Darkest Dungeon II – Successfully Evolving a Game Series

Darkest Dungeon is seen by many as a masterpiece, a truly incredible game, and I 100% agree. This puts Darkest Dungeon II in a really tough position though because it’s basically impossible to create a sequel that doesn’t disappoint.

Now, they could have just created some new areas, new classes, given the heroes some new abilities, made a few other tweaks and upgraded the graphics, then called it a sequel, and this would have been fine, if not a little underwhelming.

But they didn’t do that, the creators did something more ambitious, they revamped the entire series, actively making an entirely new experience that still taps into the core of what makes Darkest Dungeon amazing. A feat that is more than commendable. This means that it’s hard to outwardly say if the sequel is better or not, because that decision is largely preference-based. Which game you like better will be decided by what you are looking for in a Darkest Dungeon game.

Darkest Dungeon II is just a different game, and interestingly, this new style means that the original isn’t obsolete. If I want to play the Darkest Dungeon series, I might play the original, or I might play the sequel depending on my mood.

So, I’m going to go over what Darkest Dungeon has introduced, noting the differences and detailing how this affects the gameplay and the experience. And I’ll talk about what I think works and doesn’t work, but ultimately, it’s up to you to decide whether you prefer the gameplay choices and mechanics of the original or the sequel.

Also this article exists in video form, which you can check out if you prefer the audio visual format.

 

The Change in Progression

The biggest and most significant change is in the progression system. No longer is there a hub area that you upgrade over time. The original had a pretty classic Dungeons & Dragons approach where much of the game was about going into the various dungeons, extracting loot, acquiring tokens to upgrade your town and giving your heroes experience so they could level up and become stronger. All of this is completely gone.

Now, the entire game is set on a stage coach, and your band of heroes are driving the stage coach towards a mountain, with your end goal being to defeat a big boss at the end of the mountain’. After succeeding or failing each run, you get a bunch of points, which upgrade your profile level. As your profile level increases, you get access to new heroes and new items.

And access to new and stronger stuff is what makes you better equipped for each run because your characters are always the same strength at the start of each run, and you never get to start runs with extra bonuses. You’re only more likely to get stronger items from the random starting loot.

So, I think this is a good change, but there are a couple of reasons you might not like it because the sense of progression ingrained in the original can be incredibly satisfying. Upgrading your town, making super soldiers, getting new abilities and access to new areas or items can ultimately be where some people derive their enjoyment, and these elements have largely been revoked. On top of this, some of the upgrades allowed for greater optionality and autonomy over choices, both of which have been stripped away.

However, the game in general has stripped quite a lot back in an attempt to streamline the game to focus on the actual runs and core gameplay. One of the biggest detractors, I felt, of the original is that every run was waylaid by 5-10 minutes of random admin you sort of needed to do in town.

Checking the stage coach for any possible new heroes to recruit, making sure you were putting your stressed heroes into the tavern and church, upgrading the new unlocked abilities, etc., often I’d just want to do runs, and I wouldn’t want to spend time doing this admin. So, if you were only tangentially interested in the town upgrading and roster management elements and just wanted to do fun dungeon crawls, then you were putting yourself at a disadvantage. So, if you don’t care about that stuff, then it’s really good that it’s gone. On the flip side, if you cared about that stuff a lot, then the game is going to feel a little empty.

 

The Focus Is on Runs

This new progression has also switched the ultimate goals of runs. Where before so much of the focus was about getting money, badges, tokens or whatever, things that help you upgrade your town. This time, instead of focusing on each run individually and trying to succeed as best as possible, it was about grabbing as many resources as possible for the bigger picture. This could mean you were putting aside your immediate enjoyment or the maximum possible enjoyment for each run in the name of constantly giving to the greater cause.

