An Abundance Of Fridges: On The Darkness II
The Darkness II is emblematic of so many of the worst narrative and design concepts of gaming as a medium. It’s a game so obsessed with its own mythos, so completely devoid of self-awareness, and so appallingly misogynistic that it is often actively painful to witness. The entirety of The Darkness II seems designed around alliterative bullet points: “guns, girls, and gore.” In many ways then this isn’t terribly different from so many shooters, but where The Darkness II sets itself apart is in how much it revels in its own stupidity and filth.
It’s going to be important later on in this review, so just so we’re all caught up let’s quickly run through the basic premise behind The Darkness II: brooding protagonist has nothing to live for; girlfriend gives him purpose; girlfriend is killed to get back at protagonist; protagonist has nothing to live for and decides to kill everyone. Somewhere in there is also the fact that our protagonist, mafia kingpin Jackie Estacado, has a demon (the eponymous Darkness) living inside him which gives him superpowers and mostly makes him invincible. From here on events unfold as they typically do, with the introduction of a cult hell-bent on taking Jackie’s darkness (because that’s what cults do) causing all sorts of chaos, as Jackie all the while holds up inside his head lamenting the loss of his girlfriend and showing emotions™.
Though its stereotypical setup might lead you to believe otherwise, The Darkness II’s biggest problem isn’t in its rudimentary plot (though that’s definitely one of them) but in how its only means of creating conflict and motivation for its characters is through violence toward women. Jackie’s girlfriend, Jenny, is fridged before the prologue is finished (a carryover from the last game) and from that point on The Darkness II kills literally every single female character in the game for the sake of motivating Jackie, all while neglecting to give them even the smallest bit of personality, as ultimately their only reason for inclusion (beyond to be fridged) is to be objectified and tortured.
What’s possibly even worse than the way The Darkness II treats women is in how it attempts to mask its misogyny under faux-emotional maturity and narrative sophistication. Developer Digital Extremes dedicates a not-insignificant amount of time to attempting to humanize the relationship between Jackie and Jenny, but because Jenny exists merely as a narrative prop with all the personality of a perverted body pillow these segments feel like little more than gross reminders of how one sided and shallow their relationship actually is. It doesn’t help that Jackie is something beyond unlikable with a penchant for juvenile philosophy, as he sits in the dark gun in hand and recites odes to his own amorality. The Darkness II was never a game with a penchant for subtlety, but its writing is so horrendous and convenient that it can’t even scrape by as merely clichéd, but instead doubles down on its tropes, on its misogyny, on its pornographic love of meaningless violence, and then tries to sell it to you as mature storytelling.
Some might say this is just staying true to The Darkness’ comic book roots, but justifying The Darkness II’s narrative disaster through its mirroring of another work does little but damn them both. And to that point there is little about The Darkness II that speaks to its awareness of the tropes it’s employing, as it is so abundantly self-serious that it is impossible to enjoy it as knowingly dumb or comically grotesque the way one might enjoy a B-movie. In the few cases where The Darkness II tries to introduce some levity to its proceedings it predictably punches down, with sexist and ableist jabs that are neither clever nor shocking, but just as cheap and untasteful as the rest of the game.
And low and behold if this isn’t as exceedingly routine a shooter as its narrative deserves. The Darkness II’s main mechanical hook is using your two demon arms in conjunction with more ordinary guns to create a sort of synergistic ultraviolence, but in application your demonic appendages are little more than glorified swords and grappling hooks. There was a lot of room for The Darkness II to create interesting encounters focused around forcing you to think creatively with the one thing that sets this apart from any other shooter, but The Darkness II is wholly and unapologetically married to its power fantasy mundanity, and so you are left with room after room of decidedly uninteresting grunts to tear your way through as if the thrill of watching your demon arms rip a man in half is enough to make combat interesting.
The Darkness II’s demon arms reminded me a lot of Bioshock’s plasmids, but where Bioshock used its plasmids to setup interesting dynamics between you and your enemies, The Darkness II is focused on nothing but accommodating as aggressive a playing style as possible. And that’s not inherently bad, but there is nothing about how The Darkness II plays that makes that aggression satisfying. The shooting is loose, your arms are overpowered, the enemies are tedious and ordinary, and you’re constantly being funneled down the tightest of corridors. The Darkness II tries to counteract this by implementing a kill based scoring system reminiscent of Bulletstorm, but it lacks the depth and creativity that made kills in that game so entertaining, settling here for a narrow range of possibilities which mostly serve to distinguish between gun and darkness kills.
The Darkness II’s mechanics would feel like a missed opportunity if the entirety of the framework surrounding them wasn’t so unsalvageable. The Darkness II is a game reeking of the worst sorts of narrative based sexism, marrying its violent tendencies with misogynistic conveniences, and the sort of discriminating carelessness that video games so often try to pass off as a sign of their maturity. To the contrary The Darkness II is one of the least innovative and sophisticated games I have played in a very long time, seeming to exist for the very sake of regressing videogames back to a time when nobody questioned why every female character has enormous breasts or why they are constantly getting kidnapped.