I’m in the middle of fighting an early level boss with two characters left in my party, both severely wounded and psychologically distraught after watching two comrades perish. They’re staring at a grotesque monster with half of his life remaining. I attack only to completely miss. At this point, I know what’s coming and quickly think about abandoning the fight to save the two remaining heroes. All hope is lost and I need to rethink my strategy before returning. My mind is already back at the hub world thinking about what I can adjust for my next attempt. But then the boss attacks and my characters dodge. Fortune is on my side and I can’t retreat now! I press on and eventually defeat the boss with both characters still hanging on for dear life. They are bleeding, mentally worn, and one is saying things that make no sense due to his Irrational Affliction. Throughout that battle I contemplated retreat over half a dozen times. This is Darkest Dungeon.
The game opens with an ancestor writing a letter demanding you inherit his mansion. The letter states that your ancestor found a portal underneath the dwelling with which he tampered and unleashed monsters from within. He also requests that the player attempt to destroy the creatures and close the portal. This letter was written just before your ancestor admits psychological dissolution and commits suicide. It’s a dark introduction and sets the tone for what the player should expect.
That tone is bolstered by the presentation of the game. The aesthetic is a 2D, hand-drawn design inspired by hammer horror and lovecraftian art. There’s a real sense of beauty to the deformed, unsightly monsters you fight throughout. Even the severely limited animation fits the world as the single-digit frames for each sprite are stunning. Overlaying the gothica-esque visuals is pitch-perfect narration. Voice actor Wayne June is now my lovecraftian Morgan Freeman. The bass in his voice is enough to put chills down your spine as he hauntingly comments on your character’s fears and psychological fragility. I don’t know if I’ve played a game in which the art design and narration fit the tone so adeptly.
After accepting the task of defeating the evil beneath the manor, the player is then introduced to the hub world comprised of a town with many buildings. These facilities provide services used to help the game’s many player-managed heroes including healing characters, purchasing items, recruiting characters, and upgrading weapons and abilities. Visiting the town is the first of three distinct stages present in Darkest Dungeon. Town makes up the planning stage, followed by assembling a team and purchasing provisions in the preparation stage. Fighting enemies and exploring dungeons comprises the enacting stage. Each one is vital to success.
In essence, Darkest Dungeon is a rogue-style, side-scrolling, turn-based RPG in which four of your heroes face off against up to four enemies. The order in which you set your party is a crucial element as this determines the usefulness of abilities. For example, the Leper, one of fifteen total classes, can only use an ability while in the first or second position within your party. If your character is out of place, they must change positions.
Each dungeon is procedurally generated yet conceptually similar. Although things like dungeon length appear to be predetermined, other aspects such as enemy placement, loot, layout, etc. are randomly determined by unseen algorithms. These hidden calculations play a major role in Darkest Dungeon as chance is seen in nearly every facet of the game. Although your character has a higher speed level than the opposition, that does not mean that character will go first next round.
Character statistics that must be considered when choosing your party include speed, accuracy, dodge, protection, etc., as well as resistance to effects such as bleed or blight. You can increase and decrease each of these aspects using buffs/debuffs, items, and trinkets. These statistics and items are important to consider before entering dungeons as death is permanent. Characters actions include attack, heal, changing positions, protecting themselves or others, stop bleeding or blight from further damage, and/or use a multitude of items at their disposal both in and out of battle.
It’s a game of variables, luck, and probability with an incredible amount of depth. You may have your cards lined up perfectly but that doesn’t mean your actions will be flawlessly executed. And when it rains in Darkest Dungeon, it pours. It can be a brutally tough game in which you lose several heroes before finally scraping by a boss. It’s hell and the game is about how much you can tip the odds in your favor to manage the chaos within. This is done by using abilities and items that will implement such perks as making your character or teammates less prone to bleeding or perhaps equipping a trinket that will give your ranged attacks more potency.
Due to the involvement of so many factors, there are an incredible amount of ways to approach dungeons. There’s much more cerebral strategy involved than most other RPGs I’ve played. You also have to compensate for the random aspects. There have been times in which I easily spent more time planning my next dungeon than playing it. You can completely change your approach from one expedition to the next. Whereas my first attempt I may choose party members heavy on bleed and stun, the next I may emphasize healing and blight. I typically dislike such necessary micromanagement, but I thoroughly enjoyed this within Darkest Dungeon.
I’ve discussed many gameplay elements within the game, but there’s one more that happens to be the most important. At the center of Darkest Dungeon is the concept of stress. Stress levels are represented by a prominently displayed status bar that can be impacted from just about everything in the game. Some of these factors include being attacked, not having enough light, falling victim to traps, finding unpleasant loot, being low on health, bleeding, losing companions, or even simply walking. Once stress reaches a certain point, your character will either take on an affliction or, occasionally, gain a virtue. Afflictions negatively impact characters while a virtue is positive. This is the crux of the game due to their uniqueness and potentially devastating effects. If a character becomes paranoid, he may talk to himself, decline food, and/or perhaps change position upon voicing concerns about safety.
The beauty of stress is how it is transmitted to the player. You will find yourself talking to the game during your timeless turns, expressing paranoia concerning the unknown that resides down each hallway, and experiencing repeated bouts of hopelessness while pleading with your enemies. It’s these implementations and the impact they have on both character and player that really make the game shine. Seeing experiences psychologically impact characters humanize them in a way that makes you care more than you should, especially with so many at your disposal. You’ll cheer on characters as well as feel sorrow when one snaps and begins stabbing himself before ultimately perishing.
To say this game has depth is an understatement. There are some aspects that I haven’t even discussed up to this point. Although some players will fault the game for it’s difficulty compounded by randomness, all aspects work together beautifully to provide a demanding, tactful, fun RPG that will absolutely have fans of the genre investing dozens, if not hundreds of hours into the game. It’s something that will kick you while you’re down but have you coming back for more. Don’t pass this one up.
Down Into the Darkest Parts of Your Psyche
A visually striking, profound, and tough but rewarding RPG that will sink its teeth into you in more ways than one.