I remember, years ago, going to see Van Helsing with a good friend at the local silver screen. It was an evening show and we were the only ones in the theater. Before you dismiss Van Helsing as a diabolical abomination of filmmaking (which it probably is, but whatevs), know this: the thrill of having an entire theater to yourself where you can stand up, yell, high-five, punch-dance, and whoop along with a movie like Van Helsing is something rather special. So years later, when this same friend said to me, “you should check out Darkest Dungeon, it’s got that feeling to it … you know the one… the Van Helsing feeling,” I knew I had to try it out.
Red Hook Studio’s Darkest Dungeon strikes a number of chords, stoking my gaming fire slowly, gently. We will get into the specifics in due order, but the game as a whole is a delightful blend of operational, Roguelike gameplay (think XCOM) and nail-biting dungeon diving, dripping with style and character. It is the latter point that brings a crooked smile to my face everytime I think about Darkest Dungeon. The game has atmosphere of a level that few other games in recent memory have achieved.
Within moments of launching the game, I was watching the opening sequence unfold, which set the stage for a lovecraft-inspired tale of woe and despair. The music was bold and intense, with the voice-over narration setting the scene splendidly. The story is a classic case of a lunatic living in a high, creepy manor and “digging too deep” below its lost catacombs. The master’s lust for power and wealth unearthed dark, monstrous forces from the bowels of the underworld (specifically from the “Darkest Dungeon”). These infernal forces spewed forth onto the surface, corrupting the landscape and twisting it into a nightmarish place that would make Tim Burton smile in appreciation.
Your character enters the storyline (via black lacquered carriage, naturally) and descends into the sleepy, crumbling, suspicious hamlet that forms your base of operations. Fittingly, you have come to inherit the very same foreboding, haunted manor at the top of the hill, which appears to be the source of the corruption. Not one to be dissuaded by the horrors of the underworld, you’ve put out a call for adventurers to enter into your service, luring them with the promise of riches and power. You’ll be sending these brave souls out to clear a path to and through the manor in hopes of descending to the bottom of the Darkest Dungeon, purging the corruption once and for all. Sounds easy.
Darkest Dungeon, according to a certain taxonomy of Roguelikes, falls neatly into the “operational” category. And in this case specifically, it might best be described as a hero mill, where heroes come and heroes die in a never-ending turning of the grinding wheel.
So what does this actually mean? The game is structured around days, and in each day you select up to four brave souls to send on a quest to plumb the depths of one of four different locations ranging from crypts to tangled woodlands. You will guide your intrepid adventurers through a maze-like arrangement of rooms and corridors, all presented in a side-scrolling point of view. If your heroes make it back alive, they will open up further depths to explore. Eventually you will discover unique bosses that inhabit each location. Defeating these will advance you along the storyline to unlock the Darkest Dungeon. Phew!
Your rewards for a successful mission include gold and various treasure “resources” like property deeds, portraits, and statues (yeah, I don’t know either). You’ll use these resources in a base-building fashion to expand the services and capabilities of key buildings in the hamlet. These buildings include a blacksmith, training hall, monastery, bar, sanitarium, and more. Each upgrade provides ways to improve the skills and equipment of your heroes, albeit for an additional gold fee.
Buildings also provide different avenues for your heroes to recover from the horrors of the dungeons. It is here that we see one of the first novel aspects of the game. As much as success in the dungeon relies on traditional RPG things like hit points, special abilities, upgraded equipment, etc., it also hinges on the psychological survival of your characters.
As you progress through a mission, your heroes accumulate stress. If not addressed, stress will lead to a character breaking down and acting erratically, often ignoring your commands. Moreover, they can acquire permanent psychological afflictions that will affect their future performance. Some buildings will let you reduce the stress level between days (so you can avoid future freak-outs), and others subject your heroes to various “treatments” to try and root out problematic psychological quirks and physiological disorders.
There are a few really interesting aspects to this psychological layer of gameplay. First, you rarely have enough gold to treat everyone’s stress and afflictions. So, over time, your characters begin to acquire all manner of disorders, which makes the otherwise cookie cutter heroes distinct the longer you manage to keep them alive. I had one character who could only relieve stress by, uhh, prolonged stays in the brothel. But the hero also had a dangerous brothel addiction, and would be prone to simply disappearing for days at a time. Don’t ask. In any event, you constantly have to decide who you will treat or leave alone to suffer, and balance that against other needs like upgrading your heroes’ skills and gear.
Second, not all of the afflictions are inherently bad. Some might provide a certain bonus or effect, which, depending on the heroes’ class, could be turned into a good thing. For example, one affliction makes them love the darkness. If your torch goes out (which brings other risks to the table), they get stronger. In a party of similarly afflicted heroes you can build entire strategies around this sort of “affliction” and turn it to your advantage.
When it comes to the heroes themselves, there are fourteen different classes you can recruit to your roster, and each day four new random recruits are on offer. In contrast to what you might expect in a game like this, recruitment is FREE. This is good because heroes die frequently, and the new recruits, in particular, are pitifully weak. Classes build on common RPG tropes but add their own, unique Lovecraftian twists. There is the crusader and the gravedigger, the witch doctor and the arbalest, the cultist and the jester, and many more.
Each class has a unique set of skills that provide different ways of attacking, healing, buffing, or debuffing, as well as support options (camping skills). Characters will have four of eight total abilities available on recruitment, and you can unlock the rest through training. However, you can only have four abilities active at a time. This advancement system is more forgiving and flexible than what you get in XCOM, for example. Yet given the overall difficulty of the game, choosing the correct skills to fit the overall party dynamics can be deeply challenging. It’s also expensive to needlessly unlock more skills, so there is pressure to try and make do with what you have on hand. The good thing about all of this is that there is quite a bit of diversity in how a party of heroes can function, both individually and as a group, which adds a nice strategic planning element to the game.
