Darkest Dungeon 2 review: Smooth ride

Darkest Dungeon 2 key art and logo

The vile tendrils of Darkest Dungeon 2 latch into the brain and take you down a journey of misery and tedium. However, none of this is a bad thing as the full launch of this sequel is well worth your attention.

During my time with Darkest Dungeon 2, I realized that during a particular session, over two hours I’d made little progress through the game’s five acts. The endless repetition of scraping by, dying, and retrying is infectious, leaving me with a satisfied sigh of relief whenever a small break appeared.

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Darkest Dungeon 2 has been in Early Access since 2021, exclusive to the Epic Games Store, and is now hitting Steam as a full-fledged sequel to the 2015 original. Red Hook Studio hasn’t just made a sequel to one of the best representations of Eldritch horror in gaming, however, but reinvented its many systems to fit another theme.

Darkest Dungeon 2 – Key Details

  • Price: $29.99
  • Developer: Red Hook Studios
  • Release Date: May 8, 2023
  • Platforms: PC

Darkest Dungeon 2 trailer

Red Hook changes the game

Red Hook has ditched the stodgy menu-driven game of the past and embraced a much more “alive” world in Darkest Dungeon 2. Ironic, considering a massive disaster has hit the world.

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Instead of organizing and hiring mercenaries, hoping they survive to venture into dungeons the next time around, the sequel does away with the previous game’s persistent universe.

There’s no town to manage or to withdraw to. Now, you have to drive a wagon from one end to another. To get around this, Darkest Dungeon 2 splits the game into concentrated acts themed around the five stages of grief.

Darkest Dungeon 2 battle

When starting, you now gather heroes at a “Crossroads”, and overall persistent upgrades are done further down the road at an altar. It’s a slightly more convoluted method of the basic menu system, but it fits thematically, which the further you play, the more apparent it becomes.

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Each act only takes a few hours, meaning the game is brash and harder-hitting. The game’s friendly reminder of failure being part of the progress has never been truer.

Though the faster pace means it’s even more unrelenting than the first. Withdrawing and recouping isn’t an option. Without the town, if you want to restart with a refreshed team, you have to abandon the wagon – and your run.

Horroregan Trail

Darkest Dungeon 2 wagon screen

One of the only things you will have to manage your runs in Darkest Dungeon 2 is the wagon itself. This is where the new formula begins to show its thinner structure. You’ve no real control over the wagon, with unavoidable ambushes that damage it to the point of needing repairs. It feels like, for a game that strategically whittles you down, to place inescapable, random damage, is unfortunately out of character.

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In a way, it feels like Red Hook’s way of slowing things down, after realizing that players might barrel through the content in quick succession.

Darkest Dungeon 2’s story missions steal the show

You can finish acts in a matter of hours compared to the first’s hundreds of hours on just one campaign. Restarting never feels like a burden, as you’re treated to small tidbits of story and readjusting teams with newly unlocked abilities or heroes to see what the outcome would be this time.

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Upgrading characters happens in a couple of ways. There’s a temporary, run-based upgrade system that boosts the attacks you can perform, as well as a permanent system that revolves around story-based moments.

With no random recruitments, you get to know each hero a little more independently this time around. This could take the form of the Man-at-Arms’ history being told via voice-over, or a small battle puzzle as the Leper, where you see their previous life.

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It’s a fantastic method, reminding me of Mass Effect 2’s loyalty missions. Each one – aside from voice-over sections – has its own unique flair. It’s a fascinating way to see Red Hook’s evolution and understanding of the engine they’ve built to tell these horrendous stories.

Darkest Dungeon 2 upgrade page

The game’s main core is still there, with its desperate scrapes still taking place over a turn-based structure. Battles take place as you soldier forward down the road, with a bevy of grotesque horrors or opportunistic robbers trying to end your journey.

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It functions nearly identically to the past game, with decisions being more about your best chances of survival between each turn, as well as finding the quickest way to end the fight. Despite being tough, it’s only during boss fights that the tedium creeps in. It’s a tense tedium, as both health bars linger on the “Death’s Door”, where the next attack could mean either of you expires.

Darkest Dungeon 2’s structure does make things seem much quicker, but each fight still requires your full attention. Idle minds will see you fail much faster than expected.

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Battles also require a bigger reliance on items this time around. It feels as if Red Hook wanted to ensure that the game’s runs are vastly different from each other to prevent familiarity from taking over.

Darkest Dungeon 2 battle

One massive change is the way these look. The overworld’s 3D adventure carries over, replacing the stylized 2D art with fantastic 3D animations. Seeing the Man-at-War pull up his mace after a hit, or the Plague Doctor mixing his concoctions before an attack brings these fights to life while still retaining that harsh style the previous game took on.

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Thematically, however, the one-way road of its core storyline hits you like a sack of doorknobs. It’s not subtle about its tale of confronting your past, to move on from the problem. Does your character die on an expedition into a jungle? You’ve no choice but to crawl on. Every beating, every mistake, you have to continue forth. Even the alter you start the game at is an instance of this, as you “recall” items from your presumed past to assist the quest ahead.

Darkest Dungeon 2 rushes ahead

Though this plowing ahead and only story-focused bonding with your crew, makes a lot of what made the original so unique amongst its peers, feel pushed aside. Handling the different quirks, mental health and stress conditions of your ever-growing crew felt like part of the overall narrative being built around the mechanics-heavy game. A narrative of survival in a world that has actively thinned your ranks.

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Everything is still there but feels rushed through or never felt as consequential. The lack of persistence between acts outside of stats means that the thick layer of tactics surrounding its mental health system is merely an impedance until you decide to reset the run. It’s not a consequence that haunts you for a few hours. It’s a thing you brush off and forget about as you restart back from square one.

Verdict – 3/5

Yet all in all, Darkest Dungeon 2 is a worthy sequel to the 2015 original. It’s a fearless alteration of a well-known formula, while also building a game that you really don’t need any context for. Despite issues with some of the best aspects of the game being thinned by its new formula, Darkest Dungeon 2 remains one of the most exciting strategy games in a while.

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