Review: Darkest Dungeon 2 challenges you to keep your sanity in check

darkest dungeon 2, dark fantasy

If there was ever a game that lived and died by the proverb “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, it would definitely be Red Hook StudiosDarkest Dungeon 2. Sequel to one of the most anxiety-inducing turn-based dark fantasy RPGs ever, it’s quite literal in how it follows that road, by having you and your band of heroes ride along in a stagecoach as you explore the dark depths in search of salvation for the world and for your own sins.

That opening paragraph probably sounds like the opening of a goth band’s latest single, but it serves the purpose of setting the overall mood of Darkest Dungeon 2; it’s quite easily one of the most depressing worlds I’ve yet to encounter in a game, and playing it has been an exercise in keeping positive while the entire world of the game is constantly attempting to drive my efforts down.

The original Darkest Dungeon was something that I tried to avoid playing, having heard the emergent gameplay stories from many podcasts where the hosts described their absolute dread in trying to make progress in it, where even their characters eventually suffered from all sorts of mental illnesses, which eventually led them to their doom. It’s the sort of gaming experience that on one hand, I admire those that can stomach it, but knowing my own personal limits, I try not to engage with such.

In my mind, that game always sounded like the ultimate tabletop RPG campaign, one that really set the mood by being incredibly oppressive and not at all open to being an uplifting experience, even during a victory. And now, having played a fair bit of the sequel, that’s certainly the case, even more so because it truly feels like I’m playing through a campaign where the dungeon master’s rules are in constant shift, and there’s not a lick of empathy from anyone participating, even my own teammates.

darkest dungeon 2, dark fantasy
This is me on a good day of Darkest Dungeon 2.

While that from the outset might sound like a big knock against Darkest Dungeon 2, it’s not one in the slightest. I knew what I was getting into when I started it, and having spent a few hours dredging through its handful of opening-to-mid game scenarios, it’s proving to be a fairly unique game playing experience. There’s just so much to it in terms of systems at play and possibilities to be had that there are times where I truly feel like I’m sitting in on a D&D session over at my brother’s best friend’s place, like I did once as a kid. It isn’t easy being a role-player under the gaze of a much more experienced, not to mention older crowd.

That’s made Darkest Dungeon 2 right away feel like the sort of game one has to be in the right state of mind and emotionally before embarking on a new run since there isn’t a steady stream of positive reinforcement even during a victory. When that’s the case, in the game’s world you’re merely delaying the inevitable doom. It’s a constant feeling of being on the brink of utter defeat even when we win that works both against and in Darkest Dungeon 2’s favor at all times.

darkest dungeon 2, dark fantasy
Sometimes it’s hard to tell heroes from enemies…

And that’s not to say that the game isn’t entertaining, but it is so in a whole different way that you might be used to seeing in videogames. It is no exaggeration to say that this one is in a league of its own when it comes to that since there is no sense of positive reinforcement that even a very dark game like Bloodborne has, especially when you conquer a difficult victory over a boss, for instance. There are no big bold letters that pop on screen whenever you get through a fight in this game. You just merely keep going.

That progression is definitely made easier to handle the further you get down into Darkest Dungeon 2. You can unlock permanent upgrades to many of the game’s systems when it comes to character development and the vehicle that they drive to and from each dark dwelling they have the most unfortunate job of exploring. The inns are the closest thing to safe havens that there are while out and adventuring, and it’s where these upgrades are activated.

By spending candles that you acquire during your travels, you can improve on a number of elements tied to your characters’ equipment, the stagecoach, and of course, the new types of heroes you can bring along for the ride. There’s a whole slew of them and they take a long while to unlock, along with other permanent upgrades that are instantly accessible in your current ride through the depths, as well as future ones in case you either decide to stop and start over, or are forced to do so when your entire party is wiped out.

darkest dungeon 2, dark fantasy
The stagecoach takes you through the depths and back to the relative safety of the inn.

Speaking of your party, that’s another aspect of Darkest Dungeon 2 that is worth delving into. Each one of your heroes has their traits, much like any RPG, but along with those are also personality quirks, vices, and even issues that might prevent them from being useful in a group setting. And these often pop up at the worst possible times, as they grow stressed with the absolute horrors that they face along the dark path that they thread throughout the game.

It’s a brilliantly conceived system where relationships between your party members matter well beyond serving as a means of delivering cheesy romantic cutscenes, but actually significantly influence the pacing and overall difficulty of your adventure. That’s even more true considering the number of decisions you have to make during your travels whenever you approach any of the many quandaries that take shape in the form of a selection of options brought to you by your heroes, each with their own pros and cons that involve the entire group. They might even result in a member of your band simply leaving altogether.

There’s a lot to keep track of within Darkest Dungeon 2, so much so that it does indeed feel like a tabletop experience wherein the one in control is doing a tremendous job in keeping those playing along enthralled in the world they conceived. That world is pitch black and absolutely dreadful, and it gives no promise of delivering any form of satisfaction, but there’s still a sense of accomplishment somehow, of faith and hope, something that only the human mind can produce while facing the worst of circumstances.

Sure, that’s probably putting too much onto a product made with entertainment in mind, but it’s the feeling that I come out of playing this and it’s lingering still, tempting me to come back and keep going. Whether that will happen will depend on how much I have on my gaming plate moving on; safe to say that I’ll be keeping Darkest Dungeon 2 around when such an opportunity presents itself and I’m in the mood for what it has to offer.   

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