Darkest Dungeon 2 is, obviously, the followup to Darkest Dungeon, which I previously reviewed. The developers deliberately wanted to take the sequel in a different direction instead of just making Darkest Dungeon again, which I support. Unfortunately, that direction was completely at odds with it being a roguelike.
First, some overview: The structure of the game has completely changed. Instead of sending teams of heroes to explore procedurally-generated dungeons, you take a single team on a road trip through several eldritch biomes, culminating in a special boss battle at the end. The structure of this is similar to Slay the Spire: The biomes are a series of interconnected nodes with various events, and you must plan your route through them in a continuous forward march. In other words, it’s an actual roguelike now instead of a dungeon crawler sim with roguelike elements. This heavily reduces the sim and exploration aspects compared to the previous game, but puts a greater emphasis on combat. As I found the dungeon crawling the worst part of the previous game and the combat the best, I am pleased with this.
They’ve also made a lot of changes to the combat itself that I really like. Most significantly, accuracy is no longer a thing: by default, attacks will always connect. There are “blind” and “dodge” effects that cut accuracy to a flat 50%, but they’re discrete conditions that can be worked around in a number of ways instead of a universal mechanic you just have to accept. Additionally, buffs and debuffs have been restructured in a way I found wonderfully novel yet simultaneously obvious in hindsight: Buffs now exist as discrete “tokens” that are consumed per use rather than lasting a certain number of turns. So instead of buffs like the Plague Doctor’s Invigorating Vapors giving you something fiddly like +21% damage for 3 turns, it gives you a “Strength” token that provides flat +50% damage on your next attack. This makes it much easier to gauge the effectiveness of buffs and debuffs and prevents them from feeling “wasted” if you need to spend a turn doing something else. I suspect it’s a lot easier to do balance testing for, also.
A consequence of this system is that buffs no longer stack; if you give someone two Strength tokens, they don’t get +100% damage on their next attack, they get +50% on their next two attacks. I’m fine with this, because buff stacking could get both ridiculously overpowered and ridiculously convoluted to keep track of in the previous game. This method is much clearer and keeps things to a consistent power range.
On top of all this, heroes can now use 5 skills at once instead of 4, and their total skills have been upped from 7 to 11. Most skills from the previous game have returned but been reworked for the new systems, plus tons of interesting new skills. I particularly like that the Jester has now been fully realized as a “dance battler” who can move both forward and back with his attacks, like the Shieldbreaker could. All of this adds more complexity to battles and more possibilities for hero builds.
The last big mechanic is that afflictions have been swapped out for something similar but different. A big thematic change in this game is that, instead of viewing heroes as disposable, you are supposed to get attached to them and have them behave more like real people; one part of this is that it’s no longer just the individual heroes’ sanity you need to manage, but their relationships with every other hero in the party. Everyone’s Relationship Points(TM) influence the chance that they will enter a positive (“Respectful”, “Hopeful”, etc.) or negative (“Resentful”, “Suspicious”, etc.) relationship at the start of each leg of the journey, which provide various mechanical benefits or hindrances, respectively. When heroes hit max stress, they have a chance to enter either a “meltdown” or, more rarely, a “resolute” state, which severely hurts or boosts their party-wide relationships respectively. I think this is a good change overall, as the afflictions in DD1 felt far too punishing for me with how they both severely crippled a hero for the entire dungeon and snowballed into stressing every other hero too; here, meltdowns are still nasty, but they don’t cripple or snowball you and their negative effects can be worked around with resource investments.
(Relationships themselves are pretty meh — they mostly just tack a buff or debuff onto one of your skills when you use it, which is potentially useless since the chosen skill is random and may not be something that works with your current build. Believe me when I say this is still a vast improvement over how they worked in Early Access, where the heroes behaved like toddlers constantly interrupting combat to whine and literally backstab their allies while the enemies casually picked them off.)
So in general, DD2’s changes to the formula are ones I almost unilaterally support and enjoy. What’s the problem, then?
Well, unfortunately, while they knocked it out of the park in designing the player side of the game, they completely dropped the ball on the enemy side. There simply isn’t enough variation in the combat encounters to sustain an infinitely-replayable roguelike. Each individual encounter, especially the bosses, can be very complex and are essentially puzzles… but the thing about puzzles is that you only need to solve them once. Once you’ve figured out a given enemy’s gimmick, you always know the single most efficient way to beat them and you’ll just do that every single time (while occasionally getting scuppered by RNG, which is just frustrating). The game ceases to become a challenge and instead starts to feel like a chore.
