Anyone who’s played Dungeons and Dragons (or any tabletop, pen and paper RPG) has had to deal with that game master (GM for the layman). You know the one I’m talking about: the one that sees the game as a contest between them and the players, that does everything they can within the rules to make the game as challenging as possible. The kind of GM that hides their dice rolls and you’re pretty sure he’s just making up the results as he goes along, but you can’t prove it and you’re pretty sure you’ll be re-rolling a new character by the end of the session if you call them on it. Yeah, that GM.
Well, Darkest Dungeon is basically like playing a game with that GM. Except in Darkest Dungeon, they’re not even trying to hide the fact that they’re cheating you, and they laugh maliciously every time a stroke of bad luck (that you’re pretty sure they orchestrated in the first place) robs you of victory or the life of one of your precious adventurers.
And it’s fun as hell. As long as you know and accept what you’re getting into.
Darkest Dungeon is one of those experiences that isn’t for everyone. Its rampant reliance on RNG (random number generation) that is almost certainly rigged in the computer’s favor — or at least I’m fairly convinced it is — certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, even if they’re totally invested in the concept of the game. I recommended it to a friend of mine who I was certain would enjoy it, but the game’s unforgiving, almost crippling difficulty filled him with a surprising amount of (not undeserved) vitriolic rage.
It’s not all random, of course, but it’s very easy for even the best-laid and most skillful plans to fall to ruin from an unlucky surprise attack or even a bad critical hit from the enemy or string of misses from your party.
The concept is fairly simple. You’re the inheritor of a large but rundown estate. But, like the old cliché of inheriting the family’s (haunted) mansion on the caveat that you spend a night in it, you’re given the rather daunting charge of clearing your land of all the rampant bandits, undead, grotesque pig-men, and faceless Lovecraftian horrors in the various areas around, within, and beneath your family’s land. But you yourself are not a brawny warrior or wise mage. You’re just a business man and landowner. So what’s a wealthy inheritor to do?
Hire cannon fodd… err… adventurers, of course!
The crux of the game is hiring from the steady influx of prospective “heroes” to form a stable of adventurers to clear out the game’s various locales – the ruins, the warrens, the weald, the cove, and, of course, the titular darkest dungeon – in a good old-fashioned dungeon crawl. To accomplish the task of cleansing your ancestral home of the taint that’s overtaken it, you’ll undertake rather basic missions that run the gamut from simply clearing out all the enemies to exploring an area to finding specific objects in procedurally-generated dungeon. Sounds pretty simple, right? Well, there’s a catch. Your adventurers aren’t Herculean supermen. They’re squishy, flesh and blood humans with actual squishy, flesh and blood brains that are affected by the strain and horrors that they encounter.
True to its Lovecraftian roots, the trials and tribulations of their adventures will wear on your adventurers. Every foray into the depths adds to their stress, which can be relieved through various actions within the dungeon – some luck-based, some not – and spending time in town praying, meditating, drinking, spending…quality time with members of the opposite (or same?) sex, and various other recreational activities. So the game comes down to hero management and making sure your stable of heroes are fresh and ready for the challenges of the game’s various, themed dungeons.
But they won’t be. I can tell you that right now. Darkest Dungeon is probably the most unforgiving game I’ve ever played. If you’re the sort of person who reset X-Com: Enemy Unknown every time one of your operatives died, do yourself a favor and don’t pick up Darkest Dungeon. The most sure-fire way to play this game successfully is to not give a rat’s backside whether your adventurers live or die. Sure, you’ll want to make every effort to keep the most successful ones — those with the best combination of quirks, both positive and negative (more on those in a moment) — alive, but sometimes the best way to succeed is to throw someone to the wolves, a sacrificial lamb that dies for the greater good.
Getting attached to your heroes is the most sure-fire way to increase your own stress level.
