Darkest Dungeon II review: All aboard the murder-coach

Mick Fraser
by Mick Fraser
Mick has been writing about games for years, and has no intention of stopping anytime soon. You'll always find him willing to talk about games and gaming, and he will forever defend Destiny 2. Read more
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  • Ride a stagecoach through a grim-dark world on the edge of ruin
  • Assemble a band of hardened but troubled anti-heroes
  • Battle against both real and emotional demons as you face the darkness
Darkest Dungeon II

One thing you rarely see in fantasy tales, be it literature or movie, is the emotional and mental toll adventuring must take on the adventurer. You almost never see the dark side of fighting an endless horde of zombies or cannibalistic orcs, or actual dragons. Heroes die, sometimes in quite horrific ways if you stop to think about it, but the main group or protagonist battles on, fighting the never-ending good fight.

Darkest Dungeon, from Red Hook Studios, turned the entire genre on its head when it introduced the concept of PTSD to the standard dungeon crawler template. The heroes (for want of a better word) in that game were presented as more down-to-Earth, normal(ish) people than you usually see.

Afraid of the dark

Yes, okay, one of them is a professional poisoner, and there’s a highwayman, and they all have special skills and, in some cases, magic. But ultimately they were meant to be ordinary adventurers.

Of course, it doesn’t help matters that the world they live in is so relentless bleak. The term grimdark doesn’t do it justice. This is a world where you either starve to death, get eaten by something, catch the plague, or strap on an eye patch, grab a sword, and go dungeoneering. During grand adventures you may also starve to death, get eaten by something, or catch the plague.

Darkest Dungeon II takes that core concept and runs with it. Actually, it takes that concept and hops on a stagecoach with it, since that’s your primary mode of transport in the sequel. Instead of languishing in an inn between delves, your ragtag band of miserable hatemongers languishes in a rickety old stagecoach instead.

All aboard the murder-bus

It traverses the shadow-haunted land, sticking to old roads through gnarled, thorny woodland and ancient pathways, breaking through barricades and illuminating the gloom with its single flickering flame. This flame represents your Hope, and if it goes out (which it will, now and then), it’s Game Over. As long as it flourishes, you’ll receive buffs to morale and combat prowess.

You need to keep the flame burning, and you do that by winning fights and helping the needy. Unfortunately, winning fights is an incredibly difficult affair. See, Darkest Dungeon II continues its predecessor’s penchant for punishing you even in victory. You may win a desperate fight against a band of zombies or deranged cultists, but even if you, you may emerge somewhat changed.

Taking hits, missing blows, and seeing their allies die has devastating effects on your party members. You begin with just four, a decent enough crew comprised of a tank, a couple of DPS types, and a plague doctor who doubles as a healer, sort of. The thing is, the enemies in Darkest Dungeon II are just as strong, if not stronger. You will trade blow for blow based on an initiative system, but the odds always seem stacked against you.

Bonds of battle

As a result, you will lose people. When anything negative happens, your heroes will gain a little point against their mental health. Fill the gauge (actually a little row of dots under their name), and they’ll have a breakdown. This can have a multitude of effects, as can other negative consequences. You can lose the ability to hit your target, or you can suffer reduced damage or defence. Certain characters lose access to their moves.

What’s even more worrying is that you won’t know what your heroes will be afflicted with until it happens. Surviving encounters requires a lot of skill and even more luck. It’s not just a case of staying alive; it’s what you have to live with afterwards.

In order to take this concept to the next level, Red Hook Studios have deepened the systems at play in a pretty extraordinary way. Character actions can now directly affect the other characters. They’ll accuse each other of kill-stealing, or of favouring other party members if you heal one of them first. Just as they can build relationships during brief moments of respite, so too can they fall out.

Love in a time of plague

Sometimes they’ll form bonds – not always romantically, although it can happen. They can become respectful of one another, in which case they’ll sometimes attack in tandem. They can grow fond of one another, in which case they’ll often step in front of their beau to take damage for them. It’s an intricate system, though perhaps a little too intricate.

See, it’s almost impossible to identify which actions will cause a rift between characters, and it all seems pretty random. Also, certain actions can instantly shatter previously built bonds, which is annoying as much as anything. My Highwayman, Dismas, ended up going so mad at the Plague Doctor that it affected his ability to shoot straight. A literal blind rage.

And yet despite this, it remains eminently playable. You’re intended to die, you see? It’s supposed to happen. Although, Darkest Dungeon II is much more of a roguelike than its predecessor. Now you’ll permanently unlock gear and trinkets on each run – or at least, the possibility of them. Everything you find will be added to the loot pool in subsequent attempts, while you can unlock permanent skills for each character by using special shrines.

Tragic heroes

Now and then you’ll meet people out on the road who will need your help. There’s no actual transaction here, and you can’t really say no to them, but it’s still a way to build or break relationships. Not that you’ve any real control, mind. You can pick what you like, but if your Plague Doctor gives your Defender the last After Eight instead of the Highwayman, all hell will break loose.

Despite the inherent difficulty and the unpredictable relationship system, the combat is what makes Darkest Dungeon II so damn good. It’s so impactful, visceral, even, if you’ll permit the use of the word. The battle music is incredibly atmospheric, and watching your heroes dive in front of one another to take damage, or deliver punchy, violent blows to the enemy is an absolute joy.

It’s a shame, then, that it veers away from this at times, attempting to shoe-horn in what can only be described as mini-games. And you have to indulge, too, if you want to unlock extra skills. The Shrines are a bit too hit and miss, requiring you to faff around with new mechanics, none of which we’ll spoil other than to say that they’re not as fun as just fighting for your life against the enemy.

It looks weirdly beautiful though, with more detail in the world, more colour (all dark shades, obviously), and more intricate attention to the characters than in the previous entry.

Achievements & Completion

Although Darkest Dungeon II looks finished (it really does look stunning), it’s actually an early access game. All that’s available right now is the first of five chapters, though you can unlock extra characters and skills, and its roguelike nature means there’s lots of replayability.

Completing a run straight through may only take a few hours, but it will take several hours of trying and failing and swearing and crying before you get there.

Final thoughts on Darkest Dungeon II

Pros
Relationship system has massive potential
Looks and sounds amazing
Combat is brutal and addictive
Cons
Negative effects are too unpredictable
New mechanics are hit and miss
So, so grim

Final score: 3/5

It’s easy to see why Red Hook has opted for the early access approach here. This is more than just a continuation or copy of the first game. It introduces a host of new mechanics and gameplay elements, not all of which work as intended. It also feels bigger, maybe grander, despite being technically unfinished in terms of the campaign.

What’s here right now though is absolutely worth your time. That said, it really is incredibly dark and deliberately grim, so some people may be put off. If you’re a fan of the world and its systems, though, you won’t be disappointed by what’s on offer.

Darkest Dungeon II is available for around $19.99 on the Epic Games Store. You can find the details and recommended specs here.

*Disclaimer: Reviewed on PC. Review copy provided by publisher.