My Demon Cock Has Gone All Limp

by Arthur B

The Darkness II attempts to impose game balance at the cost of fun and achieves neither.
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So, a while back I played and enjoyed The Darkness - it's an ugly old game for sure, and I'd advise renting or borrowing it over buying it, but it has some fun mechanics. (Like I said in the last article, I liked the hilariously phallic and hideously overpowered demon tentacle power.) To summarise the premise briefly: young man who looks like Steven Seagal gets demonic possession as his special 21st birthday present from destiny, his girlfriend Jenny dies, he mopes.

As of the end of the previous game, our hero Jackie (who now looks and sounds somewhat less like Steven Seagal) is the kingpin of the crime family, and still mourns the death of Jenny. He has, however, reigned in the Darkness a little bit - in fact, he hasn't used it for quite some time. However, when Jackie is attacked on a visit to his favoured family-backed restaurant, he is forced to unleash his Darkness powers to survive.

Jackie's investigations into the attack soon reveal that this wasn't just some mob hit gone wrong. He has come to the attention of the Brotherhood, a super-generic secret society led by the super-generic villain Victor Valente - a man who knows all about the Darkness, and seeks to steal it from Jackie so he can use the power himself. The Darkness has no intention of being forced into a host which might have the willpower to fight it - but Jackie himself isn't so reliable as a host these days, troubled as he is by visions of his beloved Jenny and vivid hallucinations that he is a mental patient in a secure hospital, in which his "gang members" are his fellow patients and Jenny is one of his carers...

The previous Darkness game, to put it mildly, was kind of wonky when it came to both game balance and creating the sense that you were in danger - two factors which are linked but aren't wholly dependent on one another. The creeping demon heart-eating penis attack was ludricuously effective, for one thing. For another thing, the people you were coming up against genuinely didn't seem to have any clue what the Darkness was or how to tackle it, and interestingly it wasn't always clear whether or not people were even aware there was something strange about you. This meant that the developers tied their hands behind their back because you were only ever coming up against dudes with guns who you could one-shot kill with your dick.

It was kind of a mess, and yet at the same time it kind of worked. It made sense for you to start out feeling like you are in mortal peril and to conclude feeling like you are an unstoppable force of vengeance walking the earth, so the fact that the early levels are quite difficult whilst the conclusion is a balls-out rampage works. And whilst beating the game primarily by exploiting a way overpowered (and amazingly phallic) demon appendage might have been cheesy, it was also ludicrously fun - more fun, indeed, than the more traditional FPS elements of the game.

In The Darkness II it feels like the developers have deliberately set out to make the game a much more carefully balanced experience, and to up the stakes by pitting Jackie against an occult group who know what his deal is as opposed to a bunch of gangsters who have no idea what they are fucking with. Most importantly, they know Jackie can't use his Darkness powers when he is in the light, so as well as magic and ridiculous firepower they are also prepared to use floodlights, flares, and guys dragging around enormous spotlights to neutralise Jackie.

Jackie, for his part, no longer has the demon prick trick from the last game; instead, the game offers us a sort of four-limbed FPS approach where Jackie has two hands to shoot things with, one tentacle for slapping stuff, and one tentacle for grabbing stuff. It's quite elegantly done, though I found myself relying on only three out of my four limbs at any particular point - co-ordinating them all at once is a pain. It also makes the Darkness feel less special, because it's almost completely reduced to being a pair of extra limbs - the only alternative power you have left is possessing and controlling your little goblin servant, and that's a purely story-controlled deal.

On top of that, the whole "stay out of the light" thing is really sloppily implemented this time around. Even in the first game there were issues with it; I swore I found a number of instances where I was supposedly in the light when the area I was in was less well-illuminated than other areas considered to be "in darkness". Plus, if you can see the light from a bulb then by definition you're standing in its light, because if no light were reaching you from it you can't see it. Though the original game more or less never really hit a consistent definition of what's dark and what is "in the light", you could still just about muddle through because the lights were at least static, by and large - accidentally step into the light, and you could step back quickly to sort yourself out.

