It’s time, once again, to play a game that hates you, and takes pride in hating you. Darkest Dungeon II is in Early Access now (on the Epic Game Store for a year before wider release, so on and so forth, you know the deal by now). While the game is in a very early stage of public development — all the judgments and opinions in this piece should be taken with that in mind — it’s in something of a different place than (I at least recall) Darkest Dungeon being when it launched. It has the now-expected aesthetic down pat, and it has the trademark random number generation factor that swings events in each run between annoying and punishing in spades…but it is somewhat too easy, while also being too overdetermined.
We’ll get to what I mean precisely by that in a bit. First, the good things: despite the game moving to 3D, the visual feel of the franchise remains intact and has arguably thrived. Darkest Dungeon II is a game that can’t be in two dimensions thanks to the addition of the stagecoach mechanic (reasonable disagreements can be had with regards to the wisdom of that mechanic itself), and so it had to taken the hand-drawn indie comics look of the first title and translate it into a world with meshes and a lighting engine and so on. This is almost an unqualified success; the animations look great, the lighting doesn’t interfere with the high-contrast, heavy-inks art style, and there’s a charming paper-mache diorama feel to a bunch of the environments as you cruise through them, especially The Sprawl, a biome that represents a burning cobblestoned city.
Wayne June is back as the voice of the narration character, whose identity has changed; rather than being The Ancestor from the first game, he is now styled as The Academic. The difference is, well, you know. There’s hundreds of voice lines of him saying ominous, sobering, or pithy statements; those looking for the comfort of the franchise mainstay will find it, though the writing on his bon mots seems a bit clunkier this time around. Wayne June can deliver the hell out of lines like “Reliable insight brings accurate information, after all,” but as written that still has the personality of an actual survey course syllabus rather than a crazed Lovecraftian professor driven mad by what he’s learned. Still, the man is an institution at this point (if you’ve got 10 favorite streamers, odds are at least two of them have custom subscriber notifications that he’s done as a freelance actor) and it’s good to have him back in the saddle even if they’re going to have to work a little bit harder for the second tranche of Academic ramblings.
There is one massive improvement that Redhook has made to the core mechanical engine of the game: the elimination of the accuracy system, whereby you rolled a die to hit and then rolled a die for damage and every skill had modifiers to both of those things (big swingy attacks had reduced accuracy and increased damage from the ‘norms’ for each class; annoying harrier attacks had improved accuracy and decreased damage, and so on) and the implementation of the token system. By default, when you execute an attack in Darkest Dungeon II you will always hit, and then roll a damage range the game hands you up front, and then roll to apply a debuff or damage-over-time effect if that’s part of the ability. In practice, this can be significantly complicated by the status effect tokens that the enemy has applied to either you or themselves; if you have the Blind token on your character, that’s a 50% chance to miss. If the enemy has a Dodge token, that’s a 50% chance to dodge (if it’s a Dodge+ token, that goes up to 75%). So there can be very strong and stark variance in fights…but you always have the information that those dice rolls are coming ahead of time, and therefore the chance, at least, to demonstrate player skill in defraying, avoiding, or otherwise dealing with the enemy’s defenses.
The compulsion to lash the player to the mast of fate and shove the whole project off onto the wild seas of RNG manifests in other parts of the system, though. Darkest Dungeon II is a different sort of roguelite to the first game; rather than a hub town with an assortment of dungeon runs you can perform with a rotating cast, players now have named, unique characters that earn persistent unlocks across runs. Sure, the first Highwayman you got in Darkest Dungeon was a guy named Dismas, but then you could immediately dismiss that guy and recruit three more with names chosen from a table, and then rename those guys, and so on. You can still rename Dismas in Darkest Dungeon II, because Redhook knows that’s how streamers get their tips, but it’s unmistakable that rather than “Dismas” being a shorthand name for the class, the guy in this game is a specific guy, his name is Dismas, and he has a backstory (more on that in a bit). And with the greater focus on the Highwayman being a guy named Dismas and the Plague Doctor being a lady named Paracelsus and so on, there’s a greater focus on their relationships.
That is to say, there’s a brand-new relationship mechanic. Characters can develop positive or negative relationships depending on their stress levels and interacting positive or negative quirks (half the quirks in the game seem to be non-mechanical in the battle system and solely geared towards these interactions), and outside of you the player occasionally getting to make a choice on a location prompt screen about whether to e.g. fight or run, all of this relationship stuff is handled entirely by automated dice-rolls in a black box. You want good relationships; good relationships give you procedurally-activated buffs and extra actions in combat. You want to avoid bad relationships, which do the reverse. But you can’t choose what relationships characters have and, outside of general best practices like “keep team stress as low as possible,” you have absolutely no participation in their development. The GM of Darkest Dungeon II is just going to be spending half your play session rolling relationship dice behind his secret screen and if the dice favor you, they’ll snowball in your favor; if they don’t, you might as well hit the Abandon Run button right now.
