Cosmic horrors abound in Darkest Dungeon II, a game is bleak as its predecessor. The stress inducing aspects of Darkest Dungeon are back and more nail-biting than ever. But what the sequel offers is a new way to tackle challenges by adding a wealth of new mechanics that will play into whether you walk away from encounters victorious or at the brink of self-destruction. It doesn’t necessarily reinvent what makes Darkest Dungeon so good to begin with, but instead builds upon its core strengths to create something more engaging.
Darkest Dungeon II requires the player to fail in order to progress, which feels almost antithetical to the original by design. Yes, you can trudge on through the game with minimal upgrades or even with the four starter characters. This is entirely possible, but I wouldn’t recommend it if you want the full experience. Obtaining candles by completing objectives during your runs, such as tackling certain encounters, will allow you to unlock restorative and curative items, accessories for your carriage, and even other characters like the Flagellant and Vestal.
Failure reaps its own rewards, and it helps create an entirely new attitude when tackling the more roguelike elements of Darkest Dungeon II. Thankfully, the game itself does follow a familiar framework, which won’t leave those who enjoyed the original game feeling dissatisfied or alienated. Instead of picking a different “size” of map, players will pick a region and explore a generated path where they can pick routes similar to Slay the Spire. Each of these routes features a specific destination point, which then narrows out into a boss encounter as you reach the end.
After completing a boss, which can be fairly challenging depending on how your run leading up to the encounter has gone, you then progress to the next chapter of the game. The difficulty only ramps up from here, but there is an item you can affix to your carriage to make the journey less stressful. However, it feels negligible and I didn’t feel that using it made the game any easier. But maybe that was because I tend to play these games in the same fashion as I do Souls titles, and that’s min-maxing and throwing myself at whatever comes my way until I can simply brute force my way through the game. That doesn’t really work in Darkest Dungeon, or Darkest Dungeon II, as you will want to strategize and memorize what kind of status effects and enemies appear in each area.
For example, some locales will have enemies who are more susceptible to blight damage, which is a damage over time poison, or others that will generate more stress or even throw back damage over time effects of their own. These can include bleed, burning, and blight. Items unlocked through the candle system can heal these status effects, or character skills. The Plague Doctor is a premium choice as a party member for this reason, since she can increase resistance to status effects and even remove them while healing a bit of damage. That said, characters do feel more balanced overall. Even as you level up their skills as the game constantly provides a challenge and will require you to think over who to heal and when, or what enemies to prioritize over others.
A new mechanic to the game also gives the interaction between characters a bit more texture. Your party can now forge relationships with one another, and raising their affinity can help reduce stress and even provide temporary stat boosts. In early access, this wasn’t clearly telegraphed, and it felt like bonds could deteriorate at the blink of an eye. The full release broadcasts this more clearly, so you can actually help build these relationships in a more concentrated effort. That said, you can easily destroy these bonds just as easily as you can build them. And you can face serious repercussions if two party members end up squabbling in the middle of a fight. My Highwayman at one point refused to be healed by my Vestal because they were often at odds with one another, which left him on death’s door more times than I could count. You can try to mend these frayed relationships at an inn with specific items, which helps circumvent characters being locked into hating each other until you’ve completed your excursion. It feels more fair this time around, and wasn’t nearly as aggravating as it was in early access.
Obtaining new skills for the individual characters is done through specific segments during which you can unlock memories for individual characters. These sometimes involve stages where certain objectives must be met, but aren’t hard enough to actively fail at. Though you will want to tread carefully, as failure means you’ll need to give it another shot at another one of these points should it spawn along your journey. I enjoyed the Graverobber’s story the most, even though it was effectively elaborated on in one of the short, one-page comics released for the first game. It was interesting to experience the events first-hand, and receiving a new skill as a result was also a good reward. Not that I needed it, because even as barebones as Darkest Dungeon II’s story is, I found myself wholly engrossed in it.
I love cosmic horror, and Darkest Dungeon II brings what was once isolated to a hamlet located in the middle of nowhere to a greater stretch of the world. You see the repercussions of the events of the first game, and every time you start a new run you are greeted with a sliver of new lore as to how the world spiraled into the state it is. Another interesting thing is seeing characters that were allies in Darkest Dungeon appear as enemies in specific stages. The Antiquarian, for example, is now traveling with bandits, and it was exciting but also sad to have to kill a character I had grown familiar with over the span of a hundred hours spent with the first game.
Overall, Darkest Dungeon II expands on the series in a way that brings a new kind of freshness to the core experience. Those looking for something identical to the first game may feel disappointed with how progression tracks, or a lack of a more diverse roster of characters. That said, it is bound to keep you entertained for hours on end, and has plenty of new mechanics to engage in that allow for more experimentation and min-maxing.
Darkest Dungeon II is immediately available on PC.