Yeah, I’m doing Zelda next week. I needed more time. What’re you gonna do about it? You gonna report me to the review police? Get me sent down on a ten-stretch for possession of irreverence with intention to distribute? Anyway. Darkest Dungeon 2 is the sequel to Darkest Dungeon 1. There’s some of that completely objective game reportage you all keep asking for. And I was very glad to see it get a sequel because there’s nothing I like more than getting my head around a great big pair of double D’s. Seriously though, Darkest Dungeon 1 was a game people recommended to me a lot. “Hey Yahtzee, you like Lovecraftian horror! And roguelikes! And exploiting people to the point of death/mental breakdown!” To which I would say “That’s true, but for some reason Darkest Dungeon 1 never really grabbed me, and also hamsters don’t talk, so get back in the fucking wheel.” I put it down to an excess of decision making I felt I was being asked to do. Should we keep moving? Which door should we take? Where should we spend our off hours now? What precise number of biscuits have you allotted for this cup of tea? And it being such an unforgiving game I felt paralysed by the thought that I was making the wrong decision.
Felt like the game was constantly saying “You sure you wanna do that?” just as I was about to let go of the chess piece, until all I wanted to do was flip the board and insist on switching to Scattergories. Happily, I got on a lot better with Dookie Dungeon 2, probably because there’s less decision making in it. The basic premise is intact – you’re a scholar who’s read enough Lovecraft short stories to know that the smartest way to confront unknowable mind-breaking evils is to get somebody else to do it, and so must guide and fit out a team of mercenaries and send them on doomed expeditions into the darkness to acquire resources and battle monsters not so twisted and deformed by the looming horror that they can’t politely wait for their go in the turn-based combat system. The difference is, this time, there’s no dungeon, which is certainly one definition of “streamlining.” The Lovecraftian horrors have spilled out into the overworld to party like it’s the end times and so you load your four members of the fun police into a cart and embark on an odyssey to save the world by doing… something. At a mountain. Involving a huge floating brain with four bike locks on it. Things have become a little more abstract and it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s a metaphor for your decaying sanity and all of that bollocks,
but the fingernail-shaped divots in my cheeks were real enough when my whole party got wiped by some half-melted fat bloke too stupid to realise he’d run out of HP. You know what, let’s start there ‘cos I just brought it up. Death saving throws when you’re out of health? I’m all in favour. Creates suspense, helps you claw things back from the brink. The same courtesy extended to the AI-controlled enemy? Call me a hypocritical elitist who’s prejudiced against the non-sentient, but that I could do without. I brought this fucking boss down to zero health and then he polished off my entire battered party in his next two turns because he just wouldn’t fucking die, and I’m like, game, what the fuck else could I have possibly done to win the day in this scenario? Was I not crossing my fingers hard enough? Hang on, I feel like I forgot something. Oh that’s right: backhandedly praise the game first. As I say, I got along a lot better with Deathtrap Du- oh fuck I knew I was going to do that at some point. I got along better with *Darkest* Funyuns 2 because it’s got a more Slay the Spire-y sort of progression where you’re always inexorably moving towards the final looming horror, just deciding at forks in the road if you’re gonna go via the haunted library or the drive-thru all-devouring maw.
But on the whole you can either press forward to continue towards inevitable failure, or sit there watching nothing happen until the power company shuts you off or you run out of piss bottles. And I’m more comfortable with that level of decision making, and the stated expectation that we’re going to fuck up eventually. It’s a Somebody Else’s Trolley Problem, as it were. And most of the time things feel a lot more understandable than they did in Dankest Dungball 1. Everything in your journey’s queued up in nice manageable single file. Here’s a hospital, get healed up or don’t. Here’s some desperate fleeing peasants, give them food or purchase one of their prettier daughters. I say *most* things are more understandable. It always pissed me off when I unlocked a new skill for a character, and when I went to see what the skill did, was informed “If (eye symbol) <= 2 then (squiggly line) (picture of a duck). I guess it’s on brand for a game about being an occult scholar to force us to learn an incomprehensible heiroglyphic language, but a bit more context would be nice. This reminds me of a friend I used to play Arkham Horror with who never read out the fucking text on the event cards.
He’d just look at them and say “Okay subtract two health tokens.” Bitch, we’re here for the story, not to do a six year old’s maths homework. Still, I gradually deciphered the combat’s mysterious language and honed my preferred goon squad to battle effectiveness. I didn’t see much point in investing in the more technical characters who need to have two flame icons and be both patting their head and rubbing their tummy before they can do anything halfway effective when I can focus on the dudes who just smack things very hard. But while I did get into the desired “JUST ONE MORE RUN” groove that you want from a roguelike, over time the resetting of things after each attempt felt like it was working against the game. ‘Cos there’s always all this fucking admin to get through at the start. Choose upgrades, choose expedition, hand pick your party members, pick their classes and skill loadouts, introductory battle, get everyone kitted out with trinkets and combat items, equip your coach with a pet and a lantern and a pancake dispenser… and there’s always something I forget. Like I get into the first battle and realise I forgot to equip the Highwayman with his mindflayingly useful buff stealing ability and he’s still got the one that does nothing except cure athlete’s foot and part his hair the other way.
But what it really fucks with is what was the big selling point in Darwin Donkeys 1: characters acquiring permanent traits and debuffs you had to learn to work with and that helped create the XCOM vibe where players get attached to their preferred units as they distinguish themselves more and more. In Doobie Denmark 2 the party members feel more like fixed entities who get their memories reset at the start of every run. So when the plague doctor acquires a fear of public speaking, or starts getting the hots for the Jester and getting a plus one bonus to vaginal lubrication every time he uses his “joke kidney transplant” ability, none of that helps you get attached to them as a character because you know all that will be gone in the next run, and she might roll extreme confidence in public speaking next time and randomly hate the Jester because he refuses to workshop his tight five. So while I don’t dislike Dankest Doldrums Deux, where the first game realised the burden of a leader having to send human beings to their doom, the second game more evokes the plight of a picnic organizer trying to ensure the wine bottles don’t get packed on top of the Jammie Wagon Wheels.