Apart from a couple of Bungie titles that I may have played a bit too obsessively, the two games that I returned to the most during the decade just passed were probably Crusader Kings 2 and the first Spelunky. Less than three weeks ago I got CK3, and now I've been spoiled rotten with a proper sequel to Spelunky, the action-platformer from Mossmouth that expertly blends roguelike mechanics with pixel-perfect gameplay to create one of the most compelling and exhilarating video game experiences that I've ever had the pleasure of playing. That being the case, for me and those who feel the same way (and there are more of us than you might first think), the stakes couldn't be higher for this sequel.
I'm happy to report, then, that Spelunky 2 is an absolute masterclass in platform design and a worthy successor to one of the most important indie games ever made. This sequel, made by Mossmouth with some help from Blitworks, takes everything that made the original great and expands on it, and the result is a game filled with secrets, action, hope, despair, and more restarts than I care to admit on record (spoiler: it was a lot).
Death is a core part of the gameplay loop in Spelunky 2. This is a brutally hard game and it takes no quarter. Yet it's also not unfair (well, sometimes it can feel cruel), and the vast majority of my in-game deaths were because I wasn't paying attention and I missed a trap or misjudged something, or because I tried to do something ill-advised and made a spectacular hash of it. For the most part, you can trace every death back to some stupid decision you made a minute before, and it's the sense that your failings are your own that drives you back for run after run after run.
As mentioned, Spelunky borrows roguelike mechanics, including permadeath and procedurally generated levels, so when you die you start again in a completely new world. Like its predecessor, the procedural generation is generally very good, however, a couple of newer additions ensure that you'll face the odd curve ball where traps and enemies are positioned in such a way that if you make one mistake, it's essentially a death sentence.
That lethal challenge is juxtaposed wonderfully by a story that is actually really cute. Playing as Ana, Spelunky Guy's little girl, you head off to the moon to find your missing parents. Once there, you find another mysterious cave system, and so begins your adventure anew. On the face of it, you might think that Spelunky 2 is a child-friendly game thanks to the sugar-sweet visuals and the chirpy soundtrack, but looks can be deceiving and it won't be long before Ana (or one of the other unlockable characters that you'll soon have access to) is whipping enemies, bombing shopkeepers, and luring cavemen onto spikes.
Story aside, pretty much everything I've described above is applicable to the first game too, so let's dig into what's different about Spelunky 2, in particular, in the opening section where players will spend their first few hours. Dwelling, the first level, is split across four stages and it's similar to the mines from the original. The most notable additions are new enemy types. I hate them all, but they're brilliant, and they give you new things to worry about and make you reconsider your approach to every situation. Horned Lizards, for example, roll up in a ball and smash into you at speed, which is lethal if you get caught in a confined space. Cave Moles, on the other hand, burrow in the mud and pop up intermittently, charge around on the surface for a moment, before disappearing again.
These new additions (there are more but you can find out about them the hard way) ensure that the opening four-chapters are really tough, not least because at the end you've got to get past a challenging boss encounter. However, Mossmouth has balanced things with a couple of new additions that offer potential relief. Turkeys, for example, can be turned into mounts, returned to an NPC in certain levels, or cooked and consumed for a much-needed health boost. Just like last time, you can also rescue your pug and get extra health between missions, and these little dogs seem more prominently positioned this time around, too.
As you explore, it becomes obvious just how many subtle changes have been implemented. There are several mounts that offer new abilities and traversal options, but they also carry their own risks. Another example, secret rooms, can be linked by doors hidden across a level, and there are elaborate traps to look out for and workaround if you're after the best rewards. There is so much going on and much of it isn't immediately obvious, in particular across the expanded inventory; much of the stuff that you find only reveals its true usefulness after time and experimentation. I know some people love the lack of hand-holding and the sense of discovery that this brings, and I do too for the most part, yet I also think that Spelunky 2 can be needlessly abstruse sometimes, and just a smidge of clarity in one or two cases would have helped me progress without needless frustration. And that right there is my only criticism.
After the initial world, and unlike the first, more linear game, you find yourself on a branching path, at which point you can head out into the Jungle or explore Volcana and experience some of the new fluid physics. Each new area contains new challenges to overcome and that being the case, you can never rest on your laurels. Instead, you'll have to learn new strategies and think of elaborate ways of getting through with as much health intact as possible. It's an addictive gameplay loop, but as the first game proved and this sequel reinforces, it's a winning formula.
There's more to Spelunky than just the single-player adventure, however. Multiplayer has been expanded with a couple of adjustable modes which are great for local play. Playing against bots is anti-fun, but I had a great time lobbing bombs around the place in the arena mode with my family. Less fun but more rewarding is the co-op, where up to four players can band together and tackle the main adventure together. If you or your co-op buddy bites the proverbial bullet (or a literal one if you try and steal something from the shop) then they become a ghost until revived at a coffin in a subsequent stage. It works great, and I'm pleased to see the addition of online play, although you'll both need a decent Internet connection given the precision required.
Spelunky 2 brings just the right amount of innovation to make the familiar feel new, yet it retains the brilliance of the original in all the right places. There are so many new and exciting things to discover and I don't want to spoil any of them for you. Although just a touch of clarity in certain areas would help smooth out the odd rough edge, that's not enough to dissuade me from the notion that this is a true game of the year contender and probably the most exhilarating and engaging roguelike I've ever played. The brutal difficulty will put some off, but for those who love a stern challenge, make no mistake, this is a modern classic and an example of how to make a perfect and rewarding sequel.