OPINION | GAME ON: ‘Darkest Dungeon 2’ returns players to the inviting embrace of madness and despair

"Darkest Dungeon" is a challenging gothic roguelike RPG about the psychological stresses of adventuring. (Photo courtesy of Red Hook Studios Inc.)
"Darkest Dungeon" is a challenging gothic roguelike RPG about the psychological stresses of adventuring. (Photo courtesy of Red Hook Studios Inc.)

Darkest Dungeon 2 is a Gothic, turn-based roguelike RPG which builds on the many successes of its predecessor, while also making significant changes to gameplay and game design.

What returning players will notice first is the return of the Narrator, brought to life by the gravelly, gritty voice of Wayne June, who delivers a plethora of Lovecraftian and wonderfully melodramatic lines about cosmic horrors and personal failures.

The first Darkest Dungeon was more of a pure dungeon crawler, as the hero characters delved into dungeons beneath The Estate and faced stress-inducing horrors. Characters would level up, gain better armor and weapons, and rest between battles. In the sequel, we find that the horrors faced were but a fragment, and now the whole world is engulfed in darkness, despair and madness.

Now, our band of unlikely heroes is on a journey, but the horrors have grown. From slithering tentacles and vile animals to the rotting undead, every location is a smorgasbord of the abhorrent. Enemies range from the murderous (pillagers and bandits) to the cosmic (eldritch beings of evil, beyond human comprehension).

The Narrator has charged the player, his protégé from university, with taking a torch filled with the last Hope of the world, and accompanied by the four heroes (or anti-heroes, based on their backgrounds) on a perilous journey to a distant mountain, where the source of this world-ending evil resides.

It's like someone has opened a thesaurus and brought to life every possible word for describing awfulness. What disgusting visages await? Ones filled with rot, disease, misery, dread, panic, chaos, morbidness, death, despair and more. In fact you'll likely learn a lot of new words for gross things, like "fetor" (or as the game spells it, "foetor"), which means a strong, foul smell. That's the name for a plague-ridden region players must travel through to fight the boss of the region, a grotesque messiah called the Harvest Child – a tentacled, mutated human now pampered with gifts of rancid meat.

The core gameplay loop of "Darkest Dungeon 2" is familiar, but also has changed dramatically. We still have our same hero characters – 12 in total – such as the Plague Doctor, The Highwayman, The Jester and The Leper. Each starts with five skills (with 6 more able to be unlocked) and the player picks four to go on the journey to the mountain. Most runs, especially the early runs, will meet disaster, but no run is wasted, as the journey will unlock Candles of Hope, which are used as a currency for permanent progression. The Candles will unlock the seven heroes beyond the initial four, as well as give permanent bonuses, unlock items for future playthroughs and upgrade the Stagecoach used in the journey.

Through a series of Hero Shrines, used to unlock new skills, we also get to delve for the first time into the backstory of these allies, all of whom were shaped by tragic backgrounds. The Leper, for example, was once a noble king, but his refusal to abandon the sick and diseased led to his own destruction and he lost his crown.

The Stagecoach travels from inn to inn, crossing a series of devastated regions such as The Valley (always the first region) and depending on what "Confession" is active, a number of other regions, before tackling the final boss at The Mountain.

At first, "Darkest Dungeon 2" seems almost like a game of roulette, as much is determined by random rolls of the dice, such as trinkets that will activate combat boons at the start turns, but only 5% or 10% of the time. There are a lot of powers and abilities to keep track of, with a token system showing positive and negative status effects to gain and exploit.

The randomness ensures that no two runs will be identical. You can pick the same four heroes, and activate the same skills for each, but the trinkets and items they gain randomly, the relationship they build with the others, and the quirks they develop will shift optimal gameplay.

Eventually, with enough failed runs, your chosen heroes will have unlocked enough of their class skills and other upgrades with Candles of Hope to start really progressing through the game, with each chapter (called Confessions) getting longer and more challenging. I'd estimate something like 60 to 80 hours to beat the final boss for the first time -- and because of how many possible permutations of party and tactics there are, an unlimited amount of gameplay after that.

"Darkest Dungeon 2" is currently only available for computers, but will eventually land a release on Nintendo, PlayStation and Microsoft consoles.

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Title: 'Darkest Dungeon 2

Platform: PC

Cost: $39.99

Rating: Teen for blood, gore, strong themes

Score: 10 out of 10

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