Darkest Dungeon, never has a game invoked such fear into every decision I’ve made. The unholy combination of Eldritch horrors, undead creatures and classic roguelike RNG elements created a sense of uncertainty that never dissipated. Would my heroes return from the depths of the Manor or will they perish like many before them, I’d soon realise that, when playing Darkest Dungeon, the latter is far more likely to occur.
Set in a Lovecraft-inspired world, Darkest Dungeon sees a poor soul – otherwise known as the player – tackle increasingly difficult dungeons, with the final reward being the absolution to your family’s name. If the dreary premise doesn’t instill despair then the equally unpleasant hand drawn characters and backgrounds will do the trick. You’re hard pressed to find anything to be chirpy about in this game.
The game is split into two main sections; the Hamlet which serves as your base of operations and the Dungeons where dreaded adventure lies.
It isn’t much to look at, and it certainly doesn’t instill a sense of hope but this is the best you get when starting Darkest Dungeon.From here you source the poor souls that will attempt to redeem your family’s name, train and upgrade their equipment all while trying to maintain their sanity through a mix of booze, prostitution and self-flagellation, all of which can be upgraded to boost efficiency. Much like in real life, valuables and currency is valued over good-will and kind thoughts, and you’ll have to decide if you wish to have your adventurers embark on a journey without goods or whether you’d prefer to have a shinier bar in your hamlet.
The dungeons are split into five sections; The Ruins, The Cove, The Warrens, The Weld & The Darkest Dungeon. Each dungeon has a unique challenge to it, the different combinations of loot, traps & enemies ranging from spooky skeletons to walking fish men. This mix ensures that you cannot coast through stages with a cookie cutter team, and instead forces you to experiment with your hero selection.
In addition, each dungeon contains a set of missions that increase in difficulty as you complete them. There are four types of missions: exploration, object Activation/Gathering, Combat & boss fights, each mission is randomly generated and offers an unpredictable set of rewards.
Admittedly, during my play-through I found myself avoiding certain mission types such as Exploring 90% of rooms or activating certain alters/totems for the quest to be completed. This wasn’t out of fear but rather necessity as certain game mechanics are heavily based on RNG, a design some claim adds a layer of uncertainty and risk to the game. In my case, too much uncertainty that it can easily cause the end of your party, something I’ll touch on further down.
Though the meat of the game lies within the Combat and Dungeon crawling, the game both shines and falls short on the aspect. The combat in Darkest Dungeon is turn based, without the pressures of a timed response this allows you to plan out each attack in hopes that you’ll survive the encounter. Sadly the game does a good job at ensuring you do not achieve this goal. Each skill and attack is based on dice rolls, which are heavily skewed in favour of the opponent. Many times I found myself praying to RNGesus in hopes that my attack would connect but ultimately found that no one was listening on the other side
With danger comes stress, a unique mechanic of Darkest Dungeon that admittedly got on my nerves the most. I soon realised that my doomed adventurers really aren’t cut out to face the horrors of the Eldritch.
Each hero contains both a health bar and a stress bar, both affected by the actions you take and that of your opponents. With each critical strike, not only did sweat roll down my armpit and my heart beat faster but it did so on the ill-fated adventures I had sent forth to their doom. Upon filling the stress bar one of two effects afflict the hero; either it grants a virtue, giving them the boost they need to overcome their adversary or (the more likely scenario) cause an affliction, further debilitating them and their unfortunate compatriots.
The dungeon doesn’t offer much respite; most loot containers that you find will be trapped and can severely hinder your trek through the dungeon. These are mitigated by certain items within your inventory but the game offers no real input as to which item will actually have an effect on it. Ultimately this left me questioning my sanity as I tried to figure out why these bandages helped me loot a tree stump covered in webs.
Whilst I’m against excessive hand holding within games, I find that Darkest Dungeon does the exact opposite when it comes to traversing the hazards levels.
It offers the basics of “move here to go across the level” and “push W to open a door” but not much else. The player is left to their own accord, which can be a dangerous situation in a game where Permadeath plays a major role. I found myself losing many of my adventurers to stress related deaths and combat. This created a grind in the game as I found myself running through the same low level dungeon with the same heroes, only lower level, and while I find Darkest Dungeon to be an entertaining game this form of repetition can become quite stale, especially when there isn’t a lot of uniqueness with enemies, levels and heroes.
This being said, I enjoyed my 25 hours of stress and heartache. Sure I may have shouted at my computer and pulled at my hair when the RNG Gods decided that each attack would miss, but with each small victory I felt like I just scaled a mountain and spat in the face of Eldritch demons that tried to hinder my path. Overall it is a good introduction to the world of Roguelike RPG’s and definitely does a good job of teaching humility within each player.