When your heroes are on a quest, you guide them through a small maze of corridors and chambers in pursuit of the mission goal. Goals range from clearing monsters to exploring a certain number of chambers or finding key mission items. Along the way your party will be waylaid by traps, ambushes, and obstacles. I should mention that you also have to purchase survival gear like torches and food before adventuring out, and at quite an expensive rate, I might add! This adds a definite risk-reward element to the otherwise straightforward questing. If you don’t recover at least enough gold to cover your expenses plus handling the stress of the excursion, the mission will be a net loss to your operation’s resources even if the heroes survive!
And survival is not easy. Combat occurs in a turn-based system, typically with your four heroes against one to four opponents. Everyone acts in order of initiative and each round of combat becomes its own tantalizing puzzle of combat optimization, timing, and pacing. Do you play it safe or go more aggressive? When do you unleash your critical abilities? When do you administer your precious supply of healing salves? Different abilities can only be triggered from certain positions (i.e. party line order) and/or only target certain enemy positions. Yet many enemy abilities will push and pull your heroes around, disrupting their position and rendering key abilities useless. You constantly have to weigh spending a turn to get back in proper order against using a secondary ability for lesser effect. It is a satisfying challenge to say the least.
There is another wrinkle to dungeon delving: missions eventually become multi-day affairs, requiring you to camp in the wilds. This brings its own risk and considerations, but also an opportunity to leverage your heroes’ survival skills. These skills can help restore health and reduce stress, while providing unique buffs that will benefit you once you break camp. These decisions add yet another layer to the planning and character development that makes Darkest Dungeon such a rich and multifaceted experience.
While the above mechanics may come across on paper as dry and mathematical, the presentation and overall feeling of the game is definitely not (YMMV). Take, for instance, the in-game voice over during combat. The widely praised narration provides a dark, brooding, and somber play-by-play of the action, akin almost to a sports announcer. The quotes and one-liners are absolutely brilliant, combining highfalutin, opulent word choices (including the word opulent) in such an over-the-top serious manner that it goes full circle on itself and ends up being hilarious given the matter at hand. Just like Van Helsing.
Then there is the art and graphic style. The style evokes the look and feel of those dark and grisly graphic novels you probably read when no one else is looking. As your characters trade blows with the grotesque creatures of the dark, the action zooms in and freeze-frames on the exchange in a really pleasing manner. It transforms the flat side-scrolling view of your dungeon exploration into a more three-dimensional space. It’s the equivalent of the “Pow!” and “Wham!” frames you’d see in an old comic book and does a great job connecting you to the action.
Darkest Dungeon was in Early Access for a good bit of time (about a year), and the game certainly grew and improved during the EA stint. Interestingly, much of the game’s EA period was punctuated by a tug of war between those who felt the game was too easy and those who felt the game was too hard. I came upon the game towards the end of the EA cycle so was insulated from most of the argument. But based on my experience, the game feels just about right in terms of difficulty. Some of the harsher features (e.g stress induced heart-attacks insta-killing you), were toned down a little (they now merely leave you on death’s doorstep, which you can at least heal your way out of).
A caveat to the gameplay is that there is a moderate level of randomness involved, as one one should expect with a Roguelike, and sometimes you will be undermined through no fault of your own. For instance, you might have your A-team of heroes assembled for a high level run, and one of the initial encounters (which should be a trivial matter) will turn sour. Enemies might get a string of critical hits leaving your party half-dead before you’ve made much progress, putting the entire adventure in jeopardy. To enjoy the game to its fullest, you have to be willing to embrace the chaos and these twists of fate and fortune. The upside is that, as an operational Roguelike, if any individual endeavor goes south your overall game still persists. There are always more heroes for the mill.
Overall, the game is a proper challenge befitting both its Roguelike roots and the dismal theme of improbable and insurmountable evil. If nothing else, the game’s presentation nails that kind of atmosphere. But I think the gameplay holds up well, too, delivering an intoxicating and multifaceted game. Darkest Dungeon imbues your characters with personality and individuality through their trials and afflictions, such that the loss of a hero always comes with a heavy heart. Yet the hero mill grinds on. I haven’t yet ventured into the depths of the Darkest Dungeon, and even if I wanted to, I doubt my roster of fledgling and broken heroes is up to the task. But someday, maybe, after much trepidation and risk, I’ll lead the bold and the brave into the darkest of the dark.
TL;DR: If you are interested in operational Roguelikes (think XCOM ’12), but set in a challenging and unforgiving Lovecraftian nightmare, Darkest Dungeon delivers. The gameplay is a multi-faceted mix of hero management, including their psychological well being, and tactical turn-based dungeon diving. The game has an incredible sense of style and art direction that makes the experience all the more gripping.
You Might Like This Game If:
- You enjoy Roguelikes, but are also interested in non-traditional Roguelikes that include an aspect of base and hero management.
- You like turn-based strategy and tactics games with a high degree of challenge and a moderate dose of luck.
- You love dark, brooding, Lovecraftian themes executed with impunity and an amazing art style.
You Might NOT Like This Game If:
- You don’t enjoy being set back or undermined through bad luck and unfortunate twists of fate.
- You get overly attached to your digital characters and are prone to bouts of weeping when they die – because they will die a lot in the Darkest Dungeon.
- The horrors of the deep disturb you and beholding such monstrous imagery will give you perpetual nightmares.
Oliver has played approximately 20+ hours of Darkest Dungeon on a MSI GX-640 Laptop with a Core i5-430m (2.26 GHz), 4GB RAM, ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5850 (1GB DDR5).