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Darkest Dungeon 2 early access review: a bumpy start

Earliest excess

I hope you like animosity. Darkest Dungeon 2 will eat your eyes and call you selfish for wanting them back. The ferocity with which it treats its players shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who clawed their way through the crypts of the first Darkest Dungeon, a turn-based homage to Lovecraft and slow-acting poison. It especially won’t surprise anyone who bled their way through the early access version of that game, either. A lot of the difficulty and madness in the sequel comes not from the dangerous creatures along its roguelike turnpike, but from the roughly shorn design of a road trip yet to be completed. This is a faithfully despondent, sometimes frustrating journey of attrition, decay and distrust. A journey you should maybe put off until the wobblesome wagon has all its wheels tightened.

You’re a band of dodgy adventurers, tossed around inside a stagecoach as it travels across a scrolling landscape, the visual manifestation of Slay The Spire’s forks and encounter nodes. Your goal: a distant mountain where a final boss lies in wait. When you cross paths with enemies, Dark Dungeoneers will recognise the battle formation. Four desperate fighters stacked against various horrors. There will be mace slams, pistol shots, throwing daggers, fire bombs, bleed-inducing throat slices. And that’s just the good guys. Your brawlers contend with gruesome beasts, blight, blindness, horror, and full-on nervous breakdowns. Then it’s back on the road to trundle to the next node as a flickering flame slowly dies.

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That flame is given a number and grandly called “Hope”. If it’s burning bright, your team will get bonuses in battles. If it’s dim, the enemy gets buffs. If it sputters out completely, oh no, you'll have to face a bunch of monstrofied cultists. These fiends can be beaten to restore a little flame, but it’s a harsh battle. Even if you triumph, your characters will emerge so distraught and battered that they often succumb to the next ambush. You’ll die a lot on these cobblestones.

And that’s actually okay. A full team wipe is not as devastating as in the original Dim Dankhole, which often felt like a non-recoverable failure of XCOM proportions. Here, the sequel has veered confidently into roguelike country. Death of all characters results in an immediate game over, and you simply start at the bottom of the road again, having unlocked new trinkets or items to stumble across. Along the road you'll rattle upon shrines where you unlock permanent skills for each character (more on this box of scorpions later). You also unlock new characters as you slowly increase a flaming meter between runs.

A battle scene in Darkest Dungeon 2

It’s shaping up to be a game of death, struggle and gradual improvement. There is less at stake when your Dungeonlings die. That might disappoint ironman zealots. But it'll please those like myself who never actually completed the original Dampest Downplace, thanks to repeated critical failures or bad saves.

The freshest thing on this wagon of dead meat, however, is the relationship system. Your fighters can now form bonds. If your beefy, shield-wielding Man-at-Arms plays darts with your grouchy berserker at an inn, or if she says the right things to him at a refugee camp, they might form a relationship. "Amorous" or "Respectful" or "Inseparable" - these are all types of positive bonds that give random healing or protection bonuses in battle. If the Hellion is in love, she will sometimes throw herself in harm's way to take a hit for her beloved beef boy.

One character defends another in Darkest Dungeon 2
A “Tumultuous” relationship will form between Mr. Beeftank and the Highwayman, resulting in mid-battle snark that halves the gunman's attack power through the sheer power of negative vibes man.

But, ah, that is far too chummy for Drabbest Depression. Your band of petty belligerents is more likely to form negative bonds, which have greater consequences. Your Grave Robber will become “Resentful” and scold the Plague Doctor for trying to cure people, blocking heals. A “Tumultuous” relationship will form between Mr. Beeftank and the Highwayman, resulting in mid-battle snark that halves the gunman's attack power through the sheer power of negative vibes man. Bad relationships criss-cross and stack up, resulting in a quarrelsome posse of misadventurers who make every battle so much harder than it ought to be. It's an extra layer of attrition and troublemaking, and fits perfectly with Bothersome Basement's tone and traditions.

It's also a bit of a mess.