For some this balancing act and decision-making is the point of the game and what is fun about the Darkest Dungeon series. And I agree to a certain degree. Like, do you choose to go risky and dump some torches in exchange for more tokens and gamble that you’ll be able to deal with the harder battles going forward? And dealing with the consequences, whether positive or negative, can be thrilling.

Meanwhile, Darkest Dungeon II massively front ends runs and the gameplay, every run is just about completing it, and there’s not really a larger framework you’re improving or working towards.

Not only is there not the town admin you need to do, you also don’t have to pick the items you need for each run like in the original. This is something that, for many people, is confusing at first and a massive hurdle for get into the game. Knowing what you need makes the game overwhelming, and I honestly still use Darkest Companion to tell me what I should bring.

So, I like the fact that getting into runs is much more fluid and overall easier, but I can see how removing this can be a bummer for some people.

 

What Do the Runs Look Like?

So, let’s quickly talk about what runs look like as it’s quite different. The days of going to this menu and choosing between ruins or warrens, a medium dungeon, or a long dungeon, all that stuff is gone.

Each run is you on your stagecoach, trying to make it to a mountain to kill a boss. During the course of this run, you’ll go through roughly 4 dungeon-esque things, stopping at inns along the way to replenish health, reduce stress and acquire more resources.

Each one of these de facto dungeons takes 45 minutes to over an hour to go through, meaning a successful run is around 3-5 hours, which is obviously much longer than in the original by a lot; a choice that is a necessity for the game’s new mechanics. It wouldn’t make sense to have the old short, medium and long dungeon system. However, whether you like this more or less is certainly going to be a personal decision.

The main thing to note here is that they are really trying to make gameplay more prominent because even though it’s 4-5 times longer to do a single run, you probably only do around 10 minutes of administration during all of that.

The admin you do is at these pit stops called inns, where you can buy new items, improve heroes’ skills, restore health and relieve stress, all of which is pretty quick, intuitive and is basically a much more fleshed out version of the original rest system. Also, the hero rest abilities are removed and replaced by items, which I personally prefer.

The paths in the dungeons are also quite different in that they are all linear, which leads to less backtracking and a greater sense of forward propulsion. These paths have a few different choices you can make when traveling. The map is also usually more filled out, meaning you have a much better understanding of choice when making your way through a dungeon.

If you like agency and choice, you’ll like the sequel better, and if you like brutal randomness, then you’ll prefer the original, and that’s basically a true statement for the games as a whole.

This choice is also apparent when going to a location because different characters will offer their opinion on what should be done, and you can choose what to do. For example, you can choose to fight some enemies or run away. This also applies when picking paths, the characters will share their preference, and picking their preference can relieve stress, while picking another option can add stress.

You also control the carriage, which is pretty janky and not fluid, but you do have a mini-game added in where you can run into piles of stuff, which will sometimes get items. I think this is a little more engaging than the walking portion of the original but either way is pretty boring.

Lastly, the different locations are a little limited, and the areas are pretty samey, but overall, there’s less stylistic diversity than the original. However, I think this just may be due to the game being in early access, so I don’t want to be too disparaging.

All in all, I’d say I like the new system more because it feels like you have more control, the choices you make have more impact, and in general, you are doing more things more often, which I like.

 

The Various Changes to the Characters

Let’s move onto the characters as they have been massively revamped. No longer are you recruiting individual people who will be a certain class with a collection of traits, and you build them up over time, no. Rather, each class exists, and for every run you are given access to a new, fresh and random version of that class.

At the beginning of the run, you’ll pick 4 heroes you want to start the run with, and then they’ll be given some traits, and you’ll be off. And I say start because no longer are you just trying to complete the dungeon with your 4 people. Rather, when characters die, they will be replaced by random new characters from the classes you have remaining when you get to the next inn. For example, my jester died, so when I got to the new inn, the game gave me a grave robber.

This is a double-edged sword because I no longer have favourite characters or particular heroes I love using, have invested a lot of time and resources into and want to survive. I mean, this exists a little because I prefer using some classes more than others, but in general, I have less of a connection to the people I’m using.

