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Impressions: Just before his 21st birthday, Jackie Estacado (voiced by Kirk Acevedo), learns he is marked by New York City mob boss “Uncle” Paulie Franchetti (voiced by Dwight Schultz) for assassination after failing on a job. On the run, he hides in a cemetery where a demonic entity called The Darkness, a being that has possessed his family line for generations, awakens within him, giving him increasingly horrific powers that only work while in the dark. These powers manifest mostly as two serpent-headed tendrils that protrude out of his back with razor-sharp teeth that can strike with lighting fast speed, snatching, biting and hurling enemies to their doom. They can also detach and quickly crawl about the floor, walls, and ceiling, giving him access to hard-to-reach areas. Furthermore, he can summon imp-like creatures called Darklings at will who can viciously assault targets. This is in addition to Darkness weapons that deplete dark energy but are superior to conventional guns. Power is increased by consuming the hearts of the fallen, a grisly but often humorous bit of animation by the tentacles.
While Jackie is defiantly a “bad” guy in broad terms, being a hitman for the mob, he is a conflicted protagonist. Once he has his new powers, he decides to strike back at Paulie by destroying his drug trafficking business, killing his henchmen and burning down the warehouse where the gang leader hides his money. In retaliation, Paulie and the corrupt cop on his payroll, Captain Eddie Shrote (voiced by Jim Mathers) kidnap Jackie’s longtime girlfriend Jenny (voiced by Lauren Ambrose) and hold her at the orphanage where Jenny and Jackie grew up together. What happens next, motivated by revenge and hindered by evil Darkness, is the centerpiece of the story and propels the player into a troubling and disturbing landscape of horror and violence that sees Jackie descend to the Otherworld, where the real nightmare begins.
The gameplay primarily focuses on Jackie evolving his powers and learning to control The Darkness. Aside from the well-animated and highly satisfying tentacles, which escalate in power from biting enemies to the ability to take down a military grade helicopter with a single strike, there are the Darkness guns which, as long as he his power don’t deplete, have infinite ammo, able to shoot darkness like a machine gun and set off a concessive boom that utterly incapacitates targets. As the game progresses, he earns the power to generate localized black holes and move like a shadow.
While there are some minor issues with inconsistent A. I. and some frustrating level design there are some very-well scripted action pieces, a few very clever moments, including how best to face The Darkness in one key moment, and an intriguing and often emotional story that keeps the player invested throughout. While most of the story is linear, there are many opportunities for going off the main track, most notably in the subway stations that serve as the conduit for getting around the city. A number of NPC’s (non-playable characters) offer side missions that while not always fulfilling to the story, give more depth to the experience and allow some exploration.
The graphics are top-notch for the era and the voice acting is superb, especially by Acevedo and Ambrose as the young lovers, and particularly Mike Patton of Faith No More who provides a stirring, creepy, and memorable voice to The Darkness itself. Conversation and plot points are moved forward by dialog choices that offer a few different gameplay experiences. Engrossing and haunting, this thriller is a fun game that brings a little twist to the standard shooter genre while delivering a powerful story that resonants long afterward.
Chapter 1 – Jenny’s Apartment: After escaping from Paulie’s men and discovering the demonic powers, the player guides Jackie to Jenny’s apartment where she is waiting. She has a birthday cake prepared with candles burning and invites Jackie to blow them out, noting that the baker spelled the name wrong again. She is playful and happy to see Jackie but senses something is on his mind and the player is given the choice to tell her the truth about what has happened or lie and tell her everything is fine, described as protecting her from the truth. Once she responds to either dialog, she escorts you to her living room, which is lined with boxes as she continues to move into her new place. Meanwhile, in Jackie’s head, The Darkness comments on the situation, claiming in his slithering voice that Jenny reeks of innocence. She asks Jackie to sit with her on the sofa and watch television, to relax and have at least one peaceful night together. A dialog choice tasks the player with either telling Jenny that Jackie loves her or not followed by the choice to sit with her or leave. If the player opts to stay, one of the most profound moments in all of gaming occurs, giving players who remain a much higher stake in the emotional outcome.
Why it Matters: Jackie sits down next to Jenny and she cuddles up to him as she turns on the TV, to which, in first-person view, the player can easily see. On the television screen, the black & white Universal International logo appears and the 1962 Gregory Peck film, To Kill a Mockingbird begins. The actual To Kill a Mockingbird film. And it is not a clip. It is the entire film, which the player is able to watch from beginning to end with Jenny. It’s important to note that it is “with Jenny” because this is precisely why this moment is so remarkable. As the game is entirely in first-person view (cutscenes aside), the player’s view is that of a reclining man on a sofa watching a film on television with a woman who loves him nestled beside him. The gameplay essentially stops, at least in the sense that there is a defining mission or goal. The player is presented with a choice that involves standing up and exiting or simply staying with Jenny. For the itchy-trigger finger gamer, this is a dilemma as there is nothing to do in this time but watch a movie and observe the occasional animations that Jenny exhibits. But these animations are highly impactful. She cuddles close. She coos. She whispers. She nuzzles. She even leans in and kisses “you”, a first person kiss that is startling effective at keeping you seated. This is a raw moment, designed to build an emotional attachment to the character. While the scenario is contrived by the developers, nothing about the actual moment feels so. You want to stay with her. It feels like a realized moment, something that is organic in Jackie’s story and provides a bit of humanity in a tale that desperately needs it. The player’s relationship with this girl is astonishingly strong, and what happens next between her and Jackie is a difficult and affecting journey, made all the more so because we stopped for a moment in this frenetic adventure and spent time alone in the arms of someone special.