Stress is the core mechanic of the game. Nearly everything in the game has an effect on stress. If a member of your squad gets a critical hit, they’ll often cry out some self-congratulation that bolsters your team’s spirits. Similarly, if the enemy crits you, your team will lose some hope — just a shred, but every shred hurts in the long run.
Don’t go into the dungeons thinking that you can permanently maintain a safe stress level. Eventually, your heroes will reach their breaking point. All you can hope to do is mitigate their stress and put off that point as long as possible. When they do break, one of two things can happen. You could get lucky. Your adventurer may overcome the strain and become “virtuous.” This means they may exhibit one of several heroic qualities like courage or focus or vigor. This essentially gives the character a buff that not only reduces their stress but also causes them to try and bolster the rest of the team with spirited encouragement, mitigating further strain on the party. It also gives them additional benefits like increased damage or healing a small amount each turn, depending on their virtue.
So this can happen. But it probably won’t. Much more commonly, your characters will be afflicted. They’ll become paranoid or abusive or hopeless or selfish. They may even snap and go mad. This will cause them to be a constant strain on their teammates’ stress levels, either by being abusive or continually muttering paranoid conspiracies or babbling utter nonsense. Sometimes they’ll skip their turn or refuse help from other party members; sometimes they’ll actually hurt themselves. In short, it makes an already difficult task that much more daunting.
As a mechanic, it adds a fresh spin on the otherwise played-out dungeon-crawler, adding a new layer of consideration to the formula. The game is already difficult enough, but watching that stress bar slowly but inevitably fill as you come closer and closer to your goal does a much better job of instilling the terror of the setting than simple hit points and perma-death ever could.
The dungeon crawling is played out in a 2D plane with stylized, almost paper cutout-like graphics. You guide your party of four — chosen from an overall roster of up to 25 — down dank corridors or ominous forest roads, occasionally being assailed by random encounters. If your party has a talented scout with them, they may be able to see these encounters coming. Characters can bring four of a pool of seven abilities — trainable at the guild hall and switchable at any time for free in town — down into the dungeons with them allowing for great freedom in party selection.
Battle plays out in turns and normally I’m not a huge advocate of turn-based combat, but with how impactful each decision you make is, turn-based combat was really the way to go. It adds to the stress when you know that each turn could be your last. It paralyzes you with indecision as you pray the enemy will miss – or at least not get a critical strike for the umpteen-millionth goddamn time – and makes each victory all the more glorious. You truly feel like you’ve overcome impossible odds every time you hear the narrator announce your at-best ephemeral success in his dulcet and cynical tones.
Monsters are unique and varied – made moreso by the truly insidious boss encounters (see below) – with varied abilities and strengths and weaknesses. Some do straight damage, some serve to block your access to more dangerous monsters behind them, some afflict you with disease or blight/bleed (the game’s versions of poison) and some even do minimal damage but significant stress damage. Understanding the various types of enemies and how to tackle them all is integral to your success in Darkest Dungeon.
There’s some variation to the missions, as I mentioned earlier, and sometimes the spaces you send your hapless minions to explore will be so large that you’ll be forced to bring along camping supplies and set up a safe haven for the night. During these camping sessions, you can use your adventurers’ various camp skills to help mitigate and offset the strain of the longer adventure, reducing stress levels, healing the party, or providing other buffs.
Most noteworthy of the mission types are the boss missions. At certain points in your quest, you’ll uncover the location of one of the various boss monsters within the dungeon, and these are where the game becomes truly, horrifyingly difficult. Each boss monster – which vary from a necromancer raising legions of the dead to a siren who can turn your allies against you to a hag deep in the forest that has a cauldron of stew that’s only missing one ingredient: your heroes, and everything in between and beyond – adds unique and devious mechanics to combat that generally require numerous attempts to even figure out, let alone defeat. Each boss will almost certainly require a specific combination of heroes and abilities and will definitely be gate-keeper encounters for most people. I know for me personally, when I was playing during early access, it wasn’t until the hag completely trounced me without taking a single point of damage that I realized just how little of the game I understood.
