Let me paint a scene for you. I’m going through a burning city with my party consisting of a Highwayman who was tougher than iron at the expense of being a pacifist, a military commander who could bolster his allies and crush his enemies if his bum leg allowed him to, a grave robber that was very easily stressed out over everything and a plague doctor doing her damnedest to keep it all together. I’m going through with my pack of dysfunctional weirdos and I’m actually doing pretty okay. Until then, I mostly went through cautiously and ensured I could take and win fights, but I was feeling cocky. I got to the final section before the final boss of the run and went “What could possibly go wrong?”
Everything. Everything went wrong.
I was dealing with a new creature called a Cardinal with some other transformed cultists and proceeded to wipe right there because overconfidence is a slow and insidious killer. It was at that moment I looked over at my desktop clock and noticed that I had spent three hours on that run and the only thing keeping me from going again was me needing to get some sleep. And since then I’ve been trying and failing and trying and failing and revelling in every attempt to finish a run.
This is Darkest Dungeon 2 in a nutshell. For eagle-eyed readers, I covered this waaaaay back when it first launched in Early Access on the Epic Games Store in November of 2021. I liked a lot of what it was doing and checked back on it every now and then to see the changes; I never fully committed to it because I knew that my save file would get reset eventually because that’s just Early Access. But now that it’s been in 1.0 and released on Steam as of Monday, it’s all I’ve been thinking about that’s not stuff I’m working on.
All of the stuff I mentioned in my initial first impressions still rings true after starting up a new save. All of the ways the systems interlock, the relationships, combat, aesthetics, world design and narrative through mechanics are all still there and it’s all still fantastic. The main things I wanted to cover today are the changes and content that have been added to Darkest Dungeon 2 over the course of its roughly 18 months in Early Access. Because there are lots of changes that were made, some of them small, but most of them radically altering the way the game works.
The first and perhaps the biggest I want to talk about is the overall meta-progression of Darkest Dungeon 2. Rather than the original experience system that was in place, there’s the Altar of Hope. This is where you find most of the unlocks in the game, from heroes, to stagecoach upgrades, to new items, to map upgrades, stat boosts, and skills; if it can progress you in any way, you can find it at the Altar. These are all unlocked with the new currency called Candles of Hope. These are gained through various means like killing enemies and bosses, completing hero goals, progressing through and entering new areas, and even reaching the destination of the Mountain and killing the final boss. These can be modified to gain more or less for greater risk and reward and it’s a great addition. There’s also the new Torches of Radiance and Despair. The former makes it so that the runs are less punishing, but not by much. Just enough to ease in new and returning players like myself. The Torch of Despair, however? That’s for the players who either want more of a challenge or just really like pain. Enemies get more advantages and you get a unique, run-long debuff you need to manage lest it get too out of control. I haven’t touched it because I think this game is punishing enough as is, but if that’s your thing, go off.
On the Hero front, there are some overhauls to progressions as well. There are now class-exclusive trinkets, hero paths that essentially act as subclasses/niches to specialize in and signature items that act as capstones to be used at inns. All of this would be great, but do you know what’d make it better? More new heroes! There was the addition of 3 new heroes were added to bring the 1.0 roster up to 12 in total with more coming in the form of future updates according to Red Hook. These are the newly reworked Vastal, the also reworked Flagellant And my personal favourite of the bunch: the Bounty Hunter. They all have unique mechanics that support these new play styles. The Vestal gains a unique buff called Conviction that empowers all of her skills with secondary effects, more healing and more Damage making her less of a healing/stalling machine and is now more of a crowd-controlling damage dealer that can also heal. The Flaggelant swaps out the whips and blood theme for being flagellated so raw that basically, he’s undead and spreads poison to his enemies in the frontlines as a “Scrifical Support” (their words, not mine). And instead of either getting a meltdown or becoming virtuous when hitting maxed-out stress, the Flagellant becomes Toxic, like many people who get stressed out playing League of Legends. Jokes aside, this makes the Flagellant way better at his assigned niche of soaking up hits and spreading blight to the enemy.
The Bounty Hunter is my favourite class mechanically. He’s only recruitable in the inns between areas sometimes and can be used to swap out a hero on your team for that area. He focuses on marking targets, disrupting enemy lines, inflicting status effects and dealing damage. He works for a fee, usually 4 candles of hope, and can’t be upgraded. Why so many of these weird restrictions? Because all of his skills are upgraded. In a game where you can only have up to 2 skills per hero each if spread out, this means that he’s effectively the most powerful hero in the game, but is only available for a short time. This gives you a much needed boost if you’re shaking it rough and I love how it’s framed in the context of hiring a literal bounty Hunter.
Red Hook even changed how the traversal and maps work. The stagecoach now has wheels and armour to contend with the new map hazards. These keep you on your toes to ensure you aren’t asleep at the wheel. Rough terrain, broken roads and enemy traps are some of the things that strip these away. Once that happens, you get into a special combat encounter where each hero passes the baton to repair the stagecoach while fighting off an enemy ambush. It's a neat way of incentivizing caution, even if it’s a bit rude at times (like sending two Ghouls at me one time). All of these changes and additions add up to create a loop that just will not get its hooks out of me. When I’m working, I’m thinking about team compositions, when I’m about to go to bed, I’m thinking about how to make the most out of a run. Hell, when I’m playing other games, I’m thinking, “I could be playing Darkest Dungeon 2”.
Darkest Dungeon 2 is one of the finest examples of Early Access done right. It makes a pivot into a different gameplay style and iterates on it in some brilliant ways. In the time since it’s come out, I’ve sunk an additional 20 hours in the last week alone, it’s wild. And while I get that the Hamlet management being gone can be seen as a turn-off, it’s something I personally welcome. Darkest Dungeon 2 is a game about making the best of a bad situation and what better way to show that off than by literally getting rid of the home base? Everything I’ve mentioned above goes together to make Darkest Dungeon 2 one of my favourite games of this year not named Hi-Fi Rush or Star Wars Jedi Survivor. It’s that damn good, y’all.