Darkest Dungeon: A game of risk and reward, sacrifice, and infuriation
Picture this: You’ve sent four intrepid heroes into a forest. It’s overgrown, stuffed with corpses, rusty traps, and chittering eldritch horrors. The atmosphere is oppressive, no matter where your heroes are are they can’t shake the feeling that something is watching them, playing with them, that death could be just around the next corner. Still, they persevere. In fight after fight, they beat the odds and cut, bash, bleed, and blight their opponents to death. Then, a few lucky critical hits from the enemy push one of them over the edge – she snaps, becoming abusive to her party members — screaming at them for their failures. Morale begins to crumble. Desperate to cover the expedition’s expenses, you urge your adventurers on a little further, looking for just a bit more treasure.
Big mistake. You’re ambushed. You give the order to flee but your abusive plague doctor refuses to comply. Two of your heroes are cut down before you manage to escape. They will never come back. The remaining two heroes stumble back into town, your plague doctor now having developed a drinking habit.
Welcome to Darkest Dungeon. A game of risk and reward, sacrifice and loss. A game that will make you flip off your computer screen with alarming regularity — and a game I keep coming back to.
What is it?
Darkest Dungeon is an early-access game (the full release is slated for this January) that aims to skewer the tropes of traditional dungeon crawlers. Instead of coping solely with your hero’s physical health, you also have to contend with their mental health. As they crawl through Lovecraftian hallways, they’ll be bombarded by traps, poisons, monsters, bandits, and curses. Dungeon delving is a dirty, dangerous business – and no one comes out of it unfazed. These mental challenges are represented by “stress,” which basically takes the form of a second health bar. If a hero accrues 100 stress, their resolve will be tested, which most of the time leads to them becoming temporarily insane. This insanity can take a number of different forms: Perhaps they become masochistic, or cowardly, or begin to spout nonsensical apocalyptic gibberish. Whatever is it, it’s bad for them, and worse for your team. The only thing more stressful than dungeon delving is dungeon delving with a healer who talks about the “glory of pain” and repeatedly cuts themselves.
But Darkest Dungeon doesn’t just let you off the hook with temporary insanity. We’re talking about cutting up the walking dead and watching your friends die here; that’s some PTSD-quality stuff. Heroes will develop permanent quirks as they progress that range from alcoholism to fear of specific enemy types, or even positive quirks (like fast reflexes). Negative quirks can be removed at your town’s Sanitarium, but the price is steep and it’s always a tough decision to invest some of your hard-earned gold to remove a quirk. The quirks, meanwhile, do a good job of breathing individuality into the hero.
So what’s the gameplay like?
The gameplay itself is primarily turn-based combat mixed with dungeon exploration. You make a team of four heroes out of 13 existing classes (there will be 15 in the full release), provision them with food, shovels, holy water, and whatever else you think they may need, and then send them into the great unknown to slay evil, claim treasure, and gain experience. Each successful expedition provides you with gold and heirlooms that will allow you to upgrade your Hamlet. There are a variety of upgrades that make for tough choices, particularly in the early game. Is it better to improve your abbey and reduce the cost of de-stressing religious heroes? Or should you upgrade the sanitarium so you can remove harmful addictions, quirks, and diseases? Darkest Dungeon has a design based around making difficult choices. Horrible events are common, and it often asks you to deal with a terrible situation by making the least bad decision. It’s not for everyone. However, if you love the agonizing decision-making that comes with turn-based tactical games, there’s something here for you.
What really sets Darkest Dungeon’s combat apart is positioning. Characters and enemies stand in formations of four, and every character has abilities they can only use from certain positions. Your occultist can only use his heal from the back two rows, but switching him near the front allows him to summon demonic hands from the ground, binding and stunning a troublesome opponent. Each class has seven total skills, and can have four equipped at a time. This allows you to run multiple characters of the same class to fill different roles and excel in different party positions. This, combined with each character’s quirks, really makes each adventurer feel different.
And some of them will die, at least when you’re starting out.
Darkest Dungeon has a learning curve, and while you’re learning the intricacies, be prepared to see a few expeditions go awry and end up in your graveyard. Stick with it though. The difficulty is nicely balanced to the point that preparation and tactics will win the day even when you’re suffering from terrible luck. Sometimes the random number generator will dictate you miss three times in a row – but if you have a plan B for your plan B (you always should), you can usually keep your expeditions from completely falling apart.
Difficulty ramps up nicely. After you get the hang of the game, low-level dungeons will become routine. However, upon stepping into your first veteran-level dungeon, you’ll be surprised by a host of new monsters, tactics and threats. Champion dungeons don’t change the game in the same way, but by that point the monsters are so deadly that you’re pretty much always one mistake away from the danger zone. It makes for tense, but engaging, gameplay.
The excellent gameplay is backed up with great atmosphere. Darkest Dungeon has a narrator whose ridiculously deep, gravelly voice perfectly sets the tone for a game whose central themes are madness, despair, and, out of those unlikely places, heroism. The monster sprites are unsettling and varied, and all of the hero concepts are sweet. Normally in squad based games, I find myself growing attached to a particular class or character, who I try to incorporate into every party and mission. That’s not the case with Darkest Dungeon, because every one of the classes is cool. Bounty Hunters, Grave Robbers, Highwaymen, Crusaders, Lepers, Jesters – there’s a huge breadth of concepts, and each character comes with their own dialogue and skill set. There’s not a single class that I don’t want to use because it lacks the “cool factor.”
What’s wrong with it?
Darkest Dungeon is a grind. I don’t necessarily mind grindy elements, since they’re pretty common place in most games these days and RPGs are particularly notorious for including a grind. Darkest Dungeon’s is ridiculous though.
The amount of heirlooms you need to gather in order to fully upgrade your estate is exhausting, and the amount of dungeons you need to run to unlock all of the bosses is frustrating. The issue is further compounded by the fact that there aren’t really any immediate stakes to your adventure. Hiring new adventurers is free, there’s no time limit, and abandoning expeditions has no downside other than an increase in stress for the members of that expedition. The final release will include the titular “Darkest Dungeon” as an end-game zone, but it’s odd that a game that is thematically grounded in desperation has no overarching sense of danger or failure. You can be setback, but you can never lose.
Additionally, while all the classes are cool, some are better than others. None of them are so terrible that you can’t find a way to make them work (although the Jester is close – he’s pretty damn bad), but some classes easily outperform their counterparts. This balancing will continually be addressed as Red Hook moves forward, but it can be frustrating struggling to find a use for your Plague Doctor or Highway Man, particularly if you’re drawn to their concept.
If you like rogue-likes and tactical RPG’s, I can’t recommend Darkest Dungeon enough. I would similarly recommend it to any Lovecraft fan, as it does a great job of leveraging cosmic horror, which, in my opinion, is an almost criminally underused genre in video games. The full game isn’t out yet, but the current build of the game is easily worth twenty dollars and will only improve and grow with further updates. So far, Red Hook has been extremely responsive to the community and changed the game significantly in response to feedback since its initial release in February. I’ll be updating this review when the full game releases on January 19th, 2016, but by then it shouldn’t matter – because you should buy the game now and be in love with it well before then.