These are the most compelling, but also the most frustrating parts of the game for me. The bosses are interesting and complex, but tackling them can be a daunting task. It’s certainly easy to get into a groove against regular enemies — which are difficult in and of themselves — and thinking you’re getting better at the game only for it all to come to a screeching halt when you can’t even make a dent in one of the game’s earliest bosses. I can easily see people who are not wholly invested in the steep difficulty spike being turned off by the encounters.
As alluded to before, not all adventurers are created equal. Not only are there 14 unique and interesting classes — which go beyond the usual “warrior, rogue, mage, cleric” to give you heroes like the resilient leper, the crafty grave robber, and the savage hellion — but each individual hero has their own quirks and traits, both positive and negative. And it’s balancing these positive and negative attributes that makes the game’s roster-juggling so interesting. Skeletons in the ruins giving you a hard time? Bring the templar with “ruins tactician” and “unholy hater” to give you a huge damage boost. Do you like scrounging around when the torch is low for a chance at better loot? Make sure you bring that vestal with “night owl” so they can keep your team’s health topped off.
Of course, this is all balanced by negative traits and even undesirable positive quirks. The aforementioned “ruins tactician”/”unholy hater” templar, for example, might become an unfortunate addition to your team’s roster if he’s light-blind and receives negative penalties if your torch is too bright, or if he’s prone to stealing everything you find, reducing your overall haul. He might even pick up a quirk that gives him added functionality in another dungeon altogether…which could be undesirable if you’re grooming him to be your go-to guy for the ruins. There’s dozens of traits and countless combinations, so get your spreadsheets out, min/maxers!
You have some ability to pick and choose your quirks, of course. Not only can you simply not take on that clumsy, weak-gripped hellion and send them packing, but if your favorite highwayman develops an unwanted fear of beasts, you can send him to the sanitarium to have the friendly and helpful healthcare professionals whip it out of him…for a price.
And that’s the brilliance of the game. Everything has a price, whether inside the dungeon or combat or outside of it. Sure, it might be worth removing an undesirable quirk from a battle-hardened veteran of the dungeons, but that promising new hound master that just came off the caravan, bright-eyed and eager to make a difference, may not be worth investing too much in if he contracts syphilis on his first expedition. It may not even be worth spending money to let him cavort in the tavern to relieve his stress if funds are tight and you have other more promising prospects. It might be worth continuing on in a mission even knowing your favorite man-at-arms will die if you’re confident that you’ll finish the mission and get that big payday you need (because you’ve failed the last six missions in a row and money is tight). It might be worth risking letting your occultist’s stress top out to see if he becomes virtuous and bolsters the rest of the team. It might worth exploring one more room just to see if it has the relics you need to upgrade your armory so you can improve your team’s weapons and armor. It might be worth letting the torch run low for more loot at the risk of stronger enemies.
Or your gambles might all fail miserably, leaving you back at town, your pocketbook all the more strained for the failed mission as you listen to your team’s hopeful banter turn into defeated moans of the truly bereft.
And here’s where we come full circle back to the difficulty. You need to be prepared for a completely unforgiving experience if you’re expecting to get into Darkest Dungeon. Not only will it not hold your hand, but it will do everything in its power to ensure that you fail. Repeatedly and often. But if you can get past that — if you can learn to accept and even enjoy your failures as prerequisites to your eventual success — Darkest Dungeon will provide you with countless hours of masochistic enjoyment. It is one of the greatest examples of emergent narrative in gaming — just check out this article I wrote during the earliest stages of Early Access. It’s atmospheric and bleak, from the enemy design to the varied dungeons to the dour and cynical (and highly entertaining) narrator, and is already a strong contender for my game of the year.
Success so clearly in view…or is it just a trick of the light?
Publisher: Red Hook Studios | Developer: Red Hook Studios | Platforms: PC
Darkest Dungeon was purchased by the reviewer. No press copy of the game was provided by the publisher.