Darkest Dungeon taught me to be a heartless, stony-eyed leader. One who was unafraid to cut losses and run back to the estate when shit hit the fan. One who didn’t care how many of his men fell victim to unholy monstrosities. After all, I knew it was pointless to get attached to a rag-tag bunch of (mis)adventurers such as Reynauld or Disamas, for death would come for them sooner or later. I could always grind myself back up. Darkest Dungeon 2 turns this idea on its head. There’s no longer an estate. There’s no longer an endless supply of unfortunate henchmen who’re more than happy to be sent to their doom. This time, each life is precious. This time, I truly cared.
Darkest Dungeon 2, now out of Early Access, is no doubt going to be polarizing among the fanbase. From the moment you boot up the game, it becomes apparent that Red Hook Studios doesn’t want to retread the same road and make Darkest Dungeon 1.5. No one would fault them, even if they did. Darkest Dungeon is comfort food to many, including myself. We’ve come to love the punishing difficulty, unfair RNG, and tiresome grind it provides. Aside from retaining the combat and character fundamentals, Darkest Dungeon 2 essentially feels like a new game, or at least a spin-off. It’s basically Darkest Dungeon meets The Oregon Trail. I’ve seen people online calling the game ‘Darkest Road Trip’ and it isn’t too far from the truth.
The change in direction is evident in the story itself. The game follows the ending of the first game, and the world has gone from “on the brink of ruin” to a “full-on apocalypse”. While its predecessor was about hopelessness and the sins of the fathers, this time it’s about rekindling hope and atoning for the past. The Academic, who takes the place of the Ancestor, gives you a small flame of hope to fit atop your stagecoach. It’s up to you and your band of 4 ‘unusual suspects’ to fan the flames of hope and eradicate the evil nesting atop the mountain. The world might be ending, but humanity will not go without a fight.
There’s not much storytelling this time around. You only get a few snippets of lore between each act. As with last time, the impeccable voice narration by Wayne June is the highlight of the story. I’d even buy Twitter Blue if he was the one selling it to me. I doubt anyone can picture the game without his immaculate voice. Perhaps Stephen Weyte would do an equally impressive voicework. Ironically, he narrated the Darkest Dungeon clone, ‘Iratus: Lord of the Dead’.
Gone are the estate management, procedurally generated dungeon crawling, and endlessly grinding heroes. Instead of having a single, continuous campaign, the sequel takes on the form of “Roguelite” runs with a meta progression. The campaign is split into five independent acts, which all bear the same objective. Traverse across the treacherous land in your stagecoach, overcome overwhelming odds to reach the mountain, and fight the scenario boss. If your party is wiped out, you have to start the run from scratch. Some progress like unlocks carries over between runs, while items and gear do not. A Roguelite road trip it is.
Instead of 2D grid-like maps, Darkest Dungeon 2 plays out in stunning, detailed 3D maps. The character animations have received a huge overhaul and are a feast for the eyes. Despite the Roguelite tag, each act in the game plays out the same way. Each run starts at the Altar of Hope. It is where you spend Candles of Hope to unlock upgrades to the inn, items, trinkets, the characters, difficulty modifiers, and the stagecoach. You then select a party of four at the crossroads and begin your journey. In the place of a hub, you get your moment’s respite at Inns between regions. The inns function as the hub where you buy supplies, upgrade character skills, outfit your stagecoach, and select which region to explore.
There are 5 regions to conquer, and each act requires you to traverse a specific number of maps to get to the mountain. Each region has several branching paths with fights, friendly encounters, shops, scouting areas, and mini-bosses to interact with or avoid. All expeditions start at the inn and culminate at the mountain, where you fight the boss. The exploration in each region also follows the same template and even with all the branching paths, the general map design remains the same. It’s not a stretch when I say that after 30 or so hours, the routine of drudging along in your slow wagon through the same-old maps was getting tiresome. For a game marketed as a roguelite, there’s a desperate need for some variety in the game.
