As I began writing the review for Darkest Dungeon II, I desperately tried to remember the events that led me to delve into Darkest Dungeon only to be left completely vacant. It seems fitting for a game about hapless adventurers struggling against the cruelty of a maddening dungeon—it hooked its tendrils in me and made my mind a void, its origin a complete mystery. Perhaps it was recommended to me by my friend and former colleague Brendan Quinn, who usually brought such terrible oddities before me. He was, after all, the one who first fostered my love of Bloodborne.
When I first saw the announcement for Darkest Dungeon II, I expected a familiar albeit improved trek through familiar, terrible territory. However, unlike most good sequels that build upon an established foundation, Red Hook Studios saw fit to completely revamp its flagship title for a more accessible, yet consistently punishing experience. What results is a game that keeps everything that was good about its predecessor, and morphs it into something fresh, exciting, and profoundly cruel—and I mean that as the highest compliment.
The plot of Darkest Dungeon II is more or less the same as the first, with some minor changes. Rather than a group of adventurers venturing into the titular dungeon in order to seal its horror from the world, Darkest Dungeon II sees its adventuring party travelling to a new Darkest Dungeon in a world driven mad by its influence—carrying the last light of Hope to the heart of the dungeon to restore order to the world. It’s an interesting reinvention of the Darkest Dungeon story, staying connected to the series’ familiar lore, but deviating just enough to keep it interesting. But the game’s narrative needs to provide an impetus for the gameplay—as the nature of the Darkest Dungeon being shrouded in mystery works in the game’s favour.
Darkest Dungeon II’s gameplay is an interesting evolution of its predecessor—being both improved and starkly different. I’ve seen it described as a “road trip from Hell,” and honestly, it’s an apt description. Players begin each quest in a stagecoach, choosing an adventuring team and venturing into the dangerous frontier. Taking some cues from The Oregon Trail, every leg of the journey consists of branching paths that may lead to treasure or certain doom.
“Darkest Dungeon II’s gameplay is an interesting evolution of its predecessor—being both improved and starkly different.”
Unlike the previous Darkest Dungeon, this game is much more fast-paced and forward-moving, adopting more roguelike elements. Gone is the methodical preparation before heading into each dungeon, which I definitely think added to the terrible charm of the original, but I liked how Darkest Dungeon II constantly kept moving and never lost its sense of dread with each attempt.
This can be seen mostly in the Candles players are rewarded with for completing certain objectives, gifted through encounters, or gained after a successful (or unsuccessful) run. These are the only items that carry over and can be spent to unlock equippable trinkets or items at the beginning of the journey. They can also be used to unlock new characters or bolster existing ones. But any gear or items you acquire during your journey will be gone if you fail, which I think alleviates some of the tension of managing your finances and makes each run feel uniquely dangerous.
Combat remains largely the same, and honestly, why fix what isn’t broken? Darkest Dungeon II’s combat is as harrowing as ever as players not only need to fight through hordes of horrendous abominations but endure the game’s Stress mechanic—wherein characters’ mental states can deteriorate during particularly dreadful battles, leading them to breakdown, become distrustful, or lose hope entirely. It’s an incredibly tense balancing act that still feels like the best example of turn-based survival horror.
“…I found myself really enjoying Darkest Dungeon II’s uniquely fun reinvention of itself.”
Where Darkest Dungeon II really stands out is in its audio/visual design. I always liked the grim, 90s comic style of the original, and this game cranks that vision up to 11, maintaining its distinct look but adding much more in the way of dynamism and animation. Every character and enemy has a unique animation when you cue up attacks—though the attacks themselves still play out in a single frame, which I think is a nice homage to the original. The environments are vibrant and really capture the atmosphere of beautiful bleakness.
The music is much more intense and bombastic this time around, with punctuates the faster, more action-focused nature of the gameplay. It feels much more Victorian with booming drums and sombre violin reminding me a lot of Bloodborne’s soundtrack in a lot of ways. The series’ narrator also returns, adding a lot of life (ironically) and gravitas to every moment.
While I’ll always have a soft spot for the original’s style, I found myself really enjoying Darkest Dungeon II’s uniquely fun reinvention of itself. It’s a big change, but it maintains everything that was great about the original and forges something that both elevates and differentiates. I think if you loved the original, you’ll definitely find something to love here.