Heart of darkness

A hitman battles the enemy within in The Darkness
By MITCH KRPATA  |  July 10, 2007
4.0 4.0 Stars

MAFIA AND METAPHOR: The Darkness affords you cool powers, but it’s not your friend.

The Darkness | for Xbox 360 And PlayStation 3 | Rated M for Mature | Published by 2K Games | Developed by Starbreeze Studios
Jackie Estacado’s 21st birthday turns out to be a nightmare. A present from his Mafioso Uncle Paulie turns out to be a bomb — but it’s after the blast that things really get interesting, as Jackie sprouts sentient, carnivorous tentacles belonging to a symbiotic organism called the Darkness. This is your first indication that The Darkness isn’t your average first-person shooter.

You get your second indication shortly thereafter, when Jackie visits his girlfriend Jenny’s apartment. She’s made him a cake, and though Jackie has revenge on his mind, he takes the time to sit on the couch and watch a movie with her. Few games bother with building relationships between characters, but The Darkness lets you watch To Kill a Mockingbird with your girlfriend’s head on your shoulder. A sweet scene, it sets the table for one of the smartest and best-written games in years.

Two narrative threads play off each other. Jackie pursues Paulie through New York, his thirst for revenge soon turning a bad situation into an awful one. Paulie and his partner have no qualms about torturing Jackie or putting the hurt on those close to him when they can. And when the tables are turned, they’re not too proud to turn and run. So many games pit you against an abstract or faceless foe. The Darkness gives its antagonists a deep, mutual hatred.

The other component of the story — the Darkness’s attempts to take full control of Jackie’s soul — is just as personal. Twice, Jackie finds himself transported to a World War I–inspired vision of Hell, where he encounters his great-great-grandfather, who blames himself for having brought the Darkness into the family. The Hell levels serve as the backdrop for Jackie’s struggle to excise the Darkness, even as he continues to exploit its powers in New York.

The bulk of the gameplay derives from your use of the Darkness. It withers in the light, so you must stick to the shadows and smash any light source. As the game progresses, you accrue several deadly powers. The first, “Creeping Dark,” is my favorite — it puts you in control of one of the Darkness’s tentacled heads so you can slither through vents and take your enemies by surprise. Later on, you can even conjure a miniature black hole. Although Jackie is proficient with guns, if you restrict yourself to shooting, you’re missing the point.

But you’ll also be missing the point if you don’t realize that the Darkness is not Jackie’s friend. As a blunt but effective metaphor for the rage in Jackie, it has a nasty habit of asserting its control at the worst possible times. As you harness its ability to kill, Jackie sinks ever deeper under its spell and toward inevitable tragedy.

The writing is sharp, but credit also the voice actors. Kirk Acevedo gives an honest-to-God performance in the lead role, not just line readings. His tightly coiled Jackie is struggling to repress a lifetime of anger and sorrow. As the Darkness, the inimitable Mike Patton stretches his vocal cords to the limit. If it were anybody else, you’d think the Darkness’s guttural growls and rasping commands had been digitally processed.

On paper, a game about a possessed hitman sounds like a goof. But The Darkness develops its themes with care and respect. Tearing through mobsters with demon tentacles provides the immediate thrills. What lingers, however, is the battle for Jackie Estacado’s soul.

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