I don’t know that any game has ever left me feeling so utterly defeated as Darkest Dungeon.
You may notice that this review is arriving a month after the game’s official, “full” release out of early access. There’s a reason for that; unlike with most review games, I simply could not force myself to sit and play Darkest Dungeon for long stretches. At my best, I could last three or four hours. Inevitably I hit a terrible string of bad luck and worse strategic decisions, lost heart in my campaign, and had to step away and build up my spirit again.
This sounds bad and frustrating, and sometimes it is. But it’s also key to the thesis of Darkest Dungeon. It takes the fantasy role-playing game mold that’s developed from the power fantasy of Dungeons & Dragons, and digs for something deeper and more sinister. It asks: What if those dungeon crawls weren’t about getting better loot or higher levels, but about fighting for your very survival and sanity?
I could not sit and play Darkest Dungeon for long stretches
In true dungeon crawl style, plot is kept to a minimum in Darkest Dungeon. The game begins with the discovery that you have inherited a manor from a relative who lost his mind and took his own life. You soon realize the reason your predecessor lost his mind: He uncovered unspeakable horrors hidden away in the caves, woods and catacombs surrounding the manor. Now it’s left to you to clean up your relative’s mess and try to stay sane while doing so.
Darkest Dungeon splits its time between two types of gameplay: turn-based combat and exploration-focused dungeon crawls, and a more strategic city building element. While in your hamlet, you can recruit characters of various classes, and spend money and resources improving the buildings in the surrounding village. The goal of these upgrades is to finance further expeditions into the increasingly dangerous surrounding areas, where the other part of the gameplay takes place.
Stress is the most, well, stressful part of Darkest Dungeon
Combat in Darkest Dungeon blends traditional, turn-based role-playing game mechanics with some original quirks. Dungeons are explored on a 2D plane, and your party of up to four heroes is arranged in a line. Placement in the party determines which abilities are usable, while enemy placement affects which enemies you can hit with certain attacks.
While each character only has four skills available at any given time, the combat scenarios are far from simplistic. In addition to juggling stats like speed, dodge and protection, all of which can be buffed or debuffed, combat forces you to think strategically about positioning at all times. Enemies can use skills to screw up your perfect party order, but you can do the same for them, pulling their powerful back line to the front to wipe out first. It adds a tangible sense of tactics beyond just pushing the buttons that do the most damage.
Darkest Dungeon‘s fights are made complex by more than just the party lineup element, however. As in any RPG, characters have hit points that you must keep above zero — but you also have to struggle against an ever-increasing stress meter. Get caught in a trap? A character’s stress meter will go up. An enemy pulled off a devastating critical hit? The stress meter is going to climb.
Stress proves to be both the most engaging and the most, well, stressful part of Darkest Dungeon. As characters become more stressed, they become less effective fighters. They’re more likely to whiff attacks, less likely to dodge blows from enemies. They’re also more likely to develop debilitating personality quirks, a key method of differentiating characters from each other.
While characters of the same class generally look identical, they often develop in extremely different ways. For example, one of my first heroes was a Crusader named Reynauld. He came with a great positive quirk, Quickdraw, which grants four bonus speed for the first attack of each combat scenario. But he also quickly became weighed down with negative personality quirks, including Ruminator (which lessens his ability to heal stress by 10 percent) and a devastating trait called The Yips that lowered his armor rating by five. These problems quickly ruined his usefulness as a tank.
All isn’t lost when a stressed-out character develops a few highly negative traits, though. Back in the hamlet between dungeon runs, your characters can rest, recovering stress through activities like praying, drinking or visiting a brothel. You can also place characters into a sanitarium for a time to remove unwanted quirks, and to upgrade abilities, armor and weapons. The hamlet presents plenty of options. However, resources are limited, and balancing them is one of the most challenging parts of Darkest Dungeon.
Where the stress of combat left me on edge, I found both comfort and exhaustion in the cycle of slowly upgrading my hamlet. Each individual character you recruit will be dead permanently should they fall in battle, but the hamlet provides a source of consistent growth and movement forward in spite of the often disheartening setbacks. But the need to push for those upgrades was also my sole source of frustration in Darkest Dungeon, primarily due to one major shortcoming in the game.
Characters don’t level up in Darkest Dungeon as in a traditional RPG, but they do gain ranks as they go on adventures. Once a character hits rank 3, signifying that they’ve got a fair bit of experience under their belt, they will refuse to go on lower challenge quests. If you haven’t cleared out all the less difficult boss encounters, or want to tackle a low-level mission to get a specific reward, or just suck at the higher-difficulty stuff like me, you need to have a constant rotation of new rank 1 characters coming into your hamlet.
Darkest Dungeon makes it easy to constantly recruit new heroes, but that didn’t prevent the feeling that I was entering into a tiring grind every time I wanted to step back to do some previous content but didn’t have any lower-rank characters to do so. This strange design choice seems more focused on bloating the amount of time players have to spend to conquer each of the five main areas, rather than adding anything to the otherwise smart and strongly felt theme of despair and madness.