On the other hand, losing a hero isn’t as brutally painful, and accepting death and dealing with failure is a) much easier to do and b) much more common, which I think better encapsulates the spirit of the game. I would say I miss the old system, but I think there’s merit to the new one, and I don’t mind it.

The characters have also gotten some fun new upgrades as each character now has 10 abilities rather than just 6. This expansion of their possible arsenal is nice and gives more optionality for what synergies you can have and what’s possible to do during combat. A great inclusion.

There is also a change to the way heroes gain and upgrade new powers. As the guild and the blacksmith are no longer a thing, the old ways of improving characters are gone. Instead, you unlock new abilities by going to these hero shrines that are littered along the dungeon’s paths. When you are there, you will be given some background information on the class, which I loved.

I thought these were really well written and made me much more invested in the classes than I had ever been previously. I wanted to find these shrines not just to get new skills but to learn more about these characters.

There’ll also sometimes be these unique combat encounters that you need to win in order to gain new skills, which are pretty fun and can actually be quite tricky if you’re not sure how to get through them. Overall, I think this is excellently done.

Once you do unlock the new skills though, you permanently have that skill in the class. This does mean you are drip-fed skills much, much slower, which I’m not the biggest fan of.

Upgrading heroes has also been massively simplified and minimised. There are no multiple upgrades to skills or upgrades to a hero’s weapons or armour. It’s gone. It’s only 1 simple upgrade you can do to each skill. Over the course of your run, you receive mastery points for your team, and you can spend these on any of your characters’ skills, and they will stay upgraded for the remainder of the run.

This obviously means that demi-god characters who can carry teams are no longer a thing. Although, I think the additional bonuses, especially providing extra status conditions that these skills gain when upgraded, add a great dynamic to combat. I really like this change. Do I like it better though? Errr, not especially, but I think this system fits Darkest Dungeon II really nicely, and the old system wouldn’t work as well in this game.

 

The Slightly New Combat System

Onto the combat, which has gone through a tonne of small changes, and overall, I would say these changes are great. Despite being small individually, they have a pretty big impact on combat, and since this is the central aspect of the game, I’m happy to say that I do enjoy combat more in Darkest Dungeon II.

Right off the rip, there’s a fundamental change to combat’s core functionality, one that orients itself around statuses and conditions. These have always been in the game, but now these are the bread and butter of combat.

In the original game, many abilities were just damaging with varying percentages per hit, and much of the gambit was about whether you want to do a high damaging, low hit chance move or whether you go for a safer option. That’s not the case anymore. Every move has 100% accuracy, no longer is hit chance an issue, miss-percentage, or any of this.

Everything is much more predictable. What there is a huge increase of is dodge chance, ability to reduce the damage of a shot by 50% or 75%, causing a 50% chance to miss, 50% extra damage, 50% less damage, and so on. Working around these conditions both offensively and defensively is the key to success. This is something you’ll be looking to do especially as many characters’ moves provide conditions.

Let’s look at the jester, who starts with 3 offensive moves; slice off, which does damage and causes bleeding. And I should quickly say bleeding, blight, burns all that stuff is basically the same.

So, you could do straight damage, or you could back off, which does damage but gives the person it hits a condition that gives them a 50% chance to miss, while your other move gives you a 50% dodge chance. These also move you back and forward in the position order, but let’s ignore this.

Situationally, you can decide to give a chance for a particularly strong enemy to miss a shot. Or if you have low health, maybe you want to increase your dodge chance or whatever, and I’ll say that I think this change is great because it means luck isn’t really as much of a factor. There’s still resistance, so these debuffs may not always apply, and all moves have damage windows that vary the damage of each hit. So, luck isn’t totally bereft.

