- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 12, 2012

Jackie Estacado’s plunge into demonic insanity returns in The Darkness II: Limited Edition (2K Games and Digital Extremes, rated M for mature, reviewed for Xbox 360, $59.99).

Adapted from Top Cow Productions’ popular supernatural horror comic-book series, this first-person shooter taps into a player’s excessively violent side as he sets out on a path of retribution and madness that ultimately may lead to the devil’s doorstep.

Story: From the game website — It’s been two years since Jackie used his power to kill the men responsible for his girlfriend’s murder. He’s been unable to shake the memory of Jenny’s death since bottling up the Darkness and now it wants out. A botched attempt on Jackie’s life opens the door for the Darkness to reemerge and sets Jackie on a brutal and personal journey as he unravels the mystery behind the attack and the motives of the Darkness.

Play the role: Through a story written by legendary comic-book scribe Paul Jenkins (Incredible Hulk, Hellblazer and Wolverine), a player is Jackie, the Don of the Franchetti crime family, as he harnesses the obscene powers of his demon soul.

That means the return of a pair of razor-toothed demon-headed serpents that hang out over each of Jackie’s shoulders. When in the shadows, he can take advantage of the demons and a little funny fellow named a Darkling who even stars in a few of his own missions.

Beware, however, of any light source and destroy it whenever possible. It will drain our twisted hero’s powers and disorient him as the voices of evil cry out in pain.

The 19-chapter story clocks in at around five hours worth of action and finds a player out to learn the true fate of Jenny and to stop the Brotherhood — a secret society led by the facially disfigured Victor Valente that wants to steal the Darkness from him and use it for their own evil purpose.

A player finds himself in a plot mixing a gratuitous blood feast with moments of genuine psychological drama while in locations such as an Italian restaurant, a New York City subway, a mafioso’s mansion, a brothel, a cemetery, a deserted carnival grounds and a mental asylum.

Get to the action: It’s a Darkness hunger satiated only through violent, rampant destruction with help from the new quad-wielding control scheme. It offers players the ability to easily manipulate the demon-headed tentacles to grab items or attack while firing two weapons simultaneously.

A player will discover firepower (from ornate pistols to assault rifles to shotguns) and ammo scattered around the terrain and near fallen foes as he takes down teleporting goons, whip-wielding thugs, shielded lackeys, lamp-pointing lunkheads and bosses that seldom challenge skills.

Memorable moments (in no particular order): Riding in a cart through a carnival horror house that looks as if it was conceived by Clive Barker; the creative use of propane tanks, fan blades and car doors; watching the Darkling drive a truck through a gate and cause a massive explosion; any encounter with Vinny or Jimmy the Grape; cut scenes of Jackie dressed in black doing his best imitation of Criss Angel; walking to a funeral in the rain.

Violent encounters: Playing this game might finally buy me a ticket to the dark realms for reveling in its excessive, gratuitous, riddled-with-profanity bloodlust.

Players are encouraged to rip the hearts out of victims and have Jackie’s tethered demon heads eat them to not only regain health, but also to collect essence to buy ghastly upgrades.

A variety of methods is also used by the snakes to kill off enemies in their reach, not limited to ripping out the spines and skull from their torso, popping though their midsection like an “Alien” chestburster and splitting humans in half like a wishbone.

Suffice to report, this level of grotesque continues with the upgrades bought through a talent tree.

The horrors include unleashing a swarm of flies that peel flesh from victims and a hellish dark hole that sucks enemies into it.

Frankly, I have not even mentioned the worst of it as our cheeky little Darkling (with a British accent) loves to gouge out eyes and rip out throats and also has a habit of performing more foul acts on the recently deceased.

Read all about it: Finally, a comic-book publisher and video game developer come up with a slick way to enjoy the original source material.

Owners of the game’s limited edition get a code that works with the Comixology website to access the first two volumes of the Darkness series. That’s a chance to read the first 10 issues from the monthly series, the Darkness Special Preview one-shot and Witch Blade nos. 18 and 19 (a Darkness crossover).

Better yet, owners of Apple’s iPad also can download the Comixology app and access the previously unlocked Darkness books after setting up an account.

This is by far the best and most portable way to appreciate comic books these days and allows us older folks (with tired peepers) to quickly zoom into art panels and really appreciate the dialogue of Garth Ennis, David Wohl and Christina Z. and awesome art from Marc Silvestri and Michael Turner.

Pixel-popping scale: 9.0 out of 10. The Darkness II is a benchmark for adapting sequential art into the video game format. Through a gorgeous cel-shaded design that required hand-painted art mixed with an animated film noir style, a player dives into a world that looks as if it was ripped from a Steve (Preacher) Dillon graphic novel. It is a stunning effort that affords the finest detail, down to seeing the watercolor streaks painted across characters’ faces.

Star power: Mike Patton, lead singer of the rock band Faith No More reprises his role as the Darkness with a twisted growl sure to scare any kiddies and small pets within earshot.

Extras and Unlockables: A collection of 29 relics that further delve into the history of the Darkness can be found throughout the levels. These gems (such as the shrunken head of Pope John Paul XII and a pitcher containing Siddhartha’s Tears) are stored and accessed via a menu, which when clicked upon offers a hilarious narrative and text-based description mixing fact and fiction.

Also, the Limited Edition includes codes to unlock an alternate Darkling outfit, the Gourmet Hearts power (you can only imagine) and a Relic Hunter, sort of a radar to find those elusive antiques.

Multiplayer: An online cooperative mode called Vendettas (equally enjoyed by solo players) ties to the main story and allows up to four players to control a quartet of new characters that can work together to fight the Brotherhood and help Darkness expert Johnny Powell.

It features some far-out mercenaries, such as the foul-mouthed Scot Jimmy Wilson (who uses a mystical ax like Thor’s hammer and commands a group of Darklings to attack) and crazed Japanese swordmaster Inugami (with the swarm in his arsenal).

Each can upgrade their weapons and powers through their very own talent tree and must destroy enemy hearts to regain health and collect essence.

The action certainly extends the main feature and feels a bit like the structure of the game Left 4 Dead.

Final thoughts: A too-brief primordial bloodbath set in a “Sopranos” episode awaits those willing to embrace the Darkness II. It’s not a game for the faint of heart or anyone younger than 17. Amid the depraved chaos, however, it’s hard not to admire some stunning design.

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