I got the chance to play an early iteration of Darkest Dungeon 2 when it released in Early Access two years ago and loved it even then. Red Hook’s follow-up has officially finished its journey with today’s 1.0 launch and it’s come out tested, resolute, and impossible to put down. The game is just as brutal as ever — I’ve put over ten hours into the game and have yet to unlock all its distinct zones — but key changes alleviate once-frustrating issues, the deeper focus on the characters’ backstory and relationships, the spine-chilling art direction, and overpowering “one more run” loop make it a triumphant sequel.
Darkest Dungeon 2 takes place directly following the events of the first game. The world is in tatters. Horrific, mind-rending abominations spread madness and chaos. Once impressive urban centers are aglow with flames of fire-idolizing zealots. Farmlands once thriving with produce and livestock are putrid realms for fleshy monstrosities. All of it gruesome and gorgeous in turns.
My job is to drive a coach through the labyrinth of paths that mark these hostile locales to reach the mountain from which all the world’s ruinous maladies ooze. Choosing my party of four heroes carefully, I load the creaking vehicle and head out into danger to face the evil I unleashed on the Earth.
Combat is familiar, not having changed fundamentally from Darkest Dungeon. Set in a 2D plane, my characters line up in a battle order which affects which abilities they can use and how they interact with the enemy line. Some characters, like the Man-At-Arms with his defensive skills and melee attacks, are tanks meant to stand toe-to-toe with any foes. However, characters like the squishy Occultist are meant to hold up the rear, dispensing healing and long-range enchantments as needed.
What I love about combat in Darkest Dungeon 2 is the increased amount of synergy between heroes. For instance, the Occulist can mark opposing forces with his powers in a way that allows the Man-At-Arms’ signature blow to heal himself. The regenerating health means I can easily decide to have the beefy fighter take any hits meant for the Occultist and not worry about the warrior dying too quickly or constantly requiring the mystic’s medical abilities. There are a myriad of wonderful connections like this that are a joy to discover in the midst of vicious fights.
Going a step further, engaging characters in this kind of teamwork builds up their relationship which can have major consequences on a battle. And relationships are not just determined on the battlefield. Choosing to take one path over another may connect two characters — or put them at odds. Likewise, opting to enter combat, help people on the road, or loot abandoned structures can all tip the scales of friendship. The results of these choices manifest at inns, which are resting places between each hostile zone.
Reaching an inn grants an opportunity to heal, destress, train skills, improve the coach, and purchase useful provisions. Specialized inn-only items can increase the inherent boons of the temporary safe haven. Platters of mold can give heroes more max health for a time, a whittling kit calm its possessor. There are even things, like playing cards, that have a large chance of strengthening — and a minor chance of hurting — the party’s bonds. Just before leaving these rest stops, I find out how my team will work together.
Sometimes a shared cup of spirits pushes two people towards respect, which temporarily boosts one skill each and can lead to moments in battle where one character jumps in spontaneously to strike an enemy. Other times, bad blood reaches a boiling point and makes a skill detrimental to use and the teammates tear each other down throughout the next leg of the journey.
Making the characters themself a focal point adds a wonderful new level to the tension-filled trips. It enriches the already brilliant combat with more wrinkles and opportunities while humanizing the fighters. It’s harder to watch these characters die because I’m invested in them. In the first game, this investment came in the form of how much time I took training the characters to build up their levels. Losing one was mostly frustrating and meant grinding to raise up a new recruit. However, the sequel does away with this leveling system and instead makes me care on a personal level.
Part of this process happens at locations called Shrines of Reflection. The new addition forces heroes to face their past, giving me the chance to play out creative combat experiences that unravel each character’s backstory. Successful completing a mission, whether that means escaping from jail or reliving the moment you were caught ignoring your duties to satisfy your curiosity, offers characters new abilities to use on the road. It’s a clever system that accomplishes several different things at once — from increasing my connection to the party, expanding my arsenal, and varying the gameplay.
Though rehashing the past is one way to better a character, improvement ties mainly to permanent progression earned via hope — a currency represented by candles — gained during runs. I can collect candles simply by stumbling across them at stops on the road, satisfying a hero’s desire to use a particular skill several times in one fight, making it to the final boss, and so on.
These add up in the event of my eventual demise — or unlikely success — and I can spend them before starting a new run. There are a lot of benefits to choose from. I can help my currently available characters resist death blows or unlock totally new fighters. I can pick up helpful animal companions to heal wounds or anxiety or increase my coach’s armor. The welcome result of this is I am consistently growing stronger in a way that won’t be wiped out by one bad run.
Darkest Dungeon 2 is savagely demanding. Players must constantly pick between the lesser of two evils and will die many times over — I almost imagine the developers laughing with glee as I curse over tough choices. However, the sequel’s revamped rewards, systems, and storytelling take much of the frustration out of losing, and succeeding is exhilarating. Hours vanish in the wake of my urge to hit the road for one more chance at victory and I expect to find the game in the top of my favorite titles at the end of the year.