Genre: Light-em-up | Developer: Red Hook Studios | Year: 2023 | Platform: pc

The nuts and bolts of this game’s combat soars beyond the first game. The first game was too granular in some ways and too rigid in others, with a very one-size-fits-all optimal approach to fights – the race and recover. Bring a team that can burn down the dangerous back rank enemies fast, then draw the fight out for as long as you can to let your team heal health and stress. The optimal way to play is to make every mission take ages. Super-granular stats for accuracy and such only reinforced this one true solution to combat, instead of giving it much variance.

Darkest Dungeon 2, on the other hand, achieves variance via a Token Bonanza. Tokens, representing damage buffs, chances to dodge, guaranteed crits, chances to miss etc stack neatly below your team and the enemy, generated and spent with combat moves or the game’s many above-combat systems. These generally work in nice, chunky, simple ways – unless you can remove the blindness token somehow, your next attack is a 50% chance to hit, etc etc. The crit token means the next attack is going to be a real over-achiever. Enemies too become tokenmancers in this system, telegraphing powerful attacks and/or debuffing the team in a relatively interactive and easy-to-understand way.

At the same time, “race and recover” is more or less gone. Most heals are strong but have strict conditions, making them an emergency use or something that has to be setup. It’s very rare to be able to stun enemies, meaning less ability to safely draw battles out. This all does mean that your units are that bit more homogenous – most of what you’re doing in every fight is quickly doling out as much damage as you can. Even your plague doctor is mostly going to find herself chucking green grenades at the fiends. But this, at least, is an open problem compared to the tiresome demands of race and recover.

It’s not all good news though. The first game was a campaign-based dungeon crawler, with some very light city building stuff. Delve the dungeons, get loot, build the hamlet back up to upgrade your guys to better delve them dungeons. To many, quite popular, but also quite a grind, quite a time sink. Red Hook decided to try something different with this game – which is certainly wise, it’s just not sensible to compete with yourself. The resulting game structure, however, is something I’m less keen on. A road-trip roguelite where each run easily stretches over 2 hours, perhaps 3 hours long. Win 5 times under increasingly longer and more demanding circumstances and you’ve beat the game.

This is a bit of a hard sell. The amount of extra systems on top of the basic combat – trinkets, combat items, inn items, stagecoach items, quirks, relationships, goals, paths, loathing, etc – mean that it’s really quite hard to treat each of the 3-6 areas that constitute a run to the mountain as its own session. You would spend half of such a session just remembering everything that you had going on. And all those systems on top are damnably important, so you’re probably going to end up playing 3 hour runs, watching the little stagecoach jiggle about, often dipping into the intersection of being bored and overwhelmed.

What makes this a yet-harder sell are bosses. These bosses are technical and strict, almost always being a deadly combat puzzle that expects very specific things of the player’s team. If you can’t deal X/Y damage to the front or back rank on command while being blinded, you fail the puzzle. If you can’t race this boss down before he advances through the ranks to wipe you, you fail the puzzle. If you can’t successfully wrangle these four tokens onto the same guy in time, you fail the puzzle. Almost every boss in the game has some insane twice-per-turn attack that happily crits your entire party if you fail the puzzle. Failure comes quickly and exclusively means a wipe.

Once you know what’s expected of you, it can be easier to deal with. Your hours-long road trip now becomes a long-simmering preparation for these very strict encounters. But the first time you take on each of the 5 end-bosses or the various mid-bosses, it can feel like you lost the moment you picked your team, hours ago. (Or worse, that the crucial ability that could have won the fight with a little adaptation was stuck locked behind meta-progression…)

This combination of gruellingly long runs with extremely specific, strict bosses is a mega-harsh combination. This is a game for a vociferous and judicious reader of wiki, who researches every encounter and mechanic before picking their first character. Still, credit is due for the far-less-prickly improvements to combat. Credit is due for not just making the first game again. If they make a third game, my hope is that they can have a campaign structure without the grind, that they can have these unique, demanding combat puzzles without the 3-hour run-up.