What’s worse, the game is still very difficult and punishing of suboptimal play, so I always wanted to “play it safe” with the same builds every single time. There were plenty of builds and options like Physician PD that looked interesting and that I would have loved to try out, but I just wasn’t willing to risk an untried approach when runs take multiple hours of investment and can collapse from just one or two mistakes. By the end I was frankly sick of using Plague Doctor, but I kept including her in every party because she was just so incredibly useful it felt like suicide not to.
This all becomes doubly frustrating with the aforementioned “puzzle” nature of encounters. Nearly every boss fight revolves around a unique gimmick you have to figure out how to counter; in practice, this means you’re almost guaranteed to wipe on your first try as you flounder around trying to learn the rules, but in every successive attempt the fight is trivial because you know exactly what to do. Moreover, because these “puzzle” bosses have such specific counterplays, it further restricts what party compositions are viable. A party that goes all-in on frontline damage is perfectly viable for most of the game, but then you hit the Dreaming General or Seething Sigh and surprise! You need backline damage to win, so you just wasted all the hours you put into this run. Start again from the beginning and bring PD yet again this time, idiot!
This all amounts to feeling like the two sides of the game are pulling in opposite directions. The playable characters have so much breadth and synergy that you really do need to play them many times to fully appreciate them, but the enemy design feels like something designed for a regular, linear RPG instead. If failing a puzzle boss meant you could retry it instantly instead of having to go through a whole new run, and after you beat it once you never had to go through the motions again, the bosses in this game would have been cool and exciting instead of frustrating and tedious.
…I don’t have a transition but I’d also like to talk about the story. A big thing in this game is that the backstories of the heroes, which in the first game consisted only of single-page wordless comics, are now fleshed out and explicitly described in the game. Unfortunately, they are terrible. I loved the original comics for how vibrant their imagery was and how they could be interpreted multiple ways. In this game, they’re expressed through bland voiceover narration that tells instead of shows and completely removes the ambiguity of the originals to confirm a single narrative. These are occasionally interspersed with gameplay sections where we play through part of the backstory as a puzzle challenge, which could have been a great opportunity to show instead of tell but instead most of them just feel tedious, forced, and confusing. The difficulty also varies wildly from “perform a series of actions in the exact right order or you lose” to “literally impossible to lose”. The only ones that worked for me at all were Man-at-Arms’ first, Plague Doctor’s second, Jester’s second, and Vestal’s second.
Some highlights of what we learn in these backstories:
- The Highwayman was a miserable woobie who was about to give up brigandry anyway and only took the last job because he was starving, instead of my interpretation that he enjoyed his life of banditry and the events of the comic made him realize his actions had consequences.
- Also, in the process of killing the family in the carriage (which takes a bajillion shots so pretty hard to believe it was “just a reflex”) he also murders an army of endlessly-respawning guards but they aren’t people so who cares
- The Grave Robber poisons her evil abusive husband. Very sympathetic, #girlboss goals. Then she murders tons of her own innocent guards in the process of robbing his corpse. This disgustingly evil action is never acknowledged as such because NPCs aren’t people.
- The Leper’s evil advisors evilly told him not to touch the sick because he might get infected… and are immediately proven right. Then he murders them all because he Just Knows they’re plotting something evil, because you should always trust the Good Noble King when he says people need preemptive murdering. WTF, Red Hook?
- The Runaway (a new character introduced for this game) burns down her house for absolutely no reason and if you try to avoid doing this you fail the puzzle
- The Occultist has to literally murder his conscience and I can see what they were going for but it is just so incredibly goofy
The one good addition from these is that it turns out the Vestal’s powers are unique to her, not something any follower of the Light can do like I assumed, and the backstory implies she did pact with some sort of eldritch entity to gain them. This was something that always bugged me in the previous game: if there are non-eldritch sources of supernatural power, why would anyone pick the eldritch ones that require horrifically mutilating yourself and/or mass murder? So good to have it confirmed that’s not the case. (…I am ignoring Flagellant here because his backstory is incoherent.)
So I’m overall left feeling very ambivalent about the game. It comes so close to being great, but it’s so much less than the sum of its parts. I honestly don’t know whether to recommend it or not; I can’t even say you’ll like it if you liked the last one, because it’s deliberately so different that a lot of fans are currently disappointed just because it’s not DD1. I probably would have been happier with a version of DD1 that just had these combat improvements, honestly.