A descent into The Darkness can resemble the well-known Five Steps of Denial to Acceptance … in reverse. All of the symptoms and stages composed of anger and resentment, bargaining, and depression begin a spine-locking backslide, starting with the opening chapter's high-speed cop evasion, and continuing through the entire storyline's distraught plunge down and down. And not every one of those moments is spelled out for you in this first-person adventure-shooter from Starbreeze Studios, the fine folk that took the abysmal Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay film and strong-armed it into a revered benchmark for movie-to-game adaptations. In like fashion, The Darkness steps out of the comic-to-game adaptations' shadows, and puts fluffier, Marvel-based superhero fare to shame.
The first of the five backward stages in The Darkness is Acceptance, which may be periodically underscored by the adrenaline-inducing prospect of becoming a marionette for evil. "This is out of my hands," you say. "I don’t have to answer to my conscience because this isn't my doing." The Darkness manifests itself around you -- Jackie Estacado, one of the most pensive and deep-dwelling anti-heroes to grace a game screen since Lucas Kane in Indigo Prophecy -- and the manifestation occurs as the church bells strike midnight on your 21st birthday. The scene is lurching and violent, faces get eaten, hearts are ripped from chest cavities, a void is opened that sucks your adversaries into a tumble dry cycle … But you used it (or more appropriately, The Darkness used you) to take out the bad guys. They're the bad guys. Not you.
Or so you begin to tell yourself.
But you, the player, break the "fourth-wall" of staged cinema and realize it's only a game. And this is what the game is supposed to be; you're supposed to succumb to The Darkness. Without The Darkness to possess you, there would be no game. You're introduced to the unofficially-dubbed "Righty" and "Lefty," your two new cardio-starved serpents that, although awkward to control around dead bodies and multi-faceted wall structures, provide you with slithering-fast scouting abilities and kills, and use colorful means to convey technical info on an otherwise HUD-less game screen.
The second backwards stage you experience is Depression. The "It's really happening" stage. You move about the shadows to keep your powers strong, and The Darkness indeed grows stronger within you, leveling up in scope and power. The series of unfortunate events begins to interweave amongst your characters' relationships. And even as you shake hands with the rest of the stellar voice-acted (and motion-captured) roster -- Aunt Sarah, Butcher Joyce, Jenny Romano -- Jackie's disposition develops into something even more somber. All of which is punctuated by a DeNiro-laced performance by Kirk Acevedo, whose resume has touched on numerous critically-acclaimed TV productions like Oz, NYPD Blue, Law & Order, and 24. And while your in-game powers expand, your murderous mob boss of an "uncle," Paulie Franchetti, seems all the more untouchable as he's able to manipulate people and police forces just as much as The Darkness manipulates Jackie and his loved ones.
The third backward stage to non-recovery is Bargaining. A little tit-for-tat with The Darkness. You'll want to stave off its exponentially frightening growth, and perhaps you'll attempt to get through a sticky situation without calling upon The Darkness to aid you. You'll dual-wield pistols, revolvers, and sub machine guns. You'll empty clips and shells from automatic rifles, tactical rifles, combat shotguns, and riot shotguns. And while your enemies aren't chess masters when it comes to firefight tactics, they behave much more realistically when they take a bullet. They aren't unflinching terminator units that continue moving and shooting until their health bar runs out: They stumble around, they cuss, they scramble awkwardly to get the hell out of the way. They actually act like they just got shot.
But, in spite of the arsenal you bring to bear on your adversaries, it won't be enough. It never is. And you'll send out "Righty" to take down a troublesome cop that's ducking behind cover some 100 yards down a dank tunnel. And even though you can avoid it, you let "Righty" eat the fella's heart out because, well, "Righty" did the legwork, and he deserves a reward of sorts. It's like a doggy treat. Good boy. Good Darkness.
Then. Genuine tragedy strikes. Someone near and dear to Jackie will be lost, you'll beg the question, "Why me?" And thus begins the Anger and Resentment stage. The entire time The Darkness giveth and giveth, until it finally taketh away. And that's when you'll be triggered to fight against The Darkness. The storyline may be persuasive in this nature, but trust me, you'd draw the exact same conclusions against The Darkness with or without prompting from a cut scene at that point. The anger corrodes your nature further, and you'll question whether all of this couldn't have been avoided. Or the consequences somehow lessened. But it's too late, and your emotional connection to the person you've lost will stain you with resentment, and you'll then turn The Darkness against itself, burrowing deeper into self-loathing and hatred so that you can finally face the enemy that triggered your emptiness.
Until all you're left with is Denial, if you're left with even that. And again, it's not you that's evil here. Not you, Jackie Estacado. You're the just the right guy … at the wrong time of your life. The road to vengeance is long and winding, fraught with an Otherworld that is a notable cliché by now, but is still disturbing by proxy of its severe imagery and distressed landscape. The chained birdman. Upside down crucifixes. Suicide as a means to further your plot for revenge. A machine built to the exacting specifications of the Estacado family tree's legacy of war and violence. This game will keep you up past the witching hour for several nights, and its effects will continue to linger during the day. It works to greater psychological effect than the typified cat-jumping-out-of-a-closet scares that give you a painless shock in F.E.A.R. or even Constantine.
But it's definitely not just disturbing M-rated visions that give this game teeth. A superb level of atmosphere goes into the subway system that connects several New York City neighborhoods: Tons of real world artist-rendered graffiti, characters both shady and enlightened, sturdy populations of payphones (remember those?), and wall posters that pay homage to the developers' influences -- like an ad for Chakra Assassin that displays the back of another famous video game hitman's bald head, the twin ballers replaced with kitchen knives. Head up to street level and you'll find brightly-lit city maps on the sidewalk, lights and shadows carving up the alleyways, still more graffiti (plenty of it angst-written; they're not all hip hop tags), and there's even those arrows with the word "locate" next to them spray-painted on the street by city workers. It's all lovingly and fully realized, as every area unlocks new quirks in the city's personality.
Speaking of personality, I haven't even touched on the darklings yet. Another bevy of bastardized followers, drawn right up from the Otherworld that dutifully hack, shoot, electrify, and suicide bomb your enemies. And they do it with plenty of colorful commentary to boot. I crack up every single time I hear a Berserker darkling shout out "Yeeaaarrrgh! [Pause] Well … that's all I have to say."
To write this one off as a first-person shooter with uneven pacing would be a disservice to the painstaking artistry, storytelling, and character development that turn The Darkness into a rare beacon of bold and beautiful interactive gameplay. The Darkness is no doppelganger to other superstars in the genre, and it may not possess the sheer variety of gameplay mechanics as a Half-Life 2, but it certainly deserves to sit at the right-hand side of similar thoughtful FPS-adventure titles.