This is more true as these buffs no longer exist for a set amount of turns, but rather they exist for a set amount of uses. The Highwayman’s Riposte doesn’t last 2 turns, where it may be triggered a lot or not at all, it will now be activated the next 2 times they’re attacked. This is a change that I 100% endorse, and I think it is crucial to making this re-centering around buffs and debuffs much more user-friendly.

Overall though, it’s more predictable, you can plan around applying and inflicting buffs and debuffs; it feels like you have a much greater control in whether you succeed or fail.

Ultimately, I was much less often feeling like a death or a failure was because of some random bullshit luck, and it felt more like it was due to bad planning or poor move prioritisation, which I think is great, because I much prefer when your success is dictated by you and not RNG.

Some other notable changes to the combat is the increase in moves you can have to 5 instead of 4, as well as the addition of combat items. Each character can be equipped with 1 item stack, and they can choose to use it before their turn in addition to their move.

These items are things like healing items, either straight heals, burn healing, bleed healing, etc. Similarly, there are items that get rid of debuffs. There are offensive items that cause damage or can inflict conditions. A good mix of things. And just like the move to status and conditions, these items work to bring more dynamism to combat but dynamics the player can control, and this change gets a thumbs up from me.

 

Stress and Relationships

The last major combat-esque change that exists is to stress. Instead of a convoluted and abstractly large 200 stress bar system, with random and varying stress values being applied, stress now works on a much easier and simpler 10-point system.

Stress is gained from enemy moves and also decisions you make while progressing forward, and the best way to decrease it is at the inn or with items. And moves that decrease stress will only do so if the stress level is equal to 5 or more. This makes stress easier to manage because the system is more stable and easier to understand and work around.

Stress also massively affects relationships. This is an altogether new mechanic where your heroes will gain or lose affinity for each other through a bunch of different actions. These can be through the course of battle, at the inn by using certain items, or defined when you make choices on the road. For example, if two heroes want the same choice, and you pick it, this will increase affinity, while a hero that wants something else will get decreased affinity.

When affinity improves or decreases enough, 2 characters will gain a relationship status. If it’s positive, then they can give each other random bonuses during fights. These can be providing buffs, improving character health, reducing stress or even also attacking on their partner’s turn, while bad relationships will provide negative buffs and increase stress.

This system is good, but it leads to scenarios where when things are good, they’re great! You’re winning battles and getting a bunch of extra buffs to make it even easier work. But when shit is bad, it’s really bad, and the sense of impending doom seeps in.

This is in large part because if your stress levels reach 10, then your character has a breakdown. This will drop their health really low, but most annoyingly, it destroys their relationships. This can lead to them gaining a bad relationship, providing other negative modifiers and things can turn quickly from there because if you have a couple of breaks, then the whole team works together to shit on each other and fuck up the day.

When it’s bad, you will feel f@#&ed. They’ll be these constant pop-ups of debuffs, and I mean constant, like 1 or 2 for each character’s turn. It’s brutal. You really feel the dread that you’re doomed and everyone is about to die. This is bad because that feeling sucks, but this also does the best job of making you feel like a run is falling apart and empathising with the heroes’ desperate plights.

Overall, I’d say this stress system, along with the combat, is better, and I always felt like the old system was a bit randomly punitive, and bad luck would be a bigger decider in your demise than I wanted. While now, it feels like skill and knowledge are much more influential, with luck being a tertiary factor.

 

Conclusion

So, those are the main changes and differences between the original and the sequel. There are a ton of small things that I haven’t really mentioned, such as the differences in the items and the specific changes to character abilities, but I’m not sure how much these will affect someone’s interest in the game, and I wanted to focus on the big picture stuff.

For me, I think the sequel is excellent, and I don’t necessarily like it better than the original, but I’m really glad it is what it is. Now, I have two amazing games that I am keen to play. If I want that ‘build up a town and specific characters’ sort of gameplay, I’ll play the original, and if I just want to challenge myself and do some fun runs, then I’ll play the sequel.

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