Darkest Dungeon

A gripping, unforgiving, complex dungeon crawler that translates lovecraftian themes excellently into its world.

By Woozie, Posted 29 Jan 2016

I had just dispatched a pack of bandits that left their mark on my party of four. Taking a while to bandage up wounds, eat something to restore a small portion of health and check on my party’s mental state was mandatory. Two members were halfway to feeling insanity’s touch, but there were few rooms left to clear before they could return to my hamlet with whatever spoils they were to find. Advancing, I came up to a spike-covered tentacle gripping a red orb. My highwayman, who was least affected by stress, investigated it carefully. The thing offered the promise of the void to those who’d place a torch on it. And so I did. Seconds later, my party, who had met bandits and skeletons as part of their very first combat experience were faced with the Shambler, an eldritch being from a different dimension. I had begun my journey in the Darkest Dungeon not so long before and in a moment of false courage, spurred on by naivety I decided to fight the being. Seeing it almost at half HP after the first round of combat strengthened my resolve. Little did I know that two turns later, the Shambler’s attacks would cause a third member of my party to become abusive towards the others. The two whose minds had been affected by what they had seen succumbed to heart attacks. A fourth member was bleeding intensely and I had run out of bandages. I was desperately clicking the retreat button only to manage to pull out with one remaining party member who, from that day onward, would refuse to step into an Abbey in order to relieve stress. I took some time to let it sink in and glanced at my roster knowing I would soon have to pick four other unlucky souls to return to the place from which we had barely escaped.

Darkest Dungeon, Screenshot, Review

That is a moment that will stay with me for a long time and one that describes how Darkest Dungeon feels for most of the time you’ll spend with it. So, what is Darkest Dungeon? If you haven’t heard of it during its Twitch.tv craze, it’s a punishing dungeon crawler with an aesthetic and thematic that is very much influenced by lovecraftian fiction. You take on the hamlet of your father who happens to have dwelled too much into things he shouldn’t have and set on to cleanse it of all things evil and eldritch. The game is divided into two segments: one where you manage and upgrade your hamlet, another where you take on heroes from your roster and do battle. There is a hefty amount of complexity in Darkest Dungeon, especially for the new player. The tutorials cover each building and combat in a large sense but getting used to the characters quirks, to the way damage works takes patience and lots of trial-and-error. Managing your hamlet involves a number of different things. First and foremost, it is where you can recruit new heroes to the roster. Every day, a number of new heroes drop by. Days pass as you go on dungeon runs. Apart from recruiting heroes, the hamlet is the place where you can improve equipment and skills, buy rare stuff and, most importantly treat your adventurers’ various ailments and stress. The abbey offers meditation and prayer, the tavern offers drinks, gambling and pleasures of the flesh while, the sanitarium is the only place where you can rid your adventurers of diseases or quirks that have sunk well into their personalities (usually marked by a red skull next to them). These things, apart from hero recruitment, which is free, use gold as currency. There are four other types of currency which are used for upgrading your buildings. Upgrading buildings makes treatment cheaper and more effective, offers a larger selection of heroes or trinkets and raises the limit of upgrading your items.

Currency and items are, naturally, found in dungeons. There are four areas where you can adventure, each giving more of one specific type of currency. The hamlet is the place where you select adventurers for dungeon runs and their provisions. Provisions are required if you want to have even the slightest hope of your party surviving. These range from food to shovels, to anti-venom or bandages and torches. Now, the first enumerated items are pretty self-explanatory, but you may be asking yourself “why torches?” Well, you see, the Darkest Dungeon is, well, dark. So, in order to maintain your stress level lower and potentially get the jump on enemies, it is preferable to keep a high torch level. On the other hand, a lower torch level makes the monsