Early Assess: Darkest Dungeon 2 Feeds My Fears (Not in the Fun Way)

I've been down this road before.

Darkest Dungeon 2 details were surprisingly scant up until the game’s release into early access this week. We gained glimpses of the character classes, knew that the setting had changed to a globetrotting affair, saw that the art style hadn’t changed so much as it had been refined. Then, shortly before this preview launch, we finally got to see some gameplay — all of which looked very familiar. Though not necessarily because it looks like Darkest Dungeon.

Boot up the game in its current state and you’ll see that it’s taken an over-the-shoulder perspective. You pilot a stagecoach through various locales, always trudging forward, while a life-saving torch sputters and spits. The first thing you find in the game is a crossroads: something you ought to get familiar with quickly. There you’re presented with four familiar adventurers from the first game with which to fill out your party.

Your only party. Darkest Dungeon 2 has more-or-less done away with recruitment and base building. What you choose at the start is what you get (except at first you’re stuck with the same four unit types anyway). Other characters must be unlocked by trundling forward, dying, and raising a user level by doing more… stuff… before you die.

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It’s a roguelike. Darkest Dungeon 2 is a roguelike. It’s a roguelike in the very same sense and with many of the same trapping as a thousand others like it in the recent genre craze. Your map, once you have your team and hit the open road, looks straight out of Slay the Spire — with a mostly linear path forward that branches into left, right, and sometimes middle directions at future crossroads. Do you want to fight a boss for a chance at more loot, or stop at a shop with what you already have? It’s a conundrum anyone with a Steam profile and even a passing interest in the run-based genre knows all too well.

It’s also exactly the direction I feared the sequel might take. Though it’s probably the more marketable one. Indie roguelikes are on the rise, from Dead Cells to Hades to Griftlands to Risk of Rain. That’s probably an easier sell than the “management sim with permadeath” of the first game. Likewise the developers probably wanted to try something different. I just wish “different from Darkest Dungeon” didn’t look so much like so many other games I’ve already played this year and last (and the year before that).

It’s more than just fatigue, too. I still love every other game I’ve brought up in this piece. And I’m certainly not against sequels that flip the table over. The hard left turn just stings with Darkest Dungeon because that original game is still so unique. It still hasn’t had a truly worthy successor — or even a really great copycat — to fill the five-year ache for more. I know because I’ve looked. A lot.

Games like Mistover, Aria Chronicle, and Deep Sky Derelicts lack the serious bite and perfectly honed personality of their progenitor. No game properly mimics the feel of a pickaxe going into a cultist’s face. Things as simple as a dramatic sound effect and a perfectly timed zoom make all the difference. So far, nobody gets that part right, or replaces it with something all their own.

Darkest Dungeon 2 screenshot 4

Ironically, Darkest Dungeon 2 handles this part better than ever. Miss chance and hit chance are completely gone. Or rather they’ve been replaced with a “token” system. Characters can use skills to gain one evade token, for example, which gives the next attack against them a 50 percent chance to miss. Then that token is gone. There are similar markers for extra defense, critical hits, and so on that make it easier to calculate exactly what your best move is at any given time.

Combat is otherwise pretty similar to the first game: with up to four units on each side squaring off in turn-based exchanges. Everyone has resistances to poison, bleeding, and so forth. It’s then a matter of overcoming those resistances by powering up your heroes.

Except… not really. In Darkest Dungeon, you scavenged ruins for your ancestor’s ill-gotten heirlooms to pawn them off to equally unscrupulous types. That afforded you permanent upgrades that reduced the reduced the risks of random chance against increasingly powerful foes. Your blades grew more likely to hit; your poisons grew more likely to blight. Or you could choose to bulk up and muscle through encounters with better defenses of your own — swaddling inexperienced warriors in plate mail until they got a few kills under the belts. Meanwhile your veterans could drink away their woes (and stress) back at base. Hence the management sim.

That’s gone. While the token system makes combat less opaque, it also clearly paved the way to remove equipment upgrades. Now you just hope for good loot drops, like in Dead Cells or Risk of Rain, and try to level up enough to unlock better gear on subsequent runs, like Griftlands and Slay the Spire. Then it all goes away when you lose. And you will lose. That’s what happens in roguelikes.

Darkest Dungeon 2 screenshot 3

Dying in Darkest Dungeon 2 is a slow, painful affair. There’s no way to calculate a clever comeback by cooking the books and shifting your toy soldiers around. When someone is dead, they’re dead. Instead of having four units on the field you have three, then two, then one. This feels like the most half-baked element of the “new” formula thus far. You can theoretically limp along understaffed, but so far it doesn’t feel worth it. Better to abandon the run or let your remaining allies die and force a restart that way.

Battles are punishing enough even with four people. Enemies have gained the “Death’s Door” mechanic from the first game. This gives them a chance to simply not die when their hit points reach zero (something that only affected friendlies in the first game). This means your now very limited quad of fighters will sometimes fall into a war of attrition even if you do everything right.

Speaking of attrition, it wouldn’t be Darkest Dungeon if stress wasn’t a factor. And stress actually houses one potentially interesting change: soldiers’ stress determine their relationships more than their mental wellbeing. If one reaches a breaking point, they no longer become “Greedy,” or “Paranoid,” or something similar. Instead they lash out at allies. Doing so fills a meter that eventually leads to units hating one another — leading to sniping during battle that can build more stress. That would just be one meaningless loop, except that each “Meltdown” now also rips out half your health.

Health is much, much harder to come by in combat as well. The ubiquitous Vestal class is gone to start. That’s an inarguably smart change since the support class was almost too good not to bring on most expeditions in the first game — as she provided infinite free heals and other useful buffs to boot. The Plague Doctor takes her place as the primary healer. Though she can only perform three recovery actions per encounter now.

Nitty gritty tactical decisions like this are some of the most likely things to change in early access. Yet they’re already the changes I like best about Darkest Dungeon 2. That’s likely because developer Red Hook had the entire first game and its various expansions as a testbed. Early access gives the team runway to figure out the more dramatic changes, but what’s here now lacks a personality all its own.

Nobody else has done it like Darkest Dungeon yet. Not even Darkest Dungeon 2.