Dungeon crawling used to be different. Nowadays it’s all legendary drops, treasure goblins and DPS. Back in my day we used to walk to the dungeon for ten miles through the snow uphill, both ways, and then die horribly because we’re running Gary Gygax’ Tomb Of Horrors adventure. Darkest Dungeon remembers those days and pledges to take you back quite vividly.
I’ve had my eye on Red Hook‘s Darkest Dungeon for a while. I wasn’t aware of it while it was being crowdfunded, but once it reached Early Access information started to surface all over the Internet. It looked a lot more polished and feature complete than the bulk of Early Access and shockingly this attracted a lot of positive attention. I deliberately steered clear of it to avoid being burned out by the time it was finished but couldn’t wait for the final release so I could give it a go. And there it was, just a few weeks into the year.
Darkest Dungeon: Windows PC [Reviewed], Mac OS X
Developer: Red Hook Studios
Publisher: Red Hook Studios
Release Date: 19 January 2016
Price: 22,99€ [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Developer/Publisher]
Who hurt you, Darkest Dungeon?
So your rich uncle (“ancestor”) dies and leaves you an estate as inheritance. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? You get a manor, some land and a little inhabited hamlet. Only catch is that the hamlet is run-down and, its inhabitants few and scared, the caretaker insane, the grounds consist of a bandit, undead and beast-filled surroundings and the mansion houses unspeakable horrors and incomprehensible eldritch abominations which your ancestor awoke by delving too deep into arcane knowledge not meant for men. Thanks, uncle!
Your task is to slowly build up a contingent of mercenaries and heroes (as well as the village) capable of assaulting the mansion that houses the titular Darkest Dungeon. The path is clear but not straightforward, as you can’t rush in with a rookie party fresh off the literal wagon. You’ll need to take them out on ranging and salvage runs which serves a two-fold purpose: granting you loot that you can use to upgrade your village (giving you the ability to give your adventurers better gear and training) and getting them accustomed to the stressful life of dungeon crawling, increasing their resolve and ability to withstand the nerve-wracking experience.
Darkest Dungeon plays on a week by week basis. Each week essentially ends with you going out on a quest in one of the four “grinding” regions and either completing, abandoning it. Each week there are more adventurers to add to your roster (up to a maximum roster size) and there are a lot of classes to choose from, but you may only take four on a quest and you can only use four of the eight skills each class has available (though switching them out between combats is a possibility). Add to this that combat is turn based and each skill has a number of party slots from which it can be used and a number of certain slots in the enemy party that it can affect, suddenly each battle becomes an intricate puzzle for you to solve.
Enemies range from the mundane to beastly, to undead and eldritch abominations. Each have their strengths and weaknesses, some will try to stun you, others will heal their allies and a considerable amount will try to wear your party down psychologically. As I mentioned before, positioning is critical in Darkest Dungeon for both the player and the enemies. Party placement and composition are paramount to your success and some classes will naturally do better in certain slots than others. For example, “tanky” melee classes such as the Man-At-Arms or the Crusader will do far better in the front ranks, while support and ranged classes such as the Plague Doctor or Arbalest feel more comfortable hanging out in the back. Both ally and enemy skills can be used to alter positioning. An enemy pushing your crusader back three slots will probably make you waste a turn or two getting back to the front while more advanced classes such as the Jester relish in switching their own position and alternating between attacks, creating powerful combos at the risk of disrupting your carefully planned turn sequence.
Conversely, killing enemies has a chance of disrupting the opponents’ skills by changing their positioning, but unless killed in a specific way (damage over time or critical hits) enemies will leave corpses behind which still take up room in the party and which have to be damaged further. Some classes have special skills to help with this problem and they can sometimes make the difference between victory and defeat.
Each Darkest Dungeon dungeon is laid out as a simplistic, largely linear maze, consisting of rooms (branching points) and pathways between them. Besides battles you can also encounter traps, loot, or “curios” which are interactive items with positive or negative effects. You can use your supplies to increase your chance of positive effects, but as the dungeon crawl drags on you will be forced to choose between keeping your utility consumables or loot, as your inventory space is limited. Another aspect of exploration is your torch. You may stoke it periodically, keeping it bright and increasing your chance of getting the drop on unaware enemies, or you can allow it to go dim for riskier encounters, but greater rewards. If you can handle the stress, that is.
Let’s talk about stress, shall we? Along with your health bar each character has its own stress bar which acts as a sanity meter of sorts (very common in anything even marginally lovecraftian in theme). Certain events, enemy attacks or just plain-old attrition will cause your stress to increase. When your stress bar reaches 100, your resolve is tested and should you fail the check (and you will, frequently), your hero becomes afflicted and gains a personality disorder. Another 100 stress and they suffer a heart attack and die. There are, already, quirks that affect gameplay in negative or positive ways: a kleptomaniac will have a chance to steal loot occasionally while a necromaniac can’t help their self from interacting with corpses without giving you a chance to prepare for the outcome. These quirks are, for the most part, benign or small inconveniences and they can be treated at the sanitarium in town or allowed to become “locked in” strategically. You can only have a maximum number of quirks and choosing the ones which bother you the least and sticking with them is a viable strategy. They occur naturally over the course of the game. Afflictions, however, are objectively bad and undesirable. A fearful character has a chance of passing the turn instead of acting. A paranoid or masochist can refuse healing and this can disrupt a battle greatly.
But there’s a silver lining to it all. There are positive quirks as well that work similarly to the negative ones (with the exception that they don’t become “locked in” without investment on your part) but there is also a slim chance of your characters succeeding on a resolve check, internalizing all of the horrors that they encountered and gaining a virtue instead. This will grant them a sizable bonus to one of their stats for the remainder of the quest.
