Darkest Dungeon II is cruel. A simple miscalculation or bad luck can ruin your two-to-three-hour expedition before the chapter’s final boss. There are no checkpoints; if your party dies, it’s time to start fresh from the very beginning. Only some unlocked upgrades stay with you. When you have to make tough choices all the time while keeping in mind various systems, this can (and will) be frustrating and nerve-racking. At the same time, Darkest Dungeon II is the most cathartic and rewarding experience since the original in 2016.
Much like its predecessor, you create a party of four distinct heroes who must survive exciting turn-based battles with a focus on position, synergy, and a certain degree of luck. Your attacks have a range of possible damage points they can deal, plus there are buffs and debuffs that give you the chance of missing your shot or earning a critical hit, among other outcomes.
The combat system is hard to master but incredibly satisfying. As you get to know your cast, you dive into the thrilling experience of learning who goes well with whom, in what position, and against which creatures. I spent hours experimenting with the best combinations for my playstyle, trying out new things every time. The battles feel like puzzles, making you feel great when you succeed with your party in one piece. But they can also frustrate you when you deal one less point of damage than you need and receive an unexpected counterattack.
Things get more complicated when you add the stress system, the signature core mechanic of the series. When their white gauge is complete, your hero can have a meltdown, losing most of their HP. They can also earn a positive outcome and heal up, though it’s less common. If a single meltdown in a difficult encounter can ruin your whole expedition, imagine what it feels like to have five in a row in the same battle. It’s a disheartening feeling that should make you stop playing immediately, yet there I was, so angry and fascinated at the same time, willing to try again one more time. This game sunk its hooks into me that deeply.
A new affinity system will show how well your party gets along with each other. This quickly gets tense when you realize that all your small decisions can turn your heroes against themselves, adding negative effects to specific skills. Having to change your complete strategy is both infuriating and a tremendous challenge, one that made me feel fulfilled when I defied the odds and overcame it. Fortunately, this mechanic can also make your heroes good teammates, adding combo attacks and other astonishing surprises.
Apart from fighting, you explore disturbing but beautifully designed regions before reaching the final boss of your expedition. You travel in a Stagecoach, a vehicle that can get damaged by hazardous roads, adding unwanted battles. You also get to choose which path to take, sometimes knowing what to expect and others being completely in the dark.
All these mechanics create an experience I simply can’t get enough of. Even now, 40 hours in, I still want to get back again to refine my team and unlock the rest of the items and upgrades. While some journeys are blatantly unfair, there’s also a remarkable achievement in finding balance in something that should be completely chaotic. I wish there were more shortcuts to ease the pain of failing a three-hour run at the end and having to start again. And more user-friendly items in the early stages, which can be extremely overwhelming and will likely deter players, would go a long way.
When I found myself shouting in relief and frenetically raising my fist in the air after a hard battle ends in my favor, I can’t deny the following fact: Darkest Dungeon II is a harsh but fantastic game whose white-knuckled battles and hazard-filled exploration will trap you for hours. If you’re willing to make the needed sacrifices, it’s a journey well worth taking.