NEED TO KNOW
What is it? A roguelite road trip and sequel-of-sort to Darkest Dungeon
Release date May 8, 2023
Expect to pay $39.99/£33.50
Developer Red Hook
Publisher Red Hook
Reviewed on RX 6800 XT, i5 12400F, 16GB RAM
Steam Deck Support coming
Link Official site (opens in new tab)
Darkest Dungeon 2 is a hard game to love at times. Just like with its party of heroes packed into an armoured coach and sent rumbling down the road towards their oblivion, negative feelings are somewhat inevitable. It might be when an untimely series of crits kill a hero and leaves your party in shambles, or when you arrive at the mountain after four regions to find a final boss you’re completely unprepared for. There are myriad perils that can end a run and banish you back to the shadowy edges of the map to lick your wounds and grumble. As with its predecessor, love and hate spin on the same strange axis, and it’s ultimately up to you to decide if the eventual triumph is worth the tribulation it takes to get there.
This isn’t really a sequel so much as it is a complete revamp of the original game’s formula. Gone are the ruined estate and ramshackle hamlet that you lovingly restore, replaced by a rickety stagecoach you must ride through a world fallen to madness. You’ll navigate each roguelite region node-to-node, balancing risk and reward to earn trinkets, baubles, and ensure you reach the mountain with hale and hearty heroes ready to take on the cosmic monstrosity that awaits. If you fail, it’s back to the start to spend your candles—a progression resource you collect each run—to unlock upgrades and heroes to make your next attempt easier.
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Despite a mixed reception when it launched in early access back in October, 2021, Red Hook has made some smart design choices along the way, mitigating issues with character relationships and stress playing too big a role in determining victory, adding armour and wheel durability to the coach so regions are more than just endless road battles, and introducing the persistent progression system of candles. My personal favorite feature? The Radiant Flame. This modifier adds an ‘easy mode’ item you can equip to the stagecoach that gets stronger each time you fail. Despite any criticisms I may have, version 1.0 is definitely the strongest overall iteration of the game so far.
Your typical run of Darkest Dungeon 2 lasts a couple of hours, which you spend fighting battles and piloting your coach through hazards. Whether it’s the wheel-cracking cobblestones of The Sprawl, a volley of arrows in The Tangle, or the ‘loathing’ that accumulates and buffs the final boss’s health if it reaches max—each plays out with a little unique animation that adds character to the region. Besides navigating obstacles, you spend your time strengthening heroes by grabbing trinkets, removing negative quirks at hospitals, and acquiring new abilities from shrines of reflection. Each region also has its own lair boss to beat that rewards you with a trophy, opening your way to the mountain at the end of a run.
It’s a fun tactical experience on the whole, but it can border on being a bit of a slog at times. Darkest Dungeon 2 is a time-hungry game, both in terms of how long it takes to complete a run and the investment required to gather candles to unlock trinkets, upgrades, items, and just about anything to give you an advantage in future.
Take shrines of reflection, for instance; these nodes grant a new permanent ability to your chosen hero, offering some backstory or a puzzle battle, but to get every ability even for a single character you need to visit six shrines, and that means multiple runs with that hero present. After 30 hours with the game, there are still a fair few heroes I haven’t touched in terms of abilities, and that can have a knock on effect—especially when one of your heroes dies mid run and a random character has to fill their shoes, but doesn’t have their best abilities and struggles to be rank flexible.
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Admittedly, that’s my own fault for not playing many other characters and prioritising abilities for a single team of heroes I like and want to make strong. But that’s where Darkest Dungeon 2 is confusing, especially for those who played the first game. On some level it wants you to cast the nest wide; experiment with multiple characters, and it incentivises this by giving each hero specific goals for candle rewards, paths that focus their role, and random starting quirks. But at the same time, it’s placing a final boss at the end of each run that you’re striving to defeat, and the fastest way to do that isn’t to experiment and invest with lots of heroes, but to prioritise strengthening a single party.
Relationships also seem to push you towards being more flexible. If two of your heroes gain a positive affinity by fighting together, keeping stress low, and doing stuff at the inn between each region, there’s a chance they form a bond. This adds a random mutual buff to two of their abilities. While it’s down to luck whether these are actually useful, they do encourage you to use your hero in different ways, rather than relying on the same few attacks.
Darkest Dungeon 2 wants you to reach a point where you have every character, ability, and path unlocked, and I bet it’s a lot of fun to randomise your party and experiment with roles and ranks, or just pick whoever has the best quirks at the start of a run and go from there. That said, the sheer groundwork required to reach that point in terms of persistent progression is a big time commitment, and one I’m not convinced the game’s five regions and nodes can necessarily bear the weight of, no matter how many times they’re recombined.
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Fight the dark
By comparison, Darkest Dungeon 2’s combat is far stronger than the first game, made flashier with new 3D animations, and easier to understand via tokens. The token system provides a clear visual representation of the buffs and debuffs each character gets: a shield for protection, a speaker for taunt, an eye for blind; you quickly get used to what each symbol means and how best to apply or remove them. Tokens are also used to great effect showing off unique character mechanics. The Occultist and the Vestal, for instance, have tokens called Unchecked Power and Conviction, which they can harvest, and use to empower their own abilities. As mentioned earlier, paths are another excellent addition; character specialisations you unlock with candles, and pick at the start of a run to buff a particular skill set and playstyle, allowing you to more easily use them in a specific role.
As ever, the boss and enemy design is on point, and at the end of each confession you’ll find a big bad waiting at the mountain guaranteed to both surprise, and most likely kill you the first time around. Just like the first game, knowledge is as valuable as any resource and working out how to cope with each boss goes a long way to helping you actually finish runs. Even if the number of battles and repeated enemies sometimes slows things down a bit too much, there are plenty of nasty surprises waiting on the road and at the heart of each region. Whether it’s the Antiquarian and her brigands trying to rob you blind, or the lair bosses—each a wonderful piece of visual storytelling that helps characterise this ruined world.
Red Hook also does justice to its returning roster of heroes and their movesets. Though reimagined to be a bit more rank flexible—and with the addition of paths—it’s quite easy to pick up where you left off with most of them in the first game, and strong heroes like Plague Doctor are still an absolute force to be reckoned with.
Still, Darkest Dungeon 2 lacks the same level of character investment that its predecessor had. One of the things that made the original so good was that your greatest victory was often a hair’s breadth from your most crushing defeat, as you risked your beloved high-level heroes to overcome an ultimate challenge.
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The sequel does still have the desperate clutch moments, like a death’s door character reaching max stress and rolling a virtue instead of a meltdown to save the day, but death itself just doesn’t feel the same. If one of your heroes manages to survive a run, there are buffs called ‘memories’ that you can add to them, but cultivating a party of favourites that you want to keep alive isn’t a core part of the experience or one that’s easy to achieve. Heroes are disposable, even moreso than they were in the original, since you know they’re going to be waiting for you back at the crossroads when you start a new run in an hour or two, and that removes a lot of the tension around them dying. You have to invest in something to make its loss feel significant, and I think that’s partly been sacrificed in favour of the sequel’s formula.
It’s easy to appreciate what Darkest Dungeon 2 is, though; a gloomy road trip through a dying world, bolstered by excellent combat, and art design. Even though I think it feels like a somewhat conflicted game in terms of wanting players to experiment, but requiring significant progression to enable it, there’s a lot of fun to be had riding your stagecoach into hell, fighting battles tooth and nail, and enjoying the nightmarish scenery and mood. It’s definitely not as obsession-inducing as the first game, but there’s still plenty to love, especially for those who enjoy the setting and will get a kick out of seeing it further fleshed out.