The changes to the party are the next significant shake-up. Darkest Dungeon 2 launches with 12 heroes, as opposed to the original’s 15. Heroes like the fan-favorite Crusader, Houndmaster, and Abomination are oddly missing. As I mentioned above, there’s no longer an endless queue of adventurers waiting in line to join your party. You are expected to stick with the four heroes you select at the start. If they die (and they will), a random hero will join your party at the next inn, as long as you’ve unlocked extra characters at the Altar. Moreover, Bounty Hunter can only found randomly at the inn. I wouldn’t know-I haven’t run into him once in 40 hours of playtime.
Coming from the original, this was the toughest pill to swallow. Losing a party member before the boss fight, only to be assigned with a random character that doesn’t synergize with the party playstyle sucks. Plus, Darkest Dungeon 2 heavily relies on a relationship mechanic between the characters. Depending on your choices during gameplay, heroes can either form a positive or a negative relationship. This can lead to stuff like love or rivalry between heroes that heavily impacts their skills. My Man at Arms backstabbing my Plague Doctor, because she attacked a frontline enemy, was both hilarious and painful to watch. Now imagine the impact (or the lack of) a random character can have on the party dynamics. It would have been nice to have some form of player agency in choosing a new party member.
While we’re on the topic of party members, 11 of the 12 heroes in Darkest Dungeon 2 come with their own personalities and storylines (Bounty Hunter is too cool for this). No longer will you find five Lepers look like they came from the same mother. Darkest Dungeon 2 connects the character with the class. Throughout the regions, you can interact with shrines to begin a 5 part storyline for a particular hero that ties into the whole ‘atonement’ thing the game has going on. These include mini-missions that modify the turn-based combat system to reflect the past events that lead to the heroes becoming the big sad.
One mission in Jester’s storyline has him trying to outperform a musician by countering his choruses and verses. Another shows a young and rebellious Plague Doctor trying to outmatch her university professor. Completing each part of the story unlocks more powerful skills for the heroes, which can then be swapped out with the vanilla skills. While some of these encounters can be confusing at first, I really dig how they used the combat system to tell cool stories. Who knew that the Leper, who embodies bigotry in the original, used to be such a benevolent dude?
Ruin, One Turn at a Time
Now, combat is one thing Darkest Dungeon 2 does inarguably better than its predecessor. By introducing single-effect tokens, the sequel alleviates the issues caused by percentage-based stats. You won’t have to aggressively monitor the Accuracy stat anymore. Now, instead of stun-spamming, the game encourages combos and buffs/debuffs a lot more. The micromanagement of torches and food items has been automated to an extent. Instead of having the player prepare for specific regions beforehand, fights now come across as a lot more reactive and faster thanks to the relationship effects, the RNG of trinket availability, and on-the-fly tactics.
The streamlining of the combat doesn’t mean the game isn’t hard anymore. That aspect hasn’t changed. The opening especially is brutal to newcomers. The tutorial doesn’t do a good job of explaining things in a meaningful way like the first game did, and the UI is kind of all over the place. There’s also the obvious issue of balancing. Some classes like the Leper are seriously underpowered compared to the rest, and there are some fights that are just too damn difficult without the right party composition. The relationship system could also use some tweaking. Most of my money goes to buying whiskey so that my Flagellant and Runaway can enjoy an amorous relationship.
Then there’s the RNG. While not as unforgiving as the original in Darkest, it can still be a bitch. Landing the final blow on the final boss in a creature den, only for the literal embodiment of Death to spawn in and wipe the floor with your party, never goes out of style. Knowledge of the game’s systems and a little bit of luck goes a long way.
Against All Odds
I believe that the most logical takeaway from this review is that Darkest Dungeon 2 is not trying to replace the first game. It aims to occupy a spot right beside its predecessor. There are some things the sequel does well and some things it doesn’t. The streamlined (in a good way) combat, reduced grind and improved character dynamics comes at a cost of the removal of the comfy base management of the original. The new mode of exploration is surely not going to sit well with everyone, but that’s okay. It could also use some tweaking and some additional random encounters. That’s a given considering the original’s excellent post-launch support, both official and unofficial. As long as you don’t expect Darkest Dungeon 1.5 and keep an open mind, there’s an excellent experience to be had here.
FINAL RATING: 83/100