The Darkness II makes the lack of clarity over what areas are and are not illuminated even worse. Why am I not affected by that enormous, brightly shining full Moon? Why does that standard lighbulb fend off the Darkness but the similar red lightbulb doesn't? Why does this spot of ground count as being in the light when it's darker than the spot over there which is in the dark? I mean, I know that having proper shadows in a video game saps system resources which, if you are developing a game for consoles, you have to ration out carefully according to the limitations of the platforms that you are developing for. But given that this game's mechanics hinge on shadows I'd have thought making the difference between shaded areas and illuminated ones more or less clear would be important, and I'd certainly say that top-quality shadows are a mandatory feature which you really can't afford to skimp on when this mechanic is in play.

On top of that, when you stand in the light the graphics go all bright and monochrome, making it very difficult to work out where the shade is and where the offending light is coming from. It's even worse once you're going toe-to-toe with enemies who know your true nature, because their light sources - the flares, the portable spotlights - are mobile, so simply stepping backwards to return to the shade no longer works. Even on the easiest difficulty setting I lost tons of fights simply because I ended up running in circles, unable to work out whether I was trying to hide from a fixed light or a portable one or a flare and with no clue where the shade was. Adjusting the game's brightness settings didn't help at all; too dark and I couldn't see things I needed to be able to see, too bright and it became even more difficult to see where the light and the shade is.

On top of that, the game seems to neglect to give you a mundane melee attack - or at least, none which was pointed out to me. So if you are out of ammo and cornered by the guys with the spotlights you're screwed and can't do anything about it, not even punch their lights out. It is easier than you might think to end up in this situation, and it is ridiculously frustrating every time it happens. It's even more irritating because whereas in the last game being in the light sapped your "Darkness energy", so you could still do a few things before your powers ran out, here as soon as you step into the light zip!, your powers are gone completely, so unless you have bullets in those guns or an escape route you're done for.

With the gameplay no longer as fun as it used to be, the only hope for the game to retain the player's interest is through the story and character interactions. This has never been a strong point of the series, of course - I wouldn't have sat through the first game's story if my devilpenis hadn't made me so happy - but it feels particularly shallow and paper-thin this time. Aside from your interactions with your elderly aunt - who's great because she gives you sage advice on organised crime management whilst making you tea - the people you encounter in the game tend to talk at you rather than speaking with you and they are all so two-dimensional that I couldn't bring myself to care about any of them. The fun little side quests the first game occasionally threw at you are gone more or less completely. Admittedly, the bit where the bad guys turn your attention to your aunt does a good job of making you feel violated and making you want to take them down, but once you take down her killer after he attacks her funeral there's still a fair chunk of plot left and I stopped feeling especially motivated at that point.

There's one part where I thought the story was going to get really interesting, but the designers didn't do what I thought they were going to do. When you're infiltrating this horrendously skeevy brothel in order to find out who hired the underworld washouts who attacked your restaurant, you get captured by the Brotherhood, crucified under spotlights, and exposed to the Siphon, the magical artifact they intend to use to steal the Darkness from you. I genuinely thought that the Darkness would be stolen at that point - and with it, my control of Jackie.

In the previous game you are unambiguously placed in the role of Jackie - you play as him for a while before you encounter the Darkness - but this time around the introduction is so on-rails you don't really get to interact with anything to any significant extent until the attack on the restaurant happens, which is what causes the Darkness to reawaken. I thought it would be really neat if this time the player were cast as the Darkness, controlling whichever body the Darkness happened to be in at the time, because it would neatly underline how dependent Jackie has become on it and whose will is really in command. (Also, the idea of a player as a chaotic force who takes control of characters in a game world and makes them do hyper-violent stuff for lulz and profit would be neat in a kind of Bioshock-y pointing out the characteristics of the medium sort of way.)

Of course, maybe my disappointment at the failure of that thing to happen comes down to me becoming thoroughly bored of Jackie by this point. The big problem Jackie has in this game is that he just plain looks out of place. In the first game, he'd literally just hit 21 and he was a low-ranking enforcer in the mob. It made sense that he'd dress like a gothy tryhard, because being a tryhard kind of goes with the territory when you're 21 and he clearly wasn't of the sort of rank in the Mafia where you're expected to dress with a modest degree of snappiness now and then.

