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Darkest Dungeon is an RPG dungeon crawler available on PC, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita. Alan Stock clings desperately to his sanity to bring you this review for ComiConverse.
Game Review: Darkest Dungeon
Author H.P. Lovecraft’s horror stories, or “weird tales” as they were known at the time, were almost unknown during his life and he died young, at just 46 years old in 1937. If only he could have known that his tales would go on to mesmerise millions, and eventually influence other forms of media, video games being no exception. Having played, seen and read so many Lovecraft homages, I recently began listening to the audiobooks of his complete fiction works to see what inspired them. And so I can confirm that Darkest Dungeon captures Lovecraft’s themes and style perfectly, as you venture into the dank depths of the cellars, caves and dungeons to rid your ancestral home of corruption from a terrible god.
The whole game oozes Lovecraft, from its Victorian setting, dark visual style, the poetic and melancholic narrator, right through to the gameplay mechanics and enemies who have practically jumped out from the pages of his stories. This gives Darkest Dungeon a thoroughly cohesive feel. Atmospheric sound and music, with good writing complete the haunted feel of the game. The premise is that you receive a letter from a wealthy relative (who is also the narrator). He wants you to free his manor estate from the evil influence that has invaded it, caused by his own machinations and his descent into madness – under a malign godlike influence from the depths of the earth.
His letters bring cartloads of recruits from afar to the decaying hamlet lying in the shadow of the manor, and it’s here that you come in. In gameplay terms this is a classic dungeon crawler. You send parties of adventurers into the infested dungeons, catacombs, caves and forests to push back the spread of evil. The ultimate goal is to foster a group strong enough to enter the “Darkest Dungeon” under the manor and beat the ancient god to stop the menace once and for all.
The hamlet acts as your place of respite between forays into the dungeons. It’s here that you get new recruits, upgrade weapons and skills, cure illnesses (both mental and physical), manage your hero roster and plan your next expedition. In a fashion similar to large scale RPGs, although you can only send four heroes on a mission at once, your roster can hold many more and can be upgraded. This allows you to cycle heroes, allowing returning heroes to recuperate and experiment with different combinations of archetypes. Rather than just having a few hero classes, Darkest Dungeon spoils you with 15 to choose from, each with their own skills, strength and weaknesses.
An expedition screen allows you to choose between different mission difficulties and locations. These are restricted by hero level, meaning you can’t send overpowered heroes on an easy mission – and although you can send weak heroes on hard missions the game does a good job of dissuading you with heroes complaining and a popup warning. The different locations each have their own themes, enemy types, bosses and loot.
Once in a dungeon, you move your party left to right in 2D corridors within a fixed grid layout, with each corridor ended by a junction room which usually contains treasure or a fight. Along the corridors you will encounter enemies, traps and treasure. The layouts are simple but scouting skills let you see on the map what lies ahead, allowing you to choose more advantageous routes. Exploration isn’t a massive draw here, instead the focus is more on combat and survival.
It’s in fighting that the core of the game lies. Your party lines up on the left, and the enemies in the right – with usually no more than four characters on each side. Combat is turn-based, with each turn allowing one character to perform an action. Things get more interesting in Darkest Dungeon thanks to positioning being important. Each ability can only be used in, and against certain positions. For example, an Archer’s arrow might only be used if the Archer’s in one of the back two slots of your party, and can only hit enemies in the rear of their group. Some abilities shift character’s position during combat, which can be used tactically – such as to prevent enemies from using dangerous attacks, or moving a hero into a more aggressive spot.
The number of abilities available considering the 15 hero classes and different enemy types is staggering and juggling them, working out synergies and deciding which to equip and upgrade adds a lot of depth to the game. Some can heal or cause status effects such as bleeding, blight, stuns and position shifts, but enemies will do the same – simply bashing each other over the head is a rare occurrence during battle. Enemy types also have different resistances and special attacks making you adjust your tactics for each fight and preparing for the mission depending on the enemies you expect to face. Bosses are scary propositions, easily capable of party-wiping in a few turns and require thought and perseverance to beat.
