Darkest Dungeon II Review – Highway to Hell

2016’s Darkest Dungeon still stands up as one of the greatest strategy combat games. Its Gothic aesthetic, intricate combat and ridiculous level of depth combined to make an experience that is as unforgettable as it is uncompromising. Recently, the complete Black Reliquary fan mod was released on Steam to add even more content to the original too. That being said, it is seven years since Red Hook’s debut title and masochistic players are ready for some more hurting. The sequel, imaginatively titled Darkest Dungeon II, has been in early access for a few months but is now finally fully released. I pulled on my Gothic coat, closed the curtains, and prepared myself for a whole new world of pain. As this review will explain, I certainly got that but not necessarily for the reasons I expected.

The story of Darkest Dungeon II is a continuation from the original. The evil corruption you fought there is revealed to be just one example of a much wider malaise. To combat this, you must abandon the Hamlet base that formed the headquarters for your first adventure and set forth on a stagecoach. Travelling through harsh and unforgiving lands in order to reach the Mountain from whence the evil came, you and your party of chosen warriors must rely on your wits, your blades, and the sacred flame that protects you from becoming lost to the madness.

Graphically, DD II is an upgrade to the flat visuals of the original – although some will prefer the more classic style. The heavy pen lines and florid Gothicisms are maintained but everything now has more depth with a third-person perspective for exploration and 3d models in the combat screens. The artistry is again top-notch with character designs really standing out and enemies ranging from the humanoid to the eldritch. Some more powerful enemies take up their whole side of the screen, whilst other encounters involve fiendish combinations of foes with a range of buffs and different attacks.

As mentioned above, the static base of the original has been replaced by the stagecoach through which you explore the game. Rather than an open world, though, this coach follows predetermined roads with only minimal direction on your part. These roads are laid out in classic roguelike fashion with turns to make with different dangers or rewards. The feel here is very reminiscent of oldschool adventure game books as you often have to weigh up the risks and rewards with very little information. Certain skills and items can help you to scout ahead and learn what you might face, however, and occasionally a watchtower will be found that reveals the whole map. As with everything here, though, you are at the mercy of the RNG as to whether this happens.

Travelling the map is the most noticeable change and it is fine, but personally I preferred the more board game like traversal of the original and found the stagecoach controlling to be repetitive and frankly quite annoying. The real meat of the game, though, is the party management and combat, and these are more direct continuations of the original. Gone are the random recruits and multiple parties – instead of managing a group of adventurers you choose four party members from the list that you unlock as you progress and play as them until you die or succeed. This means that you don’t really get attached to characters and renders them all somewhat disposable. On the one hand this is sensible as it was never a good idea to get too attached to any character in the original but it does have the unintended consequence of removing the sense of overall progress and development.

As you make your way through the dangerous environment you will be rewarded with Candles of Hope. These will be awarded for success in combat, dialogue choices in random encounters, escorting the corpse of a fallen team member to the nearest inn and for fulfilling various character specific quests and missions. These candles can be spent in the Altar of Hope that serves as the main menu to unlock everything from new characters and items to stagecoach upgrades and character improvements. This does mean that you can customise the experience to some degree but the end result is that you have to grind a lot to make real progress and even then the unlocks are subject to RNG so you may spend all your hard earned Candles on items that you won’t want to use.

The range of characters is good, with many familiar faces returning and some new ones too. You begin with the tanky Man-at-Arms, the damaging Grave Robber, the rogueish Highwayman, and the poisonous Plague Doctor. This group will be your makeup for the first few runs as you build up enough Candles to unlock alternatives but they are actually capable of taking you through a successful run with the right upgrades and luck. I enjoyed using the Leper as my frontline damage machine but that character’s overpowered attack is balanced out by a tendency to suffer the blind ailment which lowers their hit rate considerably. Finding the right team build for your playstyle is where much of the strategy comes in and there is a remarkable level of complexity here that is sure to keep you playing for many hours if it grabs you.

Darkest Dungeon II is to be applauded for not resting on its laurels, instead opting to make significant changes from its predecessor. The style, challenge, and strategic brilliance remain and that is enough to make it stand out still. However, the focus on roguelike randomness and excessive grind does make this a very different experience and one that didn’t gel for me. If you have the patience to explore the rich detail of the mechanics and the stoicism to deal with the inevitable deaths and disappointments then this is a journey worth taking. Just don’t expect it to be a comfortable ride.
  • Same Gothic aesthetic
  • Incredible depth and complexity
  • Real sense of euphoria when things come together
  • Stagecoach traversal frustrating and dull
  • Huge amount of grind to unlock things
  • So much outside of your control
Written by
Just your average old gamer with a doctorate in Renaissance literature. I can mostly be found playing RPGs, horror games, and oodles of indie titles. Just don't ask me to play a driving game.