It’s now or never. My healer has just been killed and that weirdo with his flail has beaten himself into the grave. One more blow and it’s done with my jester. The final boss lashes out, I say bye to my jester and miraculously my highwayman (Dismas, you can do it!) survives. He cuts through the rancid flesh of whatever is floating in the air in front of him – the end boss is still alive! – but by a perfectly timed bleed effect, the monster collapses at the start of his turn.
Meltdowns in Darkest Dungeon 2 are common, especially for the player. You don’t want to know how many times I sat in front of my screen with my heart pounding, pleading to the gods that the small percentage to survive a mercy blow is enough. Sometimes it isn’t. Wait, I mean: often it isn’t. It is the moments when, by the grace of whatever celestial being you do survive that impossible situation that Darkest Dungeon 2 shows its best side.
Darkest Dungeon 2 is nothing like its predecessor. From a side-scrolling turn-based dungeon crawler with character management, it has become a roguelite that mixes existing elements, such as turn-based combat, with new ones. Although the atmosphere and setting are carried over one-to-one from the first volume, the game plays completely differently. That can be uncomfortable. Where you used to spend hours with the same characters, after one run of about two hours you may find your characters lost.
With that, I may have already named the biggest criticism of the game. Restarting after a bad run feels grindy, but on the other hand: so was part one. The shorter runs get you back into the action faster, and due to adjustments made in the regularly updated early access track, you’ll unlock something even after failed expeditions. Therefore, don’t let this change deter you. Gruesome monsters in beautifully 3D-shaped models await you to do battle, supported by compelling music and the rasping voice of the narrator.
At the start of an expedition, you choose one of eleven available characters to travel a hellish path to The Mountain. It is there where a hideous final boss awaits who, as the vaguely described story tells you, is a reflection of the sins of some occult scientist. Before you reach that mountain, you fight through hordes of monsters in such locations as The Sprawl, The Foetor and The Coast; visually sort of layers of Dante’s hell.
This setup is very repetitive. In fact, you have five chapters (Confessions) and each chapter proceeds exactly the same way: battle through three different locations, rest at taverns in between, and fight the final boss in The Mountain. The only differences between the chapters are the final boss and a bonus given to some enemies. For example, in chapter one you encounter more invisible enemies, while in chapter three you are thwarted by taunts more than once. The bonus is something to consider in your setup, but it adds too little difference to make the chapters truly distinctive.
In search of synergy
At the heart of Darkest Dungeon 2’s gameplay are the turn-based battles. Compared to part one, these have been simplified: there is no more chance. You hit anyway unless a token such as blind or dodge is present. Those tokens are also crisp: with blind you have a 50 percent chance of missing, with block you reduce incoming damage by 50 percent, et cetera. While you can play the first chapter just fine without focusing too much on these tokens, you can’t truly master Darkest Dungeon 2 until you manage to combine these tokens.
In this, then, I found the most fun. Although there are “only” eleven characters, they each possess another eleven (unlockable) skills. You take five of them into battle, but you can always switch between them. So you can create groups that incredibly reinforce each other, such as a Man-at-arms who keeps his teammates safe while the Jester gives sick buffs to the destructive Hellion or Leper. Making teammates complementary is the way to beat some bosses, and when it works, it feels wonderful.
It sometimes feels random, but with proper preparation in both skills and equipment, that randomness can often be minimized.
This all sounds easy, but trust me: Darkest Dungeon is not going to do you any good. Although the combat is streamlined, there are many factors that are subject to chance. Most enemies’ attacks have side effects, such as an increase in stress, and reducing someone to zero hit points is no guarantee of dying. Things like deathblow resist ensure that an apparent victory can still end in a loss. Yes, that sometimes feels random, but with proper preparation in both skills and equipment, that randomness can often be minimized.
A long way to go
The second pillar of Darkest Dungeon 2 is the covered wagon. Right, no dungeon walks, but a cart that thunders down odd roads to reach your goal. Each location gives you a choice of two or three routes to take. Like a true minigame, you must choose between paths that damage your covered wagon, boost enemies in the form of Loathing or simply present a fight. Paths are connected by nodes, each with a different function. At a Hospital you cure diseases and personality traits (quirks), at a Cache you find valuable items and Resistance Encounters are the classic battles.
Because Darkest Dungeon 2 does not involve a lengthy campaign, you do not collect Experience Points. Instead, you search diligently for Mastery Points that you can use to strengthen a single character’s skill. You collect these points at Resistance Encounters and the similar yet more difficult Cultist Encounters, as well as at the Lair. The latter node is unique per location and houses a challenging (and beautifully designed) sub-final boss that can yield valuable items. In every chapter except the first, you must defeat at least one sub-final boss to get to The Mountain, so decide carefully which enemy your group is best suited against.
Thus, locations are peppered with choices. Choose the wrong path and you can have disastrous consequences, such as unexpected battles or reduced light levels that make enemies stronger. This management game remains exciting in every run as you weigh risks against strong rewards each time. Still, after over a hundred hours, I get the feeling that I’m whizzing through it on autopilot and I’d rather arrive at the final boss sooner than later.
Continuity, but not in the way you think
During the early access of Darkest Dungeon 2, one of the biggest criticisms was the fact that there was little continuity in the game. This has been addressed with the Altar of Hope, a sort of stripped-down version of the village from part one. This allows you to unlock characters, equipment and various bonuses by spending collected Candles. While the setup is simple, it is also quick and clear as a result: you pick something and hop, you can move on. The only comment is that unlocking equipment is completely random. It would have been cooler if you could look out for that one powerful item. Now it’s like a grab bag.
More interesting is the concept of Memories. Per final boss that a character has defeated, he/she can unlock a bonus. This is usually a minor bonus, such as ten percent more resistance to bleed, but unlocking such a Memory ensures that you retain the character and his positive (and negative) quirks. Thus, you can still bind characters to you through multiple runs. You then have to keep him alive: as soon as he dies, you start from scratch.
Darkest Dungeon 2 is extremely exciting and leaves your heart racing when you finally reach the final boss after two and a half hours. At the same time, it’s all a little less rosy when you die at the same final boss for the third time in a row and have to do it all over again. Several times I have been on the verge of quitting for good. Still, I keep going. Something pulls me to do better, to build a group with excellent synergy, to unlock more, more everything! Developer Red Hook Studios does an excellent job of evoking that feeling.
Unfortunately, to do so, you have to go through an agonizingly slow start. With very little unlocked in the first few hours, you mostly encounter the same items and runs don’t feel very diverse. Moreover, much is unclear at first, despite the excellent tutorial messages. For example, it’s not reported how long the Vestal’s Consecrations last – a fairly important fact considering it involves two of her abilities – and the fact that the Flagellant has a different form of meltdowns is almost impossible to find. Many of these things you have to experience first-hand, and while that often has its charm, such as the first time you fight a boss, it is often a point of annoyance.
Darkest Dungeon 2 replaces the dungeon crawling of the previous volume with short-lived expeditions within a roguelite structure. The atmosphere and especially the graphics have evolved excellently and the battles are again nail-bitingly exciting, even if the new setup takes some getting used to. The mechanics in-combat have been streamlined, providing very tactical choices so that you can overcome even the most unfair situations with some preparation. Unfortunately, the game loses momentum due to some ambiguities and especially repetitive gameplay. More variety would have done the game well, despite the fact that I still horror at many of the excellently designed bosses. I have to give Red Hook Studios credit for that: after over a hundred hours, I still feel the urge to embark on another ride through the hellish world, filled with creatures that surpass even your scariest nightmares.