When Darkest Dungeon was first released in early access in 2015, it was a minor miracle. The tension-filled roguelike-ish design, the stress system on top of a Lovecraftian horror setting, and especially the sound, amazingly atmospheric narrator, and music combined to create an instant classic of a tactical role-playing game that was then refined into an outstanding and distinctive final version a year later. It’s a tough act to follow, but Red Hook Games has given it a worthy shot with the early access launch of Darkest Dungeon 2. The good news is that this sequel has a different enough structure and technical improvements that it more than justifies its existence, taking the original formula into surprisingly new directions instead of simple additions we often see in follow ups. The less good news is that there are some pretty significant tweaks that seem necessary before it can really hold a torch to the original.
Aside from the switch to animated 3D graphics that closely match the gritty style of the original’s 2D paper doll characters, there are two massive changes to Darkest Dungeon 2: the campaign is significantly smaller in scope, and character relationships are now the center of the stress system instead of individual mentality. Both take the experience in fascinating, if not always good, new directions.
Darkest Dungeon 2 takes place in a single wagon as it travels through a handful of hostile territories before landing at the occasional inn to regroup. Instead of hundreds of hours spent building up a town and juggling dozens of heroes as in Darkest Dungeon 1, a campaign takes place over the course of five or six hours, with five total campaigns promised in the interface (only one is available in the initial Early Access release).
The wagon proceeds through three settings that you choose, and moves to different nodes within each, functioning fairly similarly to rooms within a dungeon. Upgrades to characters come either at the inn every so often or by choosing to take the wagon to hospitals or shops in the traveling sections. Permanent upgrades don’t come from building infrastructure, but unlocking items and characters on a progress bar at the end of each run.
There are several side effects of this. The biggest is that it shrinks the story, both of the campaign directly and the one that you can tell yourself over the course of a run. Instead of being a larger strategic management challenge, it’s only about the four people who happen to be in the wagon at a given time. This makes it a lot easier to jump in and out of a run, but I personally miss the feeling of managing a large team of characters in a tactics game, like the original Darkest Dungeon, XCOM, Battletech, or even something like Football Manager. There’s no longer-term emergent storytelling happening in Darkest Dungeon 2, and this makes it overall less exciting, even if it is more manageable.
On the other hand, a major knock-on effect of the smaller campaign focus is that Darkest Dungeon 2’s characters feel like distinct individuals instead of classes. In the first Darkest Dungeon, Dismas was a name given to one of several members of the Highwayman class you’d be likely to recruit. In Darkest Dungeon 2, Dismas is the name of the singular Highwayman you use in every run and that you’ll develop over every campaign by unlocking skills; at the same time you’ll see each character’s backstory in flashbacks that occasionally have little combat puzzles in them. It all makes characters feel like people instead of merely cogs in a machine; for example, poisoning Audrey the Grave Robber’s rich abusive husband is surprisingly satisfying, as is customizing her new skills to make her into a stealth character.
Another way that Darkest Dungeon 2 diverges from its predecessor is by having its characters become friends or enemies across the course of a run. Since Fire Emblem: Awakening, tactical RPGs with character relationships have become common, and it’s almost always either amazing or at least fun background color, like in XCOM 2: War of the Chosen… except for here, where it threatens to derail everything.
In Darkest Dungeon 2, health and sanity meters – the big innovation from Darkest Dungeon 1 – still exist, but each character also has a relationship bar with everyone else in the party. When those meters fill up with either positive or negative emotion, that triggers a friendship or a rivalry of a certain kind, like Hopeful or Hateful, that can trigger buffs or debuffs or even give certain extra combat actions. (There’s also “Amorous,” for those of us who are excited to know that their Darkest Dungeon characters are smooching.)
Stress also works a bit differently in that, instead of causing an individual to develop a negative reaction, a full stress bar causes a meltdown which damage the relationships in a group. The net effect is that you’re managing your party’s overall happiness with one another, and if that starts falling apart with one person, there’s a cascading effect of negative feelings. On paper, this seems like a good idea: what Darkest Dungeon 1 did for the individual effects of stress turning people paranoid or cowardly, Darkest Dungeon 2 does for small group dynamics. Unfortunately, there are a couple major issues with it.
Darkest Dungeon 2 Early Access Screenshots
The first issue is conceptual. One of the strengths of Darkest Dungeon 1 was the simplicity of its system: there’s a single stress bar and having it fill in probably makes that character useless. In Darkest Dungeon 2, a four-person party means four individual stress and health bars, and a total of six different relationships within the party. Fracturing that central mechanic across several different meters makes it feel harder to track and less important when it does break down.
This combines with the other major issue with the relationship system in the early access version: it’s just not especially well-balanced right now. If you want to manage your party’s stress level, you pretty much have to upgrade one of a few skills like the Plague Doctor’s “Ounce of Prevention” skill at the start of a run and use it regularly. Alternately, if you don’t want to worry about stress, you can get by without even bothering to take those characters or upgrades. I found it pretty easy, at least early in a run, to simply fight my way past the debuffs. They’re annoying, certainly, but they’re not run-ending the way a breakdown in Darkest Dungeon 1 could be.
And this is the biggest issue with Darkest Dungeon 2’s new mechanics. They combine in a way that removes the signature tension that Darkest Dungeon 1 created. Because a run is a single, multi-hour progression, there’s no ability to run away and only get partial rewards for the current set of characters – in Darkest Dungeon 2 you’re either going forward or you’re starting over. Darkest Dungeon 1 was filled with the compelling decision of “should I try to guide this barely standing party to a finish line or should I bail now and keep them alive?” In Darkest Dungeon 2, you simply go as far as you can until you have to click “Abandon Run” and then try again. Having a single long dungeon run means there are a bunch of smaller decisions with smaller effects overall. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing! If you were stressed about those difficult decisions in the original, Darkest Dungeon 2 might be much more your speed. It’s much less intense overall, for good and for ill.
Darkest Dungeon 2 is still a very strong moment-to-moment game, despite those systemic issues. Combat is largely the same as it was in its predecessor; it’s a one-dimensional tactics game where face monsters on a line and use appropriate skills to bash, weaken, and zap them before they can do the same to you. What’s dramatically improved, however, are the character models and animations. Instead of being barely animated paper doll-style cutouts, the characters move and sway when idle and prepare to attack when you start clicking on different combat skills. I still get excited just switching between two different skills with the Hellion and watching her raise her halberd above her head versus pulling it behind her body.
The sound and music is also top-notch – again. Narrator Wayne June, whose deep and unsettling voice set precisely the right tone in the first game, has returned for an encore, as has composer Stuart Chadwick. Both seem to be slightly more subdued than they were in the original, but in a way that fits Darkest Dungeon 2’s long road-trip vibe.
The early access version of Darkest Dungeon 2 contains only one of six planned campaigns in the initial menu, although it’s hard to tell what exactly – other than a final boss – would change from one campaign to the next. The early access period also has some quality of life issues and a sparse options menu: a brightness adjuster would be extremely welcome, as would an option to mute the sound when it’s in the background.
It’s also only got nine characters, as opposed to the first game’s 16-plus classes; most of the new cast are holdovers, although the new Runaway character is a welcome addition. I managed to finish that campaign on my fifth or sixth try and unlocked most of the characters after less than a week of play. So there’s certainly some content here, but it’s likely only scratching the surface of what Darkest Dungeon 2 should become in a year or so.