For starters, it's hard to establish a good relationship and very easy to dive nose-first into a bad one (sadly accurate). Secondly, attitudes during fights are prickly. Some characters will get annoyed at others for stealing kills, or complain when a healer chooses to cure another over them. It's impossible to know how each person will react emotionally to any given action. Little relationship barks also constantly interrupt the fight. This lack of control over interpersonal slights can feel frustrating, the dark gods of RNG presiding over personalities as well as hit counters. It might be what the designers are going for (they did want to recreate an accursed road trip) but the grievance-o-meter could be dialled down and...

Characters gather round a campfire in Darkest Dungeon 2

Oh look, it has been. This is early access. Developers Red Hook Studios seem to know the relationship system is gripes akimbo, and have already nerfed the grumpiness of characters a noticeable amount. I completed my first run last night, and I can only attribute my victory to the fact my adventurers were no longer sniping at one another so much.

But that victory also revealed there is only one of five chapters available right now. I expect updates will bring new enemies, areas, and bosses. The first chapter is called "Denial", so I'm guessing we'll see the other stages of grief. Right now though, the only reason for me to play on would be to unlock the returning characters of the Leper and the Occultist. Thanks to the shimmering polish of its art style and general soundness of form, Darkest Dungeon 2 has the curse of appearing more finished than it actually is.

Two characters gain the Resentful trait in Darkest Dungeon 2

It is staggering in the right direction, though. The best elements return. There are emotional breakdowns if your characters take on too much stress (a meter of white pips). A meltdown slashes their health to almost nothing and gives them a quirk. Maybe they will develop haemophilia and be extra vulnerable to bleeding attacks. Maybe they'll get a sprained wrist and do less damage. Maybe they will get The Runs (you do not want The Runs).

Meltdowns also worsen relationships. In the ruthless world of Brutal Bickering, your cohorts will always think less of you for having a nervous breakdown. A grim representation of how society views mental anguish (there is no relationship based on "Pity"). Your fighters will lose their amorous relationships, essentially breaking up in the midst of a zombie attack. Those random body-blocks will stop. Horror will set in, another character will have a meltdown and lose nearly all their health. The spiral begins. Trying to avoid a failure cascade is still a big part of the charm and challenge of this sequel. For most of my playthroughs it has felt slightly too punishing. But your horse-drawn mileage may vary.

The torch of hope goes out during battle in Darkest Dungeon 2

Speaking of horses, did you know you actually drive the stagecoach? There's basically a cart-steering minigame between encounter nodes. You slam into crates like a grim Crash Bandicoot to collect currency, or salves to use in battle. At first, this felt like superfluous fluff, the handling of the cart slow and unwieldy. But I came to like the tension of watching stress accumulate among the travellers, picking roads based on the votes of my team, and wondering if their health bars would regenerate enough for the next fi-- oh god, there's a barricade. Blades out, everyone.

If Darkest Dungeon 2 has one big failing, it's the story-based encounters at shrines. These are designed to flesh out each character's backstory, but also where you permanently unlock new skills. They're hugely valuable stops. Sadly, some involve special encounters where the turn-based tactics of a normal fight get repurposed as combat puzzles, featuring the prison wardens or professors of a character's past. The worst of these feel like long-winded Pokémon battles, an annoying blockade to advancing up a skill-tree. Some are forced failures, others deny you a new skill if you fail. One particularly dull, 33-round encounter saw me hiding from a nun, simply swapping positions over and over. These are likely here to add novelty, but I found them a real chore, breaking the consistency of combat rules established elsewhere in the game.

A stagecoach trundles down a road in Darkest Dungeon 2

Ultimately, however, I cannot knock the direction. I especially like the relationship system, even if it needs further fine-tuning. It continues the tradition of the original Hurtiest Hellhole in which one character will become both a total necessity and complete asshole liability. Except now a character can be such a liability, so hated by the others, that you will actually try to have them killed so they can be replaced by a new character at the next Inn. (Sorry, Doc.)

In the transferral to true roguelike, Darkest Dungeon 2 has got a little lost in the woods. But from what I've glimpsed through the trees, it'll be a handsome coach when it finally arrives, done and dusky. I'll happily hop aboard then.

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