Darkest Dungeon was both infamous and beloved for its difficulty, taking the party system and lack of forgiveness from older RPGs and updating that formula with grimdark art and a unique combat system.
Darkest Dungeon 2 borrows many of the basics of the first game, but also introduces some new mechanics alongside a more traditional roguelike progression. Here’s eight tips that would have helped me reach the end of Early Access with fewer failed runs and a little less frustration over my neurotic, uncooperative little adventurers!
1. Don't worry about HP, worry about stress
Here's a big change from the previous game: your characters heal HP incrementally and automatically as you travel forward on the cart. Persistent damage like bleeding and Blight also doesn't carry over to “travel mode,” when you exit combat.
But one consistency is the consequence of stress, now a 10-point system. This is arguably a much more important lifebar than your actual life.
In Darkest Dungeon 2, I found managing stress to be the most crucial thing to my success. Heroes build stress by taking damage, suffering status effects, and bickering with their companions. While health slowly regenerates as you travel between encounters, stress persists and even tends to rise as you go along. If you let a hero’s stress meter reach the boiling point, it spills over into a huge health loss while also damaging that hero’s relationship with the rest of their party. I highly recommend prioritizing stress-relieving abilities and consumables to finish your first run.
2. Relationships are everything
When it rains in Darkest Dungeon 2, it pours. Stress builds on stress snowballing into greater catastrophe, with one of the most important consequences being your party’s group dynamic. Combat actions, overt choices, and the ever-present RNG contribute to a relationship meter between each member of your party. When it maxes out, positive or negative, it forms a bond between the two heroes in question.
Positive relationships include “Amorous,” “Respectful,” or “Inseparable,” and contribute buffs, combat assists, and surprise heals, again mostly at the behest of RNG. They feel great. Some of the negative relationships are “Resentful,” “Tumultuous,” and “Hateful.” These result in negative status effects, as well as a high chance of stress gain between both parties. Positive relationships are fragile, whereas negative relationships are quite difficult to reverse. If you notice two heroes’ negative relationship meter getting high, it’s worth it to lower their stress levels and look for consumables to improve their affinity at the next inn.
3. Understand positioning and build a complimentary party
The four-character lineup is a Darkest Dungeon signature. Abilities and their potential effects rely both on your character’s position, as well as the enemy’s. In the above screenshot, you can see I have the Man-at-Arms’ “Hold the Line” ability selected. The yellow dots indicate where he has to be positioned to activate this ability, and the red dots indicate the locations in the enemy lineup he can target. Above the abilities, the respective size of the pips indicate my Man-at-Arms’ overall strength. You can see most of his abilities require him to be in the front three rows of my party, and they largely affect the front two rows of the enemy line.
Of the starting characters, Man-at-Arms belongs in one of your front two rows, the Highwayman in the other one, while the Grave Robber and Plague Doctor should form your back line. Your party should ideally have a tank, a healer, two damage dealers, and the ability to target each enemy position. Don’t be like me and try to swap in the Hellion for the Grave Robber without changing anything else. That party was unable to target the backline well, and my run ended pretty quickly.
Another trick is noticing that some characters, like the Highwayman, have a strong opening ability that moves them in the lineup. Leading with Dismas' Duelist Advance activates counter-attacks when he's next targeted, and moves him forward one space. So setting him back to third or even fourth rank as a starting position is a valid strategy.
4. More DoTs, more DoTs!
Direct damage abilities have their place in Darkest Dungeon 2, but I found damage over time effects like burn, bleed, and blight to be essential for its hardest fights. DoT effects stack as well, meaning you can tag a high priority enemy with multiple tokens of each to maximise damage. Graverobber and Plague Doctor both start with blight abilities, and the Highwayman has a bleed attack that unlocks very early in his progression.
DoTs (which trigger at the beginning of an enemy's turn) also help KO tough enemies who've triggered Death's Door, the down-but-not-out condition.
5. Upgrade the Plague Doctor's Ounce of Prevention ability
Character progression in Darkest Dungeon is shockingly simple, relative to other RPGs. Your heroes do not gain XP and level up. Instead, certain combat encounters offer “Mastery Points,” a shared resource that you spend at Inns. Each hero’s abilities can only be upgraded once per run, increasing its sheer numerical effectiveness and offering bonus effects. I found Mastery Point upgrades to be much more transformative and essential to a successful run than the equippable trinkets, and as such recommend prioritizing Resistance Encounters on your map to earn them.
With stress being the game's biggest foe, I had a lot of success using the guaranteed Mastery Point at the beginning of each run to upgrade the Plague Doctor’s “Ounce of Prevention” ability. In its upgraded state, Ounce of Prevention will heal a point of stress and buff the defences of your entire party at once, greatly expanding your stress management options.
Be careful about investing several Mastery Points into the same character—if they die, their upgraded abilities die with them. Dead characters are replaced with a fresh adventurer at the next inn, if you can make it there.
6. Smoke 'em if you got 'em
There’s no call to be precious with consumables in Darkest Dungeon 2. If anything I found it easy to focus on my heroes’ abilities and forget to use combat items. It’s a free action to use an item in combat, i.e. your hero can still move or use an ability after using an item like healing salve or laudanum. I found Darkest Dungeon 2 to be very generous with combat consumables and even more so with items only usable at inns, so it absolutely pays to use them with abandon.
Also, carriage space is probably going to be a premium for you throughout your run. Don't let this be like your Final Fantasy VII playthrough in 1997 where you end the game with 99 X-Potions.
7. Don’t get loathsome
Darkest Dungeon 2 uses two meters to track the overall state of your game, similar to Demons’ Souls’ World Tendency system. The torch on your cart is a familiar sight from the first Darkest Dungeon. Its strength is measured on a scale of zero to one hundred, beginning at maximum after every inn and ticking down as you progress forward. At its brightest, the torch confers combat bonuses to your party, with the balance changing and ultimately tipping in favor of your enemies as it dims. The rate at which the torch fizzles out is directly tied to the other meter: Loathing. Loathing increases when you reach the inn at the end of each world, and is kept at bay by clearing enemy combat challenges marked on the map, such as Resistance, Lair, and Cultist encounters. Additionally, completing all three rounds of the final Guardian challenge of each map will significantly lower Loathing. At high Loathing and dimmer torch, combat takes a sharp spike in difficulty. I had one of my first solid runs tanked by having too high a Loathing score going into a difficult area.
8. Prioritize Shrines of Reflection
One reward that stays persistent in-between runs is new abilities for your heroes, unlocked at Shrines of Reflection. The shrines appear as a bell icon on your map, and prompt you to choose a member of your party to get the new ability, as well as some backstory narration. Most of the five sequences of each hero’s story are passive, but at least one will be a playable combat puzzle where it is possible to fail, with some being harder or more obtuse than others.
You'll want to unlock these abilities in order to give yourself more combat flexibility. In my own playtime, I found Highwayman and Grave Robber’s early unlockable abilities, “Open Vein” and “Dead of Night,” very useful.