Successfully funded through Kickstarter on March 2014, Darkest Dungeon by Red Hook Studios hit the Steam store on the 3rd of February. It promised to be a challenging gothic roguelike with the mental health of your characters as important as the physical. The game they’ve delivered so far has been exactly that. While your characters suffer wounds, diseases, and other standard RPG ailments, they also suffer from stress. In the world of Darkest Dungeon, stress is in abundance.
When you’re brought into the gothic world, you are given limited control of a small hamlet in an area owned by family. You appear to be the last of the bloodline, and these lands are corrupt, in need of purifying. Overrun by ruffians, the undead, and even worse eldritch horrors from the darkness.
Your predecessor had discovered something beneath the castle foundations. Something that man should not have found. Through the etched doors hidden from humanity it looks as though all manner of beast and demon had been released onto the lands.
From your starting hamlet you recruit wandering mercenaries and adventurers to help you reclaim your family’s lands. The recruits come in various classes ranging from crusaders to grave robbers and lepers. Each class has its own strengths and weaknesses, and each new character comes with four abilities from a pool of seven. Meaning you may get two plague doctors, but they’ll have a different set of attacks to use.
When you’re ready to embark into the dungeons, or along the wooded paths, among a handful of areas, you put your party of four together. As the game plays like a 2D side-scroller, placing your characters into their slots requires a little thinking. You’d want to put your healers at the back right? And your crusader at the front? Most of the times yes, but that’s where Darkest Dungeon shows its true strengths.
Each ability must be cast from a certain spot, and may only hit (if it hits) enemies in other specific slots. For example. There is a large attack by the Hellion class, but it only hits the 4th enemy in the line, if there are less than 4 enemies, it hits no-one. The highwayman character has a very strong pistol shot, but only if he’s the first character in the line, and since his other pistol attacks need him to be in the back rows, it’s a question of which ability you want to rely on. Tactics come into play a lot more than “hit this guy till he’s dead kkthnx”. Luckily mobility is also a factor. Many skills allow a character to lunge forward or feign back, setting them up for another ability on their next turn. But be careful, there are enemies that can shuffle your ranks around as well, and sometimes you’ll find that your healer is useless because that bastard of a skeleton mage pulled her to the front rank. You’ll find yourself wasting valuable turns just to rearrange your troops, and a wasted turn can mean the difference between life and death
Outside of combat the dungeon crawling aspect is minimal. Rooms are linked by corridors, and once you’re in a room you choose the next room to aim for. So a lot of the movement is in those corridors that hold traps, treasures, and baddies.
Spend too long in a dungeon, looting graves, fighting horrors, losing torchlight, and your characters will start to feel the demonic presence and depressing nature of the dungeon take its toll on their minds. Stress isn’t just a feature of this game, it’s the driving mechanic. Your characters will lose their minds if you let it happen to them, most of the time it’s inevitable. Hopelessness and paranoia take over the minds of your adventurers, but in the darkest corners of the dungeons, sometimes valour offers a flicker of hope.
You will churn through characters like a hot knife through butter, which is something you just have to accept. The game has a very steep curve at the start and you’ll need every nugget of gold you can find. This means you’ll be abandoning quests a lot, just to bring back the gold. Since healing a player from stress is not only time consuming but expensive, you’ll also find yourself willingly letting adventurers go and just swapping them in for new blood. It’s a part of the game I feel could use a bit better balance, but once you figure out the mechanics of it you accept it as part of the journey.
The game looks and sounds amazing. The art has been crafted with love. It has a unique hand-drawn dark comic style, with a thick dark stroke around very earthy tones. There are no bright happy colours in this world. The world of Darkest Dungeon is a depressing, unforgiving place.
Coupled with the art is foreboding music that lingers in the background, rising to a crescendo during combat. During the quite periods you can hear groaning of beasts, the rustling of the wind, and low bell tones to set the mood. On top of it all is the narrator whose dry quips and commentaries add a great atmosphere to the game. He narrates the action as it plays, like he is reading from his memoirs.
The UI has some issues in the town, screens will open on top of, or even behind each other. And the lack of proper keyboard shortcuts can get a little on the annoying side of things. But these are minor issues that I’m sure will be patched at a future date.
Darkest Dungeon is a great game with a ton of replayability. Much like other roguelike-like games out there you will have times of great joy, but also great frustration (get used to seeing the word “dodge” a lot in combat). But I’m hooked on it, and you will be too.