Early access is an oddly unique phenomenon that really only works in the world of video games. Playing a game that’s still incomplete and giving the developers feedback makes sense; it’s almost the purest form of beta testing. Imagine, though, if the audience could look at the dailies on a movie shoot, or listen to the bass line of a new EP. It would be absolute madness. That makes early access feel more intimate. We, as players, get to see a game blossom and grow into its final form, like a butterfly with a two-frame jab and a health bar.
This was my experience with Darkest Dungeon back when it first came to early access in 2015. I watched, and played, every step of the development process. The highs, the lows, the heart attacks, and corpses. I was there to witness it all. Now I am fortunate to do this all over again with its sequel Darkest Dungeon 2 as it has just been released into early access on the Epic Games store. After playing the game for more hours than I care to admit, the main takeaway I got was the feeling of hope.
Stress and hope
For those wondering if Darkest Dungeon 2 is still similar to its predecessor, I want to assure you: Yes it very much is. The core combat mechanics are still at the heart of the game. Managing stress and inventory space are also front and center. Of course, the game is filled with horrific and insidious creatures that are looking to tear the world apart. Even the art and aesthetics have been preserved despite the game being fully 3D.
This time around, players are unleashed upon a wide-open world. Unfortunately, the horrors from the first game have been unleashed as well and have thrown the world into complete chaos. Players must create a caravan of heroes … or fools that are brave enough to take on the darkness head-on. This makes the core loop of the game very different from the original. Instead of slowly traversing through a murky cave or dark catacombs, you are barreling down the road in a horse and carriage trying to get to the next inn. Some roads are more difficult than others as this ramps up the stress that the player will feel. Making split decisions when choosing a path can spell out doom for the player’s run.
A “run” of the game is completely different, as the player no longer has a home base or a collection of heroes (read: fools) ready to jump into the next dungeon. All that is available is a caravan and whoever can fit inside it. Once all the heroes meet their grisly demises, the game is over and must be restarted from the beginning. Of course, certain skills are carried over from each game, as well as the unlocked heroes. Darkest Dungeon 2 feels more like a roguelike this way and feels more refreshing with each run.
The stress mechanic is probably the most impactful change compared to the original game. It’s no longer a meter based on 100, but instead 10. That means characters hit their breaking point more often, but it’s also tied very closely to the new relationship mechanic. During each run, characters develop a relationship with each other, for better or worse. The Grave Robber might become inseparable from the Plague Doctor due to the amount of healing and buffs she gives her, or the Highwayman might start to hate the Man-at-Arms because he keeps stealing his kills. These relationships will shape the flow of combat and can be both beneficial and a problem. However, once a character reaches 10 stress they will take a serious hit to their positive relationships, which makes it easier for them to fall into a negative one. The health of the party’s relationships seems as important as the fate of the world.
Currently, there are only nine playable heroes in the early access build, and it’s unknown how many will be in the full game. It has only been playable for less than a week now, so who knows what the final product will look like. This is something the developers are keenly aware of and are asking players to be cognizant of too. A post from Chris Bourassa and Tyler Sigman, the creators of Red Hook Studios and Darkest Dungeon, asks the players to be patient playing through the early access version of Darkest Dungeon 2. They state that things will be updated, balanced, and outright changed during the development process. They also ask the players to give the sequel a chance, despite it being so different from the original.
A message from the founders. pic.twitter.com/LAW1DFKSuM
— Darkest Dungeon (@DarkestDungeon) October 26, 2021
Hope is the true centerpiece of Darkest Dungeon 2. Hope transcends past themes and gameplay and even relates to the creators themselves. The torchlight mechanic from the first game has even been replaced by the resource Hope. When traveling through the game, the heroes will meet survivors of this catastrophe that are in desperate need of hope. The negative relationships the heroes have with each other can slowly be mended during a run, giving a player hope that a particular run is not completely lost.
Hope also drives the developers into making this game — hope that this game can stand on its own, and not just be an expansion of the original. They hope that they can pull this off, and they hope that players will give them time and the chance to do it.
Even with the world turning into an absolute nightmare (specifically talking about the game, but you know …) I cannot help but see the brighter things. The new relationship mechanic, the new push-pull feeling of the stress meter, and even the dreams and desires of the developers make me see this game as a beacon of hope. No amount of unspeakable horrors and negative reviews can stop that for me.
Darkest Dungeon 2‘s early access build is now available on the Epic Games Store.