Darkest Dungeon 2 has made some pretty profound changes, and I was not sure about them at first. I think they annoyed me. But going back to the original to recognize myself made me see them differently – is not it funny how our minds can idolize things to a point of infallibility? I thought a lot about Darkest Dungeon. But by watching it exposed, I see the sequel better, and now I’m a fan.
It’s all about the cart – that’s the big change. It’s a horse-drawn carriage ride, much like the carriage in the opening sequence of Darkest Dungeon. And this time it’s your home. You no longer have a static base. The village on the hill that you rebuilt in DD, it’s gone. Now you live life on the road.
Immediately you will notice that this gives the game a more cinematic look. The wagon sections are 3D – the first in the series – and you guide it through areas that change depending on your mission. There are cursed farm landscapes where swollen flesh grows like parasites on crops, there are cities that burn like hell inferno, and there are cities that are transformed into cemeteries where skinny corpses hang like dirty clothes on liners. It’s impressively atmospheric and just as grotesquely awful as the Darkest Dungeon has ever been.
The other thing you will notice, over time, is that the cart changes the shape of the game. Darkest Dungeon 2 is in some ways a Rogue-like. You get a try to see how far you can take your cart. You choose your team in the beginning, at Korsvejen, and if any of them die along the way, then that is it, no replacement – not as far as I have seen at least. And if you all die, it’s back to the beginning again.
The cart also changes how the game progresses from moment to moment. In the old game, you walked along hallways in dungeons and into rooms. Here you drive on roads or tracks, and these are presented as either-or decisions, a bit like the map in Slay the Spire – sorry to use that reference again, but I hope most of you know it. You see the routes and sometimes what you will encounter on them, and then cross by cross you choose where you are going.
Because there is no base, the buildings you trusted before are now stopping on your route. Grocers, healers, character upgrades – you do it all on the go. My favorite are the new Hero Story moments each character has, broken down into mini-chapters, which provide a bit of background story and then unlock a new skill for them (which is permanent and remembered between races). Sometimes there are special scenes like breaking out of prison or leading armies or facing a drunk, violent man. They are intriguing glimpses of who these ruthless fighters once were and you too can fail them and receive no reward.
Another interesting new stop, one you will trust, is the supply stop, where you will be confronted with miserable survivors – The Desperate Few – and choose what you want to do with them. Each of your party members will have an opinion as they will stop at any time and you choose who you want to go with. Maybe you want to be sweet and give money away in return for torch and food, or maybe you want to rob them and put them out of their misery and take everything instead. But taking a stand on one character is usually against another character, and relationships require careful consideration, as in Darkest Dungeon. Leave them dirty and characters will refuse to help each other at crucial moments in battle. Encourage them and they will step in to help each other by performing automatic combinations that can reverse the wave of battle.
But the most important stop is the inn. This is usually a book for a mission. This is where characters rest and do things like using specially collected ‘inn items’ as dartboards to reduce stress and improve relationships between parties, and where they heal and upgrade skills by using hard-earned Mastery points. You can also upgrade your cart to accommodate more or produce other buffs and effects.
I like the cart now. I did not do that when I started. I thought it pulled the action out and made the gaming experience longer than it needed to be. I also thought it was a pig to steer, which I still think – steering it is like playing a sluggish OutRun – but I’ve gotten used to it, and I’ve changed my mind about the car slowing down the game. Now I actually think the opposite. I think it breathes a sense of energy into the game. It creates this feeling that things are always moving, always moving forward. In Darkest Dungeon you went and the difference in pace is really noticeable.
In addition, as a mechanic, the cart clears the game and speeds up the experience of playing, although it takes a while to rumble along the roads. All the busy work in between has disappeared. Whereas before you spent a lot of time managing and carefully considering who to take on a mission – based on who was good enough, whether they were high enough, and then find out if you had enough money for torches and food – now you just go.
There is no list. You have a selection of characters that are gradually expanding and that’s all you need to think about. They will be there again when you try again. Torches are nothing more. Torchlight is – you have it on your cart, and if it is dimmed, the game gets harder – but you just fill it up on Supply routes. The food now does not disturb so much either. You do not have to eat while traveling, I do not think, only at inns. This means that you do not lose health if you travel without food. In fact, you get some health when you travel instead, which is hugely helpful. Stress has also been simplified. There are no numbers, only points on a meter.
All of this makes Darkest Dungeon 2 much more of a “one more go” game because nothing piles up between attempts. There is no need to get bogged down in a complicated hidden game. You wipe the board clean each time and try again.
That does not mean that Darkest Dungeon 2 is easier. The punitive and defining difficulty is still there. There is still a warning at the beginning of the game to prepare you for it, for the inevitability of dying again and again before you experience anything like meaningful progress. And yes, it turns out. I have completed about two missions in several hours and I have run away from more battles than I have sought. It is frustrating.
But if you can find yourself at ease in the game’s relentless, this is where you’ll find the magic. This is not a game about being heroic, it’s a game about surviving and scraping through. It’s a game about learning to value every advantage and not to be sloppy or overconfident in your approach. And when you start appreciating it, you start appreciating it. And you begin to look beyond the bigger and better – the more glamorous artwork, the more advanced animations, the cinematic flair – into a game that seems to have trimmed an already strong concept into something slimmer and potentially even malicious than before.