The way the relationship system works combines with the modularity of the biomes to form an odd difficulty curve: namely, the two hardest parts of the run you’ll face are the Mountain with the final boss of the content thus far, who is genuinely formidable, and in very close second there’s…the first area you go through in every one. You won’t have a lot of mastery points to unlock upgrades to your characters’ abilities, because those upgrades reset on a per-run basis; you won’t have the relationships you’ll need to sustain yourself on higher-difficulty fights which you can encounter at any point in your run by landing on certain locations (Resistance Encounters, which are a single set piece fight against the Biome’s featured enemies, or Lairs, which are a series of three fights against said foes culminating in a special but optional boss) and you’ll have had fewer chances to either loot or buy run-defining trinkets, which are just as if not more important to character build and survivability than they were in the first game — some completely change how a character plays, such as a Leper who gets a quirk and trinket combination to neuter the Blind status effect that he applies to himself after all of his big money skills. Suddenly, rather than a tank and only situational alpha striker, he’s the hammer and all your enemies are the nails. But he’s probably not going to have that load out before the second or third inn you hit.
On the whole, this is a product of Early Access, a lack of diversity of content, and a sign that Redhook is at the beginning of an iterative process rather than at the end of it. That’s all well and good; while the relationship system is utterly infuriating right now, I have every confidence that it will develop into something that engages the player by the time I write my second piece on this game as it leaves Early Access. One part of the game that doesn’t need iteration — that, instead, requires a full-bore rethink from the ground up — is the way meta-progression for character unlocks are handled. The flashback story gimmick battles absolutely have to go.
The way this works is that you can come across a Shrine of Heroism location in any possible node in any biome you’re wandering through, same as any other kind of location. If you roll a Shrine, instead of a room fight or a merchant or a relationship choice, you’ll be presented with the opportunity to see one of the five segments that defines every character’s backstory. Generally speaking, three of these segments are very simple: the Academic relates a portion of the character’s sad, benighted past, and you click the Continue button. Two out of the five times, though, you’ll be thrown into a flashback “fight” that will have boutique goals and enemies and only operate remotely on the same logic as the rest of the game’s combats. Sometimes it’s tedious but an amusing high concept, like the Jester fight that’s actually a musical duel with your mentor. Sometimes it’s tedious but tasteless, like the domestic violence minigame in the Grave Robber’s backstory progression. Most of the time, though, it’s just tedious, like the first time you have a flashback with the Runaway, the great new character class that’s been added to the game:
The way this works is the Runaway starts in position four, has to advance to position one, and use the special skill to steal a key off the nun. Meanwhile the nun targets two positions (the positions themselves, not the “characters” in them of the Runaway or the columns) at random and attacks them. I’ve played optimally. You’ll note I’ve had to steal the key three times. That’s a cool one key every ten rounds, assuming you figure out the gimmick immediately — it’s not like these are tutorialized, and part of the game is trying and failing, like with the domestic abuse fight on Grave Robber that I’ll have to do again at some point (I suppose in the interest of a modicum of fairness, I should note that your drunken, violent husband merely inflicts stress damage on your character instead of HP damage, and you are trying to poison him at the time, due to all the abuse). It’s probably too much to ask that this concept be shoved out the airlock wholesale, but that’s kind of what it deserves. At the very least, I hope to see some quality of life passes to get the time spent in these minigames once you actually do know the rules down to a couple rounds maximum, rather than, oh, thirty-one.
Initial Reaction: We can’t really do a “Final Verdict” here given the state of the game, so we won’t! This title is $30 on Epic Game Store for the foreseeable future, though it will eventually appear elsewhere one presumes because the UI is extremely optimized for mobile, tablet, or console — in fact it’s a bit poor for the PC user at the moment. That said, if you’re a superfan of the series you probably already have the game and certainly don’t need me yapping on about it to make a choice, and if you’re not, you’re probably best served waiting for the end of Early Access anyway and coming to it fresh. The market sliver best served here is people who were perhaps repelled by the first game’s reliable on to-hit rolls knifing them in the sides when the RNG turned against them, because that honestly is not a problem to the same degree in this one, and fixing the aspects of the relationship system that have problems is a far easier ask than retuning Darkest Dungeon’s entire theory of combat would have been. They’ve already done all that work, and it’s been done well. I thought it was money well spent on my end at least (though $30 is about the top end of what I’d have put down for it) and I’ll be looking forward to coming back to this again when it releases version 1.0.
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