“…the team wanted to do something different with Darkest Dungeon II, and in many ways they succeeded.”
Darkest Dungeon made a name for itself as a haunting, tactical and vastly psychological horror-come-roguelike game when it released in 2015. For all its doom and gloom aesthetic, shady characters and disturbing adversaries, the game sucked you in from the word go and enticed you to engage with and enjoy the pleasures of its torturous and testing trials. It punished mistakes both physically and mentally and demonstrated the bleak impacts that a truly condemned world might have on those weary souls tasked with defending what little hope remained amongst them. The execution of both the artistic direction and mechanical gameplay saw the game shoot to popularity; a position is has maintained over the years. It seems only natural, then, that a sequel should appear upon the Epic Games Store’s horizon to delve us into the franchise’s alluring shadow once more…
Darkest Dungeon II, from the very word go, is a largely different beast to its predecessor. A significantly different approach to the player’s interaction with the world, as well as the interactions between the characters who lead the story, is a surprising step away from a proven formula by Red Hook Games. In some ways, these risky steps have paid dividends in enhancing the gameplay experience, whilst other aspects of the Darkest Dungeon revolution fall a little too clunkily to stick the landing. Whilst a group mentality now supersedes individual characters’ outlooks in an exceedingly interesting way, the immediate introduction of the Stagecoach at the opening to the game is sadly a signal towards the latter style of directional shift.
Rather than the simple, side-scrolling 2D navigation of the original game, Darkest Dungeon II attempts to immerse you further into the world with a dark, fiery, 3D animated means of traversal through its world. Instead of working from a single base-camp village, your band of worthy and weary adventurers continuously plough on through the hopeless landscapes of the ruined world aboard a rickety yet reliable stagecoach. Reliable, that is, in all but its control system. As you attempt to following the branching maps of each story chapter, turning the clunkily-controlled horse-drawn carriage along the narrow and winding paths is as much a burden to you, the player, as any plight which awaits your party. The WASD control scheme which is simple in premise sees you persistently throwing your cart from side to side and frequently missing your path of choice. Whilst this is not the core gameplay mechanic of Darkest Dungeon II, it is a prominent and frequently-used enough feature to merit airing the grievance. With luck, a future update may see fit to keep your horses more comfortably on track.
With that minor but necessary moan out of the way, let’s delve into some of the real and pertinent pros of the game. An advantage of the re-focussing efforts which have gone into this sequel is a more refined and meaningful story than the original title. Darkest Dungeon II sees a significant reduction in actual story length, but every step along the way focusses now on people, rather than an endless conveyor belt of unlikely heroes meeting their likely demise. Characters still accumulate stress during their time spent in the world’s darkness, as well their combat experiences, just as they did in the first game. This, too, can lead to significant debuffs affecting their responses to future situations. The key point of difference in Darkest Dungeon II, however, is a character’s stress and subsequent breakdowns can now impact directly on inter-character relationships, where this game truly thrives. This advancement upon the original means that within your group, individual divisions, and indeed flourishing relationships, can evolve your opportunities and limitations as a team.
Sometimes, internal conflicts can lead to an envious character limiting another’s ability to play their part effectively. Meanwhile, amorous relationships can lead to both support or irrational protection. It makes the wider game experience feel more personal and meaningful, despite the many inevitable failures which your group will likely incur. Individual characters in Darkest Dungeon II come and go less frequently than in the original game, which is another positive factor for meaningful storytelling. Only one individual of any given profession can be present in your party, and the individual mentality of each party member can have influence over their world views and perceptions. In Darkest Dungeon II, as opposed to a party filled with middlingly skilled cannon fodder, your team is constructed of trained and formidable members with real backstories that your adventure can uncover. These small side missions are not always inventive in their own right, but remind you consistently of the humanity behind the characters you are following. The effort which has gone into creating characters in Darkest Dungeon II is the standout feature and should be commended.
Many of the other positive features of Darkest Dungeon II are largely drawn directly from its predecessor. Combat encounters play out in a 4v4 structure, with the speed of each player in the fight determining their turn in each round of combat. Each of your heroes has a series of moves, offering a variety of ranges, damage, buffs and debuffs; all fairly standard turn-based RPG combat tropes. The gloomy aesthetic means that debuffs such as blight and blindness replace more “regular” markers, but the general modes and methods of play will be familiar to genre fans. Items can be used to enhance character’s abilities and open up options, but I found these to be of limited value in many of my battles. If anything, I felt that the combat came across a little less meaningful and engaging in this game than the last. The reason why was unclear to me; perhaps the wider game differences subdued the similarities to be found elsewhere. Certainly, the “thrown in the deep end” nature of things felt a little rushed and a bit more fleshing out of the adversaries I was likely to face and their place in this world would have made for a pleasant refresher from the prequel title. Nevertheless, the combat was in no way bad – just a little unimaginative given the level of thought which had gone into the game elsewhere.
Like any RPG, and indeed roguelike adventure, upgrades and careful decision making alike are key to progression in Darkest Dungeon II. Items, skills and the careful nurturing of relationships, mental health and character’s wellbeing in general all feed into a party with the potential for success. The relationships win out in this equation when it comes to engaging gameplay. Spending your time at locations such as the tavern carefully and wisely can be key to the next stretch of your journey being a success of failure, as limited pauses in the adventure to take a breath, stock up on supplies and recuperate are critically important to progress. These decisions all feel meaningful, important, and significant. Other aspects of the game seem to fall into a more “normal” category and lack the same level of attentive design and overall purpose. There is an overarching feeling that the team wanted to do something different with Darkest Dungeon II, and in many ways they succeeded.
A game built around a welcome, returning aesthetic and a new, well-fleshed-out core mechanic is not, however, quite enough without the other puzzle pieces being clear, useful, and important alongside them. Everything that should be in the game is, but it is delivered in something of an unclear package as opposed to the simple, careful layout of the original. There are almost two, clear boxes here; “cool stuff” and “normal”, the result being an unavoidable sensation that the “normal” features of the game are lesser. I don’t think Darkest Dungeon II falls as flat as it feels like it does all in all, but contrast here is the bane of wider, positive progress.
This game is in early access, so we do not score as the game is unfinished
You can purchase the game on the Epic Game Store here – https://www.epicgames.com/store/en-US/p/darkest-dungeon-2
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