than a means for seeing how Jackie will turn out as a person.
In addition, because each mission is punctuated by a trip through a largely quiet, largely tame subway platform, the sense that The Darkness is reaching a climactic finale is utterly lost. But be not afraid: there is plenty of combat to be had in the last third of the game. The ending itself is murky, morally, and yet reaches a weirdly interesting sense of closure. For a game with only the slightest sense of a meaningful story, the manner and delivery of the ending work really well.
The Final Word: The Darkness is solid fun, not to mention satisfyingly gory. Because of the aggressive, trying-to-be-cool tone, the horror is found mostly in the amount of bloodshed, rather than in either mood or atmosphere. Nonetheless, it doesn’t disappoint. The mechanics more than make up for a somewhat somewhat shallow story, and a well-received 2012 sequel seems to follow up nicely on what makes the first game so different from its contemporaries.
The Darkness is available on the PS3 and Xbox 360 (reviewed).