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The Darkness (Xbox 360) — My Old Friend

Posted: January 28th, 2018, 7:46 pm
by theenglishman
After far too long a delay, here at last is my next review. Enjoy!

The Darkness (Xbox 360)


Video Review

The Darkness is one of the best examples of how to adapt a comic book into a video game. Where most entries in the genre focus on grandeur and spectacle, The Darkness understands how to pace its levels with character beats, intense action, a genuinely gripping story and one of the most haunting interpretations of New York City in recent memory. The Darkness stands out not just as a great shooter and a clever adaptation, but an inventive and engaging mob thriller.

For those of you who have not read The Darkness comics, first published in 1996, allow me to summarize. The Darkness is one of the funniest comic series I've ever read. It is an adorable edge-lord power fantasy for 14-year-old boys co-created by Garth Ennis, whose masterwork "Hitman" had satirized this very style just three years earlier.

The Darkness comic books tell the epic tale of mafioso Jackie Estecado. Jackie was born in an orphanage but adopted by the Franchetti crime family. Jackie is living the good life as a hitman for the Franchettis, and sleeping with every woman in town, except for his best friend and wingwoman Jenny Romano, who he sees as a sister. On his 21st birthday, a demonic power called The Darkness manifests inside him. Since the beginning of time, two primal forces of the universe have been at war, The Darkness and the Angelus, with each taking a human host every generation and gathering a force of human followers. The Darkness' followers are a military cult called The Brotherhood of The Darkness, who attempt to rescue/kidnap Jackie right as The Darkness is first manifesting.

Jackie is having none of this and runs away from this madness, relaxing the only way he can: having sex. But it turns out that if he impregnates a woman, his next of kin will inherit The Darkness and Jackie will die, which forces Jackie into a life of celibacy. Jackie does not take this well.

This is far from the only crazy thing in the comics. I could mention how Jackie has fought both Batman and Superman to a standstill. Or how Angelus and The Darkness formed a truce by conceiving a child called The Witchblade, a living weapon which only the wisest of women can use, and whose wielders throughout the ages have included Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, and Lara Croft. Yes, that one. Or how after a gut-wrenching sequence where Jenny is murdered by the Franchettis, Jackie uses his power to rewrite the universe using thirteen ancient artifacts so that Jenny is both alive and married to him. And in order for him to even get to that point, he had to murder his own daughter Hope Pezzini. Yes, Jackie was able to have a daughter, and got around the no-sex rule by impregnating Sara Pezzini with The Darkness' life energy while Sara was unconscious – and since Sara was the wielder of the Witchblade at the time, this means that Jackie forced The Darkness to rape his own comatose son.


I felt it was important to show just how crazy The Darkness comics can be, in order to establish the challenge facing Starbreeze Studios when adapting these comics into a video game. Not only was the source material downright surreal at best, but both the property itself and Jackie Estecado are nowhere near as well-known as, say, Batman or Superman. In this regard, Starbreeze took the unusual step of including Jackie's origin story in the game. While very common in superhero films, the origin story is almost never seen in superhero video games. It helps that Jackie is already a feared and respected hitman prior to The Darkness' awakening, which allows for a brief tutorial on using guns.

In general, Starbreeze Studios strips away the Brotherhood, the Angelus, and indeed everything supernatural that isn't The Darkness itself. It turns what was originally a horror epic into a cosmic horror noir story focus on organized crime; indeed, having The Darkness as the only supernatural part of the game makes the already freakish nature of its power just that much more horrifying.

Starbreeze also takes the major characters and themes of the comics and explores them in ways uniquely suited to the medium, in a stripped-down adaptation of the first major character arc leading to the fall of Frankie and Paulie Franchetti. Several characters, such as Aunt Sarah, Jimmy the Grape, Nicky Barruci, and Butcher Joyce are, generally speaking, more subdued versions of their comic book selves. Paulie Franchetti, meanwhile, is a combination of the two Franchetti dons, Paulie and his cousin Frankie.

Then there's Jenny, who serves as the moral heart of the story, and in this version, Jenny is now Jackie's longtime girlfriend. For most of the comic's run, Jackie and Jenny were like brother and sister; I guess it was important that Jackie had normal human-like interactions with someone without a Y chromosome. Normally, turning a friend into a romantic partner would be a source of controversy; however, since Jackie is no longer a womanizer in the game, I think it makes sense to show their relationship in a more intimate light. The game also removes the no-sex rule from the comics, instead giving the more plausible explanation that, since Jenny was the one true love of Jackie's life, he simply can't bring himself to love anyone else.

By stripping away the fight between The Darkness and Angelus, the game instead focuses on two main plot threads: the civil war between New and Old Guards of the Franchetti mob, and the internal battle between Jackie and his own Darkness. It keeps the game focused on telling a compelling story of duality and battles from within. It also makes The Darkness itself a much more prominent protagonist than in the comics, as it tears apart Jackie's mind, trying to get him to fully embrace its power. It's proof that sometimes, less really is more.