On top of all of this is a great Lovecraftian addition to the dungeon crawler – the concept of madness. As well as health, heroes also have a stress meter. This fills when nasty things happen to your heroes, such as taking critical hits, stress-inducing attacks, starvation or setting off traps. If it fills completely, your hero gets an Affliction, such as Fearful, Irrational or Abusive. These cause your hero to act accordingly, they may refuse to act, they might insult their teammates – causing them stress, refuse to be healed, self-harm, go berserk – you get the idea. There’s also a low chance that you may get a Virtue instead of an Affliction, where you hero becomes inspired instead, becoming a bastion of hope and courage for your team.
Afflictions can’t be cured except back in the Hamlet so once you get them, it makes life a lot harder. Your heroes can also catch nasty diseases in the dungeons with nasty effects until cured at the Hamlet. Missions can be aborted but it’s costly, both in money and the mental health of your party. Curing and managing disease, stress and afflictions is a vital part of Darkest Dungeon and between missions curing stress is a number one priority but it takes time, encouraging the cycling of heroes between missions. Each hero also has a list of Quirks, both positive and negative, which increase and change as the hero gains experience and encounters different events. This helps to differentiate heroes and although they can be removed at a high cost, you’ll generally have to live with their quirks and incorporate them into your plans.
Darkest Dungeon excels at constantly giving you difficult choices to make, with a great use of risk and reward to keep things interesting. Mechanics like the light level, which, if you let it drop, mean harder monsters but better loot are extra layers on top of the game’s complex systems. Agonising about whether to forge on with a party that’s stressed out or near death is a common enough choice, and you’ll pay eventually for getting greedy and carrying on a mission to find more treasure when you’ve already met the pass requirements. There’s never enough money to go around in the Hamlet, balancing the needs of your heroes against upgrades is tricky, and you’ll never be able to fix everything that’s wrong with your roster. It’s a delicate, desperate, but engaging balancing act all the time.
In common with dungeon crawlers of yore – hero death is permanent and autosaving prevents reloads – you live with your mistakes. Adventurers do get a chance to survive fatal blows but you will watch your favourite heroes die again and again. Party wipes are demoralising especially if they are high level and you have spent a long time building them up. But there’s not really a game over state in the game – it’s more a battle of endurance – there’s always new recruits to fill the roster if everyone dies and you can start again from the bottom. At least you should still have your Hamlet upgrades.
But make no mistake – this is a tough and uncompromising game. It’s very rewarding and the difficulty forces you to really think about your strategies, party lineups and Hamlet development. But like any survival game you will have to face defeat and take it on the chin. The difficulty ramps up with your heroes. Later dungeons are filled with really nasty beasts and bosses which can wipe you out in an instant. I played for over 50 hours and still never managed to reach the final Darkest Dungeon, although I came close a few times, I kept losing my high level heroes in advanced dungeons.
It’s at this stage that the game becomes quite a grind as you build up weaker adventurers to tackle the harder dungeons. Although the game is great and there are lots of bosses to work towards defeating outside of the final dungeon, it can get repetitive even using different classes. There are some menu options to make the game a bit easier but these remove some of the interesting random elements of the game. However, developers Red Hook have acknowledged this issue and plan to release a shorter campaign mode soon, making it completeable in 40-50 hours instead of around 100.
Darkest Dungeon is a triumph of game design – it’s taken a proven genre but added many layers of depth, complexity and strategy whilst still being fun. It’s a strong vision realised very well and dripping with atmosphere. The turn-based combat in particular is one of the best I’ve seen in any RPG, where every turn makes you think. It’s only let down through its difficulty and repetition in the later stages of the campaign – which the new game mode should hopefully address. For sure, this game won’t be for everyone, but if you have any interest in RPGs, Lovecraft or dungeon crawlers you should definitely check it out.
Alan Stock is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow us on Twitter: @ComiConverse