Creating a game as popular as Darkest Dungeon undoubtedly makes the prospect of a sequel seem like a herculean task for its developers, for reasons that can be summed up by some of our favorite narrator's classic quotes. "Remind yourself that overconfidence can be a slow and insidious killer". "Prodigious size alone does not dissuade the sharpened blade". And of course, "be wary, triumphant pride precipitates a dizzying fall". The developers' final choice was to try to avoid the possibility of a conventional but potentially disappointing sequel, preferring instead to create something new using the same basic elements. And while they succeeded once again in making a very good game, the truth is that the name "Darkest Dungeon II" is somewhat misleading.
First of all, so as to not appear hyperbolic, the phrase "they created something new" doesn't mean that Darkest Dungeon II is now a... GaaS First Person Shooter. The game is still a gloomy turn-based roguelite in which the heroes you choose must overcome all sorts of obstacles, from deadly enemies and unpredictable adversity to their own fears and unrelenting psychological pressure, in order to reach the end of the road and their redemption. The main change that has been made, and the one that has clearly caused the biggest controversy among fans of the series, is in the structure of the campaign. Instead of the two phases of the first game, managing and upgrading the Hamlet and delving into dark dungeons, we now have a... road trip!
As such. the concept of a fixed and permanent base of operations no longer exists. The campaign starts with the group of the four heroes you choose already on the move, crossing the map (which is linear but with some branches in the style of Slay the Spire) in a stagecoach in order to reach the Inn at the end of the map and move on to the next one after a short respite of rest and healing. On your way you will encounter various kinds of encounters such as battles against all kinds of creatures, attacks that will damage your vehicle, weary civilians that will ask you for help, dark lairs that hide powerful bosses and many more. The ultimate goal of each campaign is to survive all of these adversities and successfully traverse the number of required maps to reach the foot of the mountain where the final boss is hiding. If you succeed once, it doesn't mean you've successfully completed Darkest Dungeon II because the game has different "chapters" called confessions, each of which changes the areas you have to traverse as well as the final boss.
A typical campaign can therefore be briefly described as follows: You select your four party members, ride the stagecoach across the map passing through various (beneficial or detrimental) encounters and, if all goes well, arrive at the Inn at the end of the map. There you will engage in (physical and mental) healing, buy helpful items for the stagecoach and trinkets for your warriors, spend skill points (mastery points, as they are called in the game) to upgrade skills and choose the next map to cross. If you manage to successfully complete the required number of maps then you will unlock access to the Mountain and fight your battle against the final boss. If you prevail there as well then you will have successfully completed that campaign and you will be able to choose the next one in the next run, keeping the same team or choosing a new one.
Apart from the significant change in the structure of the campaign, many of the other elements that we saw in the first game are present and accounted for. The turn-based combat system returns almost unchanged, with increased options for synergies between skills and characters. Torches are on top of the stagecoach this time and the intensity of the light gives bonuses or penalties. Your warriors start with positive and negative quirks and gain new ones along the way, and of course the sanity level can again lead to a devastating meltdown of a character, torpedoing your campaign. Some new features and mechanics of particular interest: relationships between characters are shaped by various factors during the campaign and may evolve into either a friendship/love bond (giving powerful bonuses in battle) or a relationship of complete dislike (with negative effects on the use of certain skills), while in some encounters you'll have the chance to learn details about characters' pasts through narration or even battles with special parameters.
Given all of the above, there are two main questions that need to be answered before we can come to a conclusion about Darkest Dungeon II. The answer to the first one is relatively straightforward, without further ado. Is Darkest Dungeon II a good, quality game? Yes, without a doubt. Having already completed about 25 hours of gameplay, I can assure you that both the gameplay and the technical aspects are up to par with the reputation and success of the first game. The battles and the general gameplay loop remain absolutely addictive, the returning elements maintain the same high level of quality and the new features have been seamlessly integrated into the whole. I also find it very positive that each campaign, regardless of whether it was completed successfully or unsuccessfully, contributes to making the next one slightly more accessible through the Candles of Hope you receive as rewards for completing objectives, which you spend between campaigns on persistent unlocks and bonuses.
The second question however is a really spicy one. Is Darkest Dungeon II a worthy sequel to the first game? Whew.... I really don't know, it depends through which prism one wants to look at it. In terms of overall quality, fun gameplay, quality technical aspects, of course. But the truth is that the basic campaign structure is so different from the first game that anyone who buys Darkest Dungeon II looking only for an improved version of the game they loved is bound to be shocked by the scope of the changes. My personal opinion is that if the developers wanted to make something different then that's perfectly fine, however I think they should have called it something else and not Darkest Dungeon II. After all, there is the similar example of Firaxis who wanted to experiment with XCOM and named their spin-off game XCOM: Chimera Squad rather than XCOM 3. Red Hook Studios could have chosen a name along the lines of "Road Trip: A Darkest Dungeon Story" or "Darkest Dungeon: Conquer the Mountain" and avoided much of the backlash.
Therefore, I want to be absolutely clear about my recommendation to buy or not to buy. If you're generally looking for a quality roguelite then Darkest Dungeon II is a great choice that offers dozens of hours of fun and addictive gameplay. However, if you are only interested in a straightforward Darkest Dungeon sequel, seeking a similar but improved experience, then honestly you might be better off trying the Black Reliquary mod for the original Darkest Dungeon. My rating reflects my opinion of the game as it exists rather than the theoretical more faithful sequel that could have been created in its place, but I insist that you should treat Darkest Dungeon 2 more as a spin-off and less as a true sequel to Darkest Dungeon.