Darkest Dungeon 2’s metagame reboot was expected, and necessary

By Brian Crecente

Darkest Dungeon 2 developer Red Hook Studios is making robust use of its game’s Early Access status to not just introduce new areas of exploration and heroes to help fill out your party, but also overhauling the title’s metagame and progression systems.

The Altar of Hope update, which hit earlier this month, didn’t just rework key systems for the game, it also reset player progression. From all outward appearances, the update and reset may seem drastic, but the studio knew the major change was an inevitability.

“We have always been aware that the old ‘Hope’/XP system didn’t afford players any real choice in terms of how to progress their metagame between runs,” said Chris Bourassa, Red Hook Studios co-founder and creative director. “Candidly, we needed something up and running for Early Access launch, but always felt it was imperative to revisit the system and create something more robust. We are always looking for ways to enhance the risk/reward aspect of the game, and to create tough choices for players, and by those metrics, the new system really helps move the game in a great direction!”

At launch, players earned Hope during every playthrough, which was then awarded to their overall level in the game. Each level unlocked a host of new things including heroes, items, and even potential traits.

Darkest Dungeon 2s Metagame Reboot Was Expected And Necessary Candles

When the update hit, everyone’s in-game Hope was lost, resulting in a wipe of item unlocks and hero availability, while hero backstory progress, associated skill unlocks and Confession boss unlocks were preserved. It was a tough pill to swallow. To help ease the blow, the developers awarded 20 Candles of Hope – the game’s new progression system – to all players.

“We’re awarding some of the new metagame currency to existing profiles, so they can catch back up a little, but overall, we feel the change is so positive that we’re not at risk of alienating any of our Early Access players,” Bourassa said. “Early Access is all about improving and iterating on the game. We do our very best to communicate openly with our players, and avoid wiping progress unless absolutely necessary. That said, we can’t be afraid to make big moves in the pursuit of a better experience. Early Access can be transformative, and that’s a great thing about it!”

It’s one thing to know you’re going to have to completely overhaul a grounding function of your game, but how did the team know that the new one could solve something that they saw as an inherent issue in the game?

Darkest Dungeon 2s Metagame Reboot Was Expected And Necessary Timeless

That goes back to the game and its predecessor’s inspirations, said Tyler Sigman, Red Hook Studios co-founder and Design Director.

“True old-school roguelikes (for example, Rogue, Nethack) weren’t built around any sort of persistent progression,” he said. “Part of the charm was that you only had your increased knowledge to bring with you on any new quest. However, we have always been attracted to the idea of some progress being persistent. That was a key part of Darkest Dungeon 1: you might fail in the moment, but you were always making incremental progress forward. The game was about persistence through trials.”

Darkest Dungeon 2, though, launched with what the team saw as a meta-progression system that lacked interesting choices for the players.

“Once we had time to absorb all the excellent Early Access feedback, we set our minds to creating a system that would satisfy our design goals and do so in a thematic way that was consistent with the overall story in the game (which is about you remembering and reliving your failures in order to set the world back to order).”

Darkest Dungeon 2s Metagame Reboot Was Expected And Necessary Living City

Specifically, he said, there were four design goals the team wanted to meet:

  • Providing interesting choices for the players to make for their long-term progression.

  • Ensuring there were always some exciting “Darkest Dungeon-style” risk/reward decisions to make during each expedition.

  • Making sure that even in failure, players can inch their way forward towards a greater goal.

  • Tightening the loop so when you finish an expedition, you are already looking forward to things to unlock and try out in the next one.

So, how does the Altar of Hope progression system work now? We asked Sigman to explain:

“Each expedition you play gives you the chance to earn Candles of Hope. Risk is rewarded – for example, tackling multiple lair bosses earns exponentially more Candles than just fighting the one you’ll need to acquire a trophy (prerequisite for entering the Mountain). Even when an expedition fails, you can earn some Candles.

“When an expedition ends (whether through victory or failure) and you roll back into the Valley, the Altar awaits you. Here is where you spend the Candles. The Altar consists of several regions to spend at, sort of analogous to buildings in DD1. 

“The Intrepid Coast is a ‘catch-all’ and has everything from Stagecoach upgrades (like increased inventory space), location benefit upgrades (for example, each time you visit an Oasis, you get a free Spring Water), aesthetics, and more.

“The Living City is all about heroes – it’s where they are unlocked for use, and also where you can increase their stats and other benefits. Unlocking heroes is an example of a significant improvement over the previous version – now, if your favorite hero is the Occultist, for example, you can unlock them very quickly instead of having to wait for a predetermined level at which they unlock.

