by Preston Dozsa
reviewed on PC
Letters that should not be opened
It all starts with a letter from a relative. He implores you to come back to your family’s estate so that you may reclaim your birthright from the insane, revolting and eldritch inhabitants that now reside within its grounds. But you won’t be alone, for there is a host of would-be heroes and adventurers that you can recruit to delve into the manor and its surroundings. Not that they will necessarily survive the expeditions. For the hazards and stresses of combat are more than enough to ruin even the strongest of champions.
Darkest Dungeon, in the grand tradition of dungeon crawlers that have come before it, charges you with investigating several dungeons with a party of adventurers in order to root out what evil lurks within them. In tandem, you collect gold and resources by which you upgrade a nearby hamlet, which will allow you to upgrade your heroes and keep them sane in a world that is decidedly not. All of this is done in the hopes that one day you can delve into the titular dungeon and defeat whatever lurks at the bottom of it. It is also punishingly difficult.
Atmospheric art direction
The game is brought to life by an exemplary art design that is both novel and appropriate for the horrors the game parades around on a regular basis. The world looks scarred and dead, but is colourful in an almost sickening way. The characters and enemies themselves - whose eyes are shaded over in a nice touch - are great to look at, with the ability to tell what their role is with a simple glance.
Special mention must be made of the narrator, whose voice is harsh in praise and unforgiving in failure. The moment he intones “Ruin has come to our family”, I was sucked into the world of Darkest Dungeon. The narrator, also the relative who advised you to come back home, will comment on the situations you encounter and shed light as to how your ancestral home fell to ruin. His voice is deep, foreboding and, most importantly, a delight to listen to.
The core gameplay revolves around delving into one of five procedurally generated regions (though the fifth is the Darkest Dungeon itself and meant only for max level characters), exploring them as you would in a side scrolling turn-based RPG. In these dungeons you will be given an objective, such as exploring ninety percent of the dungeon, and must complete it with a crew of four characters at your side.
These characters are separated into a host of classes with a wide variety of skills, and it is testament to the skill of the developers that each class is both unique and usable. The Bounty Hunter is awesome at delivering high damage to a single target while controlling the position of enemy units, while the Leper is a tank designed solely to hit frontline enemies hard. Each class is meant for a certain position in the single file array your units are lined up in, though some, like the Jester, are meant to ebb and flow throughout the line.
What truly makes the gameplay great, however, is the concept of stress. The presumption is that adventurers who fight horrifying beings and travel through hostile areas will be affected by what they fight and see. Much in the same way that health is used to measure a person's well-being, too much stress can result in a tortured individual developing negative traits. In Darkest Dungeon, these are known as quirks, which range from a fear of beasts to an obsession with religious idols. That’s not to say that some people thrive under stress, as some characters may step up and become brave in the face of chaos, but stress is more often than not a problem that has to be solved.
The solution lies back at the hamlet, where characters must either journey to a tavern or abbey to recover from their ordeals. Those with negative quirks should go for a stay at the sanitarium, where quirks can be removed or reinforced if they are positive. But this costs money and time, preventing characters from going on an expedition the next week, necessitating a large roster.
Death is a regular part of the proceedings. Heroes will die regularly, be it from enemies and traps, or starvation and stress. Darkest Dungeon is uncompromising in this regard, with even the most basic of enemies able to kill your party if you do not play it safe. One of my personal favourite quotes from the narrator is “Remind yourself that overconfidence is a slow and insidious killer.” This is a mantra to live by when playing the game, as it is often worth it to abandon a quest and all the rewards you may receive from it so that your party can come back in mostly one piece. Then again, you do need the money to send your Crusader off for a prayer session...
One of the best Lovecraftian games
What makes Darkest Dungeon so engaging to play is that you are trying your best, with limited resources, to make headway against what appears to be an unconquerable landscape. This is a difficult game, and there will be times where you curse whatever gods there may be for missing your third attack in a row against a boss as your healer is on death’s doorstep. But it is great to come out the other side alive, with a great sense of accomplishment waiting for those who best the numerous trials.
Unfortunately, the game becomes a bit of a slog as you head towards the endgame, as it is required to have a large number of high level characters available. This translates into a grind for lower level characters, as you play not to advance further in each region but to make sure your party reaches the requisite level to beat the game. Thankfully, the combat and gameplay is as good as it is, or else this would feel a lot more tiresome than it actually does.
Red Hook Studios' Darkest Dungeon is one of the most compelling Lovecraftian video games ever made. It grabs hold of you from the opening sentence and refuses to let go, dragging you into it’s gaping maw of despair, frustration and madness. But this nightmarish dungeon can be conquered. It can be beaten. And you will not regret doing so.
A well crafted and compelling aesthetic, coupled with fantastic gameplay systems, make for a completely unique and engaging experience.
Necessary to grind at certain points for little reward.