The problem is that years have gone by since the last game, and Jackie has spent those years ruling the family with an iron fist (well, with a demon dong but it amounts to the same thing). There is no evidence of this having changed him in the slightest. I'm not talking about his little shrine to his dead girlfriend in his room - though that is mawkish and irritating - I'm talking about the fact that he's still wearing the same bloody clothes.

Seeing these impeccably-dressed mafiosos taking orders from Jackie looks incredibly incongruous. It would be jarring enough in something like The Sopranos which doesn't go along with the pretense that people in the Mafia wear suits all day every day, and it looks especially incongruous when you are dealing with a cartoon Mafia family who otherwise fit the steroetype to the letter. And it isn't incongruous in a cool or interesting way either; it resembles a juvenile wish-fulfillment fantasy more than anything else.

But more than that, it's a wish-fulfillment fantasy which doesn't really do anything to fulfil the player's wishes. The Darkness itself is a good wish fulfillment fantasy because despite the game's token attempts to make you feel like it's a terrible curae ultimately it gives you the power to raise hell and obiterate your enemies, and who doesn't love a bit of that? Conversely, at no point in the game did I ever feel like I was the boss of an organised crime family; aside from walking around this big fancy house between missions in which there's very little to interact with and having people call you "boss", ultimately your activities as the Don amount to listening to people giving you mission briefings and then swanning off to do all the work yourself. You are never given any of the power or the responsibility which goes with the job, which makes Jackie's rulership of the family feel like an enormous sham; the most he actually does with his power is get NPCs to go fetch other NPCs so they can provide plot dumps. At the end of the day, it is still NPCs telling you what you have to do and do, and it's still you who has to go and do it more or less on your own.

There's a couple of goons who hang around your mansion who you can overhear raising doubts about your sanity and ability to lead, and the most you can do is walk up to them and say "Ahem". Excuse me? I'm supposed to be a hired killer turned mob boss who is also deeply moody and, due to an all-out attack on my holdings, rather paranoid right now. When I overhear underlings plotting against me I want to be able to do a little more than to give them a telling off; I want to be able to kill them and feed them to my dogs. (Yes, I know Jackie doesn't own any dogs. I want to be able to call out for dogs so these jokers can be fed to them.) Name me one fictional mob boss who would take that sort of overt disrespect from their underlings lying down, please, because right now I can't think of any and that makes Jackie the worst fictional mob boss ever. And by casting me as Jackie, the devs have made me the worst mob boss ever.

Of course, to make me feel like a mob boss, the game would have to make me feel empowered, and arguably that would work entirely against the premise. But then, why keep Jackie in place as the mob boss in the first place? The game makes it clear that his underlings are aware that there's something deeply wrong with him and aren't really comfortable with it. (One of the only good bits of writing is the way they refer to the Darkness ambiguously as "your thing" whilst not really mentioning any of the stuff it does; it's a neat tie-in to the use of the term Cosa Nostra - "our thing" - as a polite euphemism for a very impolite entity.) To get counterfactual, I'd say the game designers' best bet would have been to say the mobsters asked Jackie to kindly retire and offered him a nice underworld pension to do so, and he accepted because really, there seems to be nothing keeping him in the gangster life aside from inertia; nobody wants him there, and he doesn't show any interest in being there. But maybe that would deviate from the comic too much.

Reading synposes of the plot after the point I stopped playing, it seems to me that the developers are as sick of Jackie as I am. Either of the two endings you can get would seem to be natural conclusions to Jackie's story. I know the developers claim they are interested in making a third game, but the work they'd have to do to justify Jackie coming back would be pretty convoluted. And when a writer resorts to the tired old "hey, maybe it's all a delusion and the main character is just craaaaaaaazy!" gambit, that's a sure sign that "giving a fuck" is something which has just completely ceased to happen altogether.

More or less the only substantial improvement over the previous game offered here is the graphics, which to be fair are gorgeous - they're all cel-shaded and comic book-y, so you really do feel like you've stepped into the pages of the comic as opposed to playing through a Half-Life 2 mod. Of course, the thing about Half-Life 2 mods is that the people who design them for a hobby at least put a little love into their work sometimes. This really isn't the case here. I'm sure the developers feel very proud of how they've "rebalanced" the game, but they've done it by taking out all the fun stuff, and I'm not even convinced the end result is balanced. Yes, the previous game was shambolic and silly and had all sorts of unintentional quirks, like NPCs completely failing to recognise that they are talking to a giant demon penis as opposed to a human being, but that's exactly what made it a hoot to play. The higher production standards on The Darkness II have presented a much more sterilised experience, robbing me as a player of the one thing which had kept me interested.