“The Working Fields behaves differently than the other upgrade tracks. It functions like a slot machine of sorts: you pay Candles to get loot draws. When an item pops out, not only do you get to use it immediately for that expedition, but it also is unlocked for all future expeditions and can be found as loot from that time onward.

“The Timeless Wood is also unique. Here, you unlock the ability to invest heroes with Memories, which are buffs that last only for that hero’s lifespan. If you are able to keep that hero alive through the expedition (and the showdown with the Confession boss), then that hero keeps their memory and also has the chance to have additional Memories added to them as long as they stay alive. In this way, we can drive long-term attachment to a given hero instance, similar in a way to DD1.”

Darkest Dungeon 2s Metagame Reboot Was Expected And Necessary Item

So, the Altar is essentially an envisioning of the Hamlet from the original game, but it appears as a mirror pool in which you can remember the world as it was before the corruption.

“Upgrade tracks are a satisfying game motif, and serve our overall goal well of providing carrots to the player,” Sigman said. “They help the player make short, medium, and long-term goals besides simply wanting to win the expedition.”

The Candles that players earn during a playthrough are really just assignable experience points, but Sigman said that making them physical items that a player has to hold on to through a journey comes with some neat design ramifications.

“For example, we actually spawn Candles throughout the expedition at different locations. When you pick them up, they go in the inventory in your stagecoach. This creates an interesting decision for the player to make: they can try to steer for these locations and collect all the Candles they find, which will increase their expedition score and allow them to upgrade more things at the Altar afterward. But keeping those Candles means less room in the coach for combat items, Inn items, trinkets, and other treasures that help survival in the current expedition. Also, choosing a Candle location over another location on the road sometimes might increase the danger or cause you to make tough trade-offs (like bypassing a Hospital).”

It’s also worth noting that this deep metagame rework brought with it some other tweaks, like a change in hero progression. Hero Shrines remain the source of backstory lore, flashback combat, and opening new skills, but the Altar of Hope delivers the ability to unlock new heroes, and to upgrade existing ones with permanent improvements. 

Another neat new feature is that once you’ve maxed out a hero at the Altar, there’s a chance to spawn a very rare and powerful signature item upon arriving at Inns.

Darkest Dungeon 2s Metagame Reboot Was Expected And Necessary Bounty Hunter

Of course a reset of Darkest Dungeon 2’s progression is huge news, but don’t let one other update get lost in the update. The team is bringing a fan favorite back from the original game: the newly improved Bounty Hunter, a character you can sometimes find at an Inn who isn’t impacted by interpersonal relationship drama that haunts the game’s other heroes.

“With all of the vulnerability, failure, and trauma that exists in the Darkest Dungeon 2 cast of characters, the Bounty Hunter stands apart — impassive, and tight-lipped,” Bourassa said. “We felt we had an opportunity to enhance the mystique around the Bounty Hunter by making him a literal mercenary. As such, it stood to reason that he wouldn't have much interest in getting to know the rest of the party — he’s here to do a job, plain and simple.

“Having him be a temporary addition to the party meant we could overtune him relative to the core cast. The net result is a fun, ‘spiky’ option for players who may be flagging in their runs, or those who want to feel a little more empowered heading into a boss lair. His unreliable appearance at Inns also adds an element of variation between runs, and enhances the depth of decision-making vectors between regions.”

While Altar of Hope is the biggest change to date for the game, it’s by no means the first or last. Darkest Dungeon 2 launched in Early Access exclusively on the Epic Games Store almost exactly a year ago, and the team says they’ve learned a lot from the ongoing process.

“We’re developing a deeper understanding of the types of features and mechanical philosophies best suited to DD2, given its shorter-form, rogue-like structure,” Bourassa said. “It’s an exciting time for us as a development team because our focus is shifting from a pure content-creation focus to allow time for more iteration and polish. Obviously, there is still a great deal of new content to come, but we’re more able to assign time and effort to improvement based on our internal ideas, and the feedback from our community.

“When our 1.0 launches, Darkest Dungeon 2 will be narratively satisfying and mechanically rich. A rewarding and ruthless experience —a game that honors its predecessor, but that isn't afraid to embrace its own identity.”

Make sure you pick up Darkest Dungeon 2 now on the Epic Games Store and join the official Discord server to fully immerse yourself in the game’s wonderful and growing community.