On a purely technical level, The Darkness has not aged well. Textures are blurry, loading times are frequent even after installing the game on a hard drive, and the characters' lip syncing, especially Jackie's, is awful.

However, The Darkness makes up for these flaws with an excellent lighting engine, great art direction, and a gripping atmosphere. The game moves away from the garish reds and oranges of the comics to an almost monochromatic colour scheme that represents the grip that the mob and crooked cops have on New York City. The art direction and atmosphere, and its surprisingly competent use of motion blur, help to make the world The Darkness feel much more alive, yet suitably decrepit.

Extra praise should be given to the voice acting. Everyone is at the top of their game, but best of all is Kirk Acevedo as Jackie. The man was born to play this role, and I cannot emphasize enough how much his monologues, which were simple text box asides in the comics, add to the atmosphere and intensity of the game. Equally impressive is Faith No More's Mike Patton as the titular Darkness, whose twisted guttural speech gives The Darkness exactly the right offputting edge it needs.


The Darkness focuses heavily on immersion. The levels almost feel like a small open world, akin to the scaled-down cities of Hong Kong and Paris in Deus Ex. The level design is smart and tight, with frequent backtracking that's designed to make the player feel comfortable with the streets of New York, rather than just padding out the game.

The heads-up display is minimal, with the in-game map segregated to the pause menu. Oftentimes players will be relying on actual directions from other characters or the New York Transit Service help desk. This is invaluable in making the game world feel like real NYC in miniature.

The Darkness is a console-exclusive first-person shooter, and as such the combat focuses more on enivronment management than fast reflexes. Gunfights are also designed to discourage running out into the open, instead hiding in the shadows, as The Darkness literally feeds on the dark and is weakened by the light. Jackie has surprisingly little health, even on the default difficulty setting, and while his health can regenerate, it's dependent on his connection to The Darkness; if Jackie is caught in the light, he will die very quickly with no easy way to heal. The Darkness gives a Jackie a variety of powers, including a temporary shield, tentacles, a sneak attack, and even a black hole to ensnare enemies. Also at Jackie's disposal are The Darkness' minions, Darklings, who can swipe at enemies, mow them down with a minigun, act as a living bomb, or destroy any lights in the vicinity.

Unfortunately, while the gameplay's foundation is solid, a host of niggling issues rear their heads and sully the experience. The enemy AI really likes strafing and moving out of cover, making it difficult to shoot, and the game's lock-on targeting will occasionally fail to compensate for player or object movement. This is most prevalent when attempting to destroy lights with the Demon Arm, as Jackie seemingly needs to be inches away in order for it to register. And the less said about the World War I-styled levels that take place in the mind of The Darkness, the better.


Even with its many flaws, The Darkness came so close to being my first-ever five star review. It should be commended for its commitment to detail, storytelling prowess, and its willingness to redefine its source material to tell the best possible story. The Darkness may not be a faithful adaptation, but it is a commendable one. It's also a great example of both a console-exclusive first person shooter and a rare video entry into the world of supernatural noir. This Darkness should be embraced with open arms.

Verdict: 4/5

Re: The Darkness (Xbox 360) — My Old Friend

Posted: February 8th, 2018, 11:00 pm
by Stalvern
I feel really guilty about not responding to this when I read it last week, since you put so much obvious effort into it. This is an extremely informative and engaging review, and it illuminates a side of the game that most critics can't. I'd always been vaguely curious about this game, but reading this gives me a lot more motivation to actually go out and buy it.

Looking forward to your next review!

Re: The Darkness (Xbox 360) — My Old Friend

Posted: February 9th, 2018, 3:30 am
by GameOfThrones
Stalvern wrote:I feel really guilty about not responding to this when I read it last week, since you put so much obvious effort into it. This is an extremely informative and engaging review, and it illuminates a side of the game that most critics can't. I'd always been vaguely curious about this game, but reading this gives me a lot more motivation to actually go out and buy it.

Looking forward to your next review!

Though it not really a fps .. it is more of a snake em up. Watch it on you tube before you take the plunge.

Re: The Darkness (Xbox 360) — My Old Friend

Posted: February 9th, 2018, 8:43 pm
by velcrozombie
I own a copy of this game and, after reading this review, I think it will be the next thing I play. I actually played the sequel already after a very positive review by Zero Punctuation and I had a great deal of fun with it, but I also read the first batch of the comic when it was written by Garth Ennis in the mid-90s.

Also, I just want to say that I enjoyed your speed-runs at the AGDQ events - your run of God of War II was one of the most impressive instances of "breaking" a game I've ever seen.

Re: The Darkness (Xbox 360) — My Old Friend

Posted: February 10th, 2018, 4:00 pm
by theenglishman
Thanks for the feedback, everyone!

My next review is Luigi's Mansion, but I'll be reviewing The Darkness II after that. I've already played a bit of it and really like it so far; the gameplay alone is a huge step up from the first.