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There’s a unique sort of hellishness that sets in when a road trip starts to go wrong; that feeling when you’re officially Too Far Already To Go Back, yet Too Far From Where You’re Going for the next several hours not to feel like an exercise in discomfort, boredom, and increasingly snippy interpersonal reactions.
Games have been trafficking in those “stop messing with the radio, for the love of Christ,” tensions for nearly 40 years at this point, dating back to that original Road Trip From Hell simulator, MECC’s classic The Oregon Trail. The genre got an unexpected update/descent into the darkness last week, though, when Red Hook Studios released the early access version of its much-anticipated strategy-horror sequel, Darkest Dungeon II.
The original Darkest Dungeon became a massive hit over the last few years as a consequence of a variety of factors: Its distinctive art style, its brutal-but-breakable combat system, and a pervasive sense of dread embodied in the sonorous, Lovecraftian proclamations of narrator Wayne June. Its sequel manages to retain each of these winning elements—while also completely upending the game’s core structure, transforming it from a steady exploration of the darkness lurking beneath a ruined estate into a wild dash across an increasingly eldritch countryside.
It is, if nothing else, an interesting exercise in trying to give fans what they want, without simply plopping a ladle full of “more of the same” onto their plates. Instead of a distant landlord recruiting disposable parties of heroes to go clear out the literal skeletons in their closet, players now embody a scholar who recruits a more stable team of good guys to guard their stagecoach, as they attempt to transport a torch of “Hope” from relative safety to a distant mountain from which a world-ending catastrophe is emanating. Rather than throw your troops into the meat grinder, you most now nurture and cultivate a squad of four through long drives across the countryside—at least until they all die, forcing a restart with a new crew and some long-term meta-progress. The overall tone, then, is far more upbeat, if only by comparison to the deeply nihilistic original game.
Red Hook’s goal, presumably, is to create a Darkest Dungeon experience that caters to people who were intimidated or put off by the original game’s sprawling array of choices, which could induce serious decision paralysis in players out of sync with the game’s basic “It’s okay if your party dies, you’ve got reserves” mentality. Adopting trends from modern Roguelike games, DDII narrows that field considerably, asking players to make a few big choices—your route, your initial party composition, a handful of meaningful upgrade options—rather than inundating them with a series of smaller decision points. The end result is far more accessible, if also lacking the unique, mercenary cruelty of the original’s desperate holding action against the dark.
Instead, Darkest Dungeon II opts for the rising tension of the road trip narrative, as dwindling resources—including your party members’ patience for each other—drain out of the hole in the bucket with each new encounter. The new Affinity mechanic, which tracks the bonds or rivalries between your crew, is front and center here; nothing can ruin a run of DDII faster than having a healer who’s come to hate your front-line fighter’s guts so much that they periodically refuse to toss them a potion. (Although love can be just as much of a problem, if your fragile Plague Doctor is constantly throwing herself in front of the burly Man-At-Arms to shield their lover from “harm.”)
At its most compelling, Darkest Dungeon II captures that key feeling of barely keeping your head above water, scoring just enough advantages to keep your party members alive and away from each other’s throats. In practice, though, that balance still needs considerable work. (The game is in early access, after all.) Weirdly, the “die, then start over” approach is a major culprit here; the fact that any bad decision can be undone by simply starting a new run alleviates many of the more interestingly nasty consequences that ran through the original. (Contrast with The Banner Saga, another road-trip-of-the-apocalypse game, where you’re simply stuck with your bad decisions for the entirety of its multi-hour trilogy.)
The worst thing you can say about Darkest Dungeon II is that it feels a lot more like a normal video game than its predecessor, a game so uniquely hostile (at least, on initial appearance) that it helped kick off a new sub-genre of strategy RPGs. Red Hook’s developers have talked about trying to chart a (slightly) more optimistic course with this game; let’s hope they hold on to the idea that every road trip, at its core, can feel like a desperate descent into hell.