Quests in Darkest Dungeon are quasi-varied in terms of objective. They all play out the same way: go to dungeon, explore or kill or interact with X objects but the randomly generated nature of the dungeons can make some easier than others, such as a quest that tells you to complete 100% of the available room battles which can be completed after exploring ten or just two rooms based on how many were generated with enemies inside. Completing a number of quests in each region unlocks a boss and longer or more difficult quests. Longer quests yield more rewards but are also harder simply because you will endure more attrition damage. To counteract this, on medium or long quests you are allowed to camp once or twice respectively, at your discretion and use the characters’ camping skills to heal, reduce stress or apply buffs.
After completing a quest it’s highly recommended to reduce the stress of your most afflicted characters by having them visit either the tavern or the abbey, have the ones afflicted undergo treatment in the sanitarium and level up what you can in town, increasing the effectiveness of your further quests. Any kind of treatment a character undergoes in town will keep them out of commission for a week, forcing you to rotate parties and experiment with different compositions and finding one you like best. Over the course of the game characters will die, you will go broke and be forced to build everything back up, but it will be marginally easier each subsequent time. It’s a slow but steady uphill battle but satisfying to endure as your progress is highly visible whether in term of stats or your own skill at playing the game.
Needs more Non-Euclidean Geometries
What struck me first about Darkest Dungeon was its art style. Everything is hand-painted in a jagged woodcut relief aesthetic that makes every scene look like something out of an medieval book. Impressively enough, the creators decided that the overall aesthetic is enough to carry the bleak mood of the game and did not skimp on the colors. It’s refreshing to see someone understand that “bleak” does not necessarily mean “shades of brown and gray”. Where Darkest Dungeon cuts corners it does so seamlessly: the characters only ever walk to the right and the camera perspective flips, rather than the sprites when backtracking. Also, whenever a character uses an attack there are only one or two frames of animation depicting this. The game instead uses a zoom, sway and pan effect to make the attack seem a lot more dynamic. It’s so effective that it took me hours until I noticed. The entire graphics and animation engine is a master class in getting the most out of limited resources.
The sound effects do a great job of conveying impact, glancing hits, swords striking steel or squishy meat or just notifying you of important events. They’re short, but meaningful and don’t overstay their welcome. Much like a cat gif on the Internet. The music is subtle but definitely effective perfectly evoking the Gothic atmosphere. The real winner of the contest however is definitely the narrator. The game’s creators sought out an actor to add to the oppressive atmosphere by commenting on the situation at hand or offering exposition. Their pick was perfect: Wayne June, a man whose voice acting talent is inversely proportional to how his website looks. Appropriately enough, Wayne sometimes spends his time reading H. P. Lovecraft novels and that’s really all I feel I need in my life anymore.
Audiovisual style aside, there were some little road bumps during the game’s time in Early Access, such as when there were controversies about the difficulty tweaking. Some mechanics, such as corpses, protection (the ability to negate some damage) or heart attacks were implemented allegedly to pander to a “vocal minority” who thought the game was too easy. The consequence was that it alienated players who felt it was difficult enough. There’s definitely a discussion to be had here, but that’s for another time. I don’t know what tweaks these controversial features underwent leading up to the full release of the game, but I played with all of the options turned on and thought they were fine. Yes, I did say “options turned on” because on top of everything I mentioned before about the player being able to adjust the difficulty via torch level or using consumables, there’s an actual menu in game that allows the player to turn off one or more of the gameplay elements that one might consider unfair. This kind of adjustable difficulty is something I hope to see more of in games from here on in. It doesn’t have to be just three or four arbitrary levels.
The interface is fairly intuitive. It’s reminiscent of an ARPG or MMO (but far less cumbersome) and is almost entirely point and click. Sure there are shortcuts and hotkeys, but if you’re comfortable (i.e. lazy) like me, then you can use your mouse for almost everything. I say “almost” because I prefer to play my games on my TV screen when possible (and Darkest Dungeon does look gorgeous on a big screen) and that’s fine, because I have a wireless mouse, which does 99% of the job. Until I need to drop or sell something and I have to get up like a bloody savage, walk up to my PC like it’s the bloody Stone Age and press the Shift key. I was a bit disappointed that the game didn’t offer controller support, its interface being as simplistic as it is. However, it’s slated for release on PS4 later this year so maybe the PC version will get an update as well.
A small complaint I have with the game is in some of its balancing. The crafting materials used to upgrade the buildings in town seem to have a very low drop rate. I’ve been trying to upgrade my Guild and Blacksmith for hours now but to no avail and it’s a shame because most of my roster is at a point where their gear and skills make them overpowered for low level quests, but woefully underpowered for the next tier, so I’m stuck in what I can only describe as a thankless grind for the time being. Also the hunger mechanic feels highly arbitrary: food heals one hit point, so you can use some of your supplies as healing items before battles. However, feed a character too much and he’ll refuse having more, saying he or she is full. Imagine my surprise when after my entire party said they can’t possibly have another bite, I get a prompt that it’s meal time. Except I don’t have any more food, because I used it all for healing. So everyone takes health and stress damage because in spite of having pigged out moments ago, they missed a meal on the clock. The meals seem to be somewhat based on time elapsed rather than how long it’s actually been since your party last ate, but that doesn’t explain why I sometimes get a meal prompt minutes after I enter the bloody dungeon! YOU SHOULD HAVE EATEN BEFORE WE LEFT, REYNAUD!
Small nitpicks regarding controller support and some balancing aside? I’m really digging Darkest Dungeon. Everything about it is right up my alley: the theme, the look, the turn-based strategy aspect, the challenge and the over-encompassing dread and despair that crushes one and all. It’s a master class on indie game development: uncompromising, challenging and just overall getting the job done as a video game. They didn’t make them like this anymore. Until they started again.