Namely, my wang. :(
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Comments (go to latest)
dudes with guns who you could one-shot kill with your dick.

So you're actually shooting them? I figured you were just devouring them like a snake. If you're ejaculating venom or something at them, that's approximately sixteen billion times more awesome.
Dan H at 17:27 on 2012-04-29
I believe that, as the title of Arthur's original Darkness article suggests, your demon cock devours their hearts.
Oh well.
James D at 15:06 on 2012-05-01
If you miss your lethal demon cock that much, there's probably porn for that, Arthur.
Arthur B at 15:24 on 2012-05-01
I'm sure some people can be satisfied by that - I know Alasdair got a lot out of this one - but for me, watching just isn't the same as being involved in the action yourself.

Sure, there's plenty of FPS fish in the sea, but I have needs and desires that nobody seems to want to fulfil. I had a brief rebound fling with F.3.A.R. but it was hopelessly vanilla - and having enjoyed the company of its older siblings I have to say it fares poorly compared to the eldest. (Plus the whole "sexually active adult zombie woman whose mental self-image is of a little girl" deal is tremendously off-putting, and I'm really not comfortable with dealing with that sort of baggage.)

I dunno, maybe the console scene as a whole is a bit too constricting for me. Perhaps it's time to go back to old PC haunts - I hear Steam and GOG are both lively these days. Alasdair has recommended at least one FPS which might be able to show me a fun time and I'm sure he can name others, and when it comes to the more diverse and flexible sort of first-person game Kyra's been urging me to give Amnesia: the Dark Descent a try. Those have got their own twists which might snap me out of my jaded malaise, for a time. Still, I can't think of any game out there which is adventurous and wild enough to cater to my self-propelled demon cock whim, so I guess I have to either learn to get over my dick or never be truly satisfied and content again.
James D at 16:17 on 2012-05-01
Hm, I actually found Cryostasis to be quite dull. Admittedly I didn't get very far, but it just starts out so damn slowly that I wasn't drawn in much at all. Also it just wasn't scary or even particularly creepy...I might give it another shot, though.

I haven't played Amnesia yet, but I played the Penumbra series by the same guys and it was quite good. The second game especially had some of the most terrifying moments I've ever witnessed in a video game.

Otherwise you might try Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, if you're looking for horror FPS's. It's kind of clunky and buggy, but genuinely frightening at times and worth playing despite the flaws. Contrary to the name, it's sort of a mashup of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" and "The Shadow Out of Time".
Arthur B at 16:28 on 2012-05-01
That's all very well, but how does it fit into the dick joke? ;)
I find this overemphasis on what does or doesn't fit into dick jokes slightly unsettling. Fit is undoubtedly a relevant factor, but sometimes a bit of friction is not unwarranted.
James D at 16:47 on 2012-05-01
Well, Obed Marsh sticking his dick in an undersea monster's vagina is pretty much the whole reason for Innsmouth being the way it is, so there's something!
Arthur B at 16:52 on 2012-05-01
Oh man, why'd you have to make this a sex thing?
It's like a guy can't pet himself a little without someone getting the wrong idea.
James D at 17:18 on 2012-05-01
Just feeling you out, Arthur. I guess you draw the line at demon vaginas.
Arthur B at 17:24 on 2012-05-01
Look, a game where your demon cock slithered around and messily ate people's vaginas would just be tasteless and stupid. Hearts are where it's at.
James D at 17:37 on 2012-05-01
What if the demon vaginas ate the cocks instead? I think this might be the concept that revitalizes The Darkness series.
Arthur B at 17:51 on 2012-05-01
Spoiler:
the two alternate endings are as follows:

- Jackie decides that the mental hospital was real and stays forever in his delusion-asylum with Jenny.

- Jackie is trapped in Hell by the Angelus, an angelic force which has possessed Jenny's soul.

So essentially in both cases he loses his demon penis powers or is confined to a place where his demon penis will never be able to get out to play because of perfidious womankind.
Wardog at 19:24 on 2012-05-01
The phallocentrism of your dickjokes is upsetting to me.
Arthur B at 19:44 on 2012-05-01
Possibly there has been overcompensation happening.
James D at 20:29 on 2012-05-01
It's true, my dick is possessed by a very small demon. Rather than devouring my enemies' hearts, he just makes faces at them when they're not looking. :(
That must be really hard.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 23:25 on 2012-05-01
I waaaarned yoooooou...

And on the ending,
Jenny's Angelus transformation sequence may be the most wincingly '90s thing I've ever seen in a video game
.

I think I may be in the same boat as you, Arthur. After exposing myself to Homefront, F.3.A.R., and this game, I've decided it's time for me to leave contemporary FPSes behind. Even games people have praised (like 3 F.E.A.R. 3 F.U.R.I.O.U.S. and The Darkness II: The Wrath of Khack) I've found to be claustrophobic, dismal affairs, with constrictive environments, needless upgrade mechanics, overstuffed stories told through bricks of collectibles and NPC exposition spouts, and heavily scripted action. There's the more open-world games, true, but I prefer my FPSes to take less than 10 hours to get through.

At this point, I'm thinking retro is the way to go, and I've nabbed a copy of the old Alien vs. Predator Classic from Gamersgate, which I hope will sate my bloodlust. (I'm still looking for a way to get Alien vs. Predator 2, which had a cute mechanic in the xenomorph story wherein the first fifth of it had you as a facehugger/chestburster stealthing your way around the humans, before you graduated to adult alien and got your own back.)

@James: The first few levels of Cryostasis are kind of slow. Things do start to pick up once you get to the cargo elevator. Stuff starts getting weird after that and the story starts to pick up steam. It's not so much "boo!" scary as "what the fuck?" scary, which worked better on me than regular old boos. And, yeah, the whole game is a bit slow, but that's to be expected because you're walking around a trashed ship at -50° Celsius while you're wearing a big ol' parka and some mukluks.

Also: penis. That's all I've got.
Arthur B at 01:49 on 2012-05-02
the most wincingly '90s thing I've ever seen in a video game

Spoken like someone who's never been exposed to the Resident Evil FMV intro. :)
http://jmkmagnum.blogspot.com/ at 02:04 on 2012-05-02
As far as modern FPSes go, I was quite surprised by how genuinely good Crysis 1 and, to a lesser extent, Crysis: Warhead were. Neither one is open world--Crysis takes about eight hours to get through, Warhead about five--but what they DO give you is a linear sequence of levels, each of which is quite large and has a good deal of outdoor space. This gives you tremendous tactical flexibility.

An exemplary mission of Crysis consists of you being placed a few hundred meters away from an enemy base, around which KPA soldiers patrol. Your mission is to get into the base, extract something of value, and get back out. You're given an indicator on the minimap, and off you go. The game very pointedly does NOT lead you by the nose through the One True Path. Giving you options, there are of course many possible paths through the outdoors. You can try to grab a jeep to bust through the main gate, or use your powered-armor suit's rather extensive suite of powers (super strength, super armor, super speed, and Predator invisibility mode), or use your ability to customize weapons on the fly (swapping out scopes, silencers, and other attachments as you see fit).

It admittedly deserves its reputation for being brutally difficult for PCs to run, but it offers an extremely satisfying antidote to the corridors and "Follow this NPC. Go here. Now here. Now shoot this guy. Take cover." mission design philosophy of most other shooters. And if you have an Xbox 360 or Playstation 3, they just recently ported it over to them so you don't even need a thousand-dollar megabox to run it.
FelicityGS at 16:15 on 2012-05-05
Well that was a title I wasn't expecting to see with my Saturday morning coffee. Thanks for telling me about your demon cock Arthur. :)

That said, it's a shame the game isn't quite as silly as its predecessor in the same way. I had a great deal of fun towards the end being on top of the world and blowing everything up, and even if the light/dark boundaries weren't very well defined they were super easy to correct. It sucks that changed. I'll probably end up giving this a miss unless it goes on super sale.

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