Darkest Dungeon is a role-playing, turn-based, rogue-lite dungeon crawler from Red Hook Studios. The set-up is that your wealthy relative has died, but not before they were able to write you a letter, urging you to come to the ancestral shithole to spruce up the place and purge the ancient, unknowable evil that lurks, broods, and taints up the place like a unruly teenager. The game starts off with a neat little tutorial, explaining some of the nuances of gameplay, including the tactical placement of characters, attacks and effects. These are all standards we’ve come to know and love in the genre, and are ostensibly nothing out of the ordinary. But there are a few twists that set Darkest Dungeon apart.
When you set out on an adventure, you’ll select your adventurers, and there are a lot to choose from. Some are tanks, some are roguish, some are healers, and some just suck (plague doctor, I hate you so damn much). You can select your character order as well, and right-clicking on a portrait provides insight into their ideal placement. Different heroes provide different bonuses, like scouting ahead to spot traps and treasure.
After you pick your team, you’ll need provisions, which itself is a risk and reward proposition. You’ll need food for characters, particularly on the longer treks (there’s even a camping/survival mechanic to replenish health and stress for such undertakings), or they’re liable to starve. You’ll need torches to light the way and keep characters from intermittently having nervous breakdowns. And you’ll need various health items to keep bleed and blight effects in check. Does this sound like a lot to juggle? Because I am not doing the death-defying, chainsaw-spinning, greased-up, foot-juggling spectacle justice, I assure you. There aren’t enough words. After your quest, these provisions don’t carry on to the next journey, unfortunately. So do you risk spending too much, or spending too little? Both carry consequence.
One aspect in which Darkest Dungeon differentiates itself from its peers is that every hero has a stress bar beneath their health. With each enemy encounter, trap, and even the act of walking, the adventurers will accrue stress. This is countered by killing blows, critical hits, and some support abilities. Inevitably, someone will reach their breaking point after one too many knock-knock jokes, and one of two things will happen: they’ll either rally courageously, lowering their stress and everyone else’s, or become afflicted. This affliction, whether it be cowardice, masochism, irrationality or something else, means you won’t always be in control of that hero, often to their detriment and the team’s.
After you clear, or flee, a dungeon, you return to the estate, a hub where your weary adventurers can get some much needed R&R. Mirroring the core gameplay, your decisions in the hub world are deeply tactical. Some characters are religious, and will only be willing to visit the abbey to relieve stress. Others will happily drink and gamble their sorrows away. And as less savory quirks develop (buffs and debuffs gained through adventuring and R&R, separate from affliction), you can send them to the sanatorium, where presumably all the fun is. All of this is costly in time and money, and you’ll have to manage carefully. Fresh heroes and heroines are wheeled into town after every adventure, but they are unskilled in nature. With each subsequent successful quest, estate properties unlock, providing you the opportunity to upgrade abilities, armor and weapons, survivor traits, and more. Expect to spend a lot of booty.
After enough victories, more procedural dungeon locales unlock, bosses become available to fight, and the game gets tougher. I’m not joking when I suggest that you, the player, will experience every quirk, affliction, and solace your characters do. I was paranoid. I was stalwart. I was masochistic. I was even hagiophobic (the last game that introduced me to such cool vocabulary was Eternal Darkness). That is an accomplishment. And it was all worth it, every second of crawling, creeping madness, to play this game.
It’s only February 2015 and this will easily be a contender for game of the year, of that I have no doubt. The art direction is spectacular; beautiful and visceral at the same time, like an old, dusty, medieval anatomy book. The turn-based attacks are so cool, so varied. The enemies are bizarre, terrifying, menacing and intelligent. The heroes and heroines are flawed, heroic; almost real. The dungeon crawling is rewarding, the victories are often bittersweet, and the office cooler conversation potential of this game is off the charts with so many variables. But the narration, sweet tap dancing Allfather, Allmother, and every Allrelative in between, the narration is amazing. It’s omnipresent, in both the hub and the dungeons, raising hopes and dashing them in dulcet tones. It’s like Vincent Price and Paul Frees’ (Disney’s Haunted Mansion) voices got married and Cthulhu officiated.
That being said, I do have a few tiny criticisms. The game can be unrelentingly punishing at times, even unfair. And while there is no fail state per se, things can get so bad that you’ll simply want to restart. I’d like the option to play a game in which I can save. XCOM has a save mode and an Ironman mode, and I’d prefer that option here as well. There are also little technical glitches here and there, and the occasional grammatical and spelling errors. That’s about it. That’s the sum of my complaints. I’d like to be able to save and there are a few little errors. And this title is in Early Access, which means we can anticipate lots of fine tuning and, hopefully, some cool additions as well. But what’s already here, what’s already been done, is spectacular.
It would be a grave crime against the Elder Gods to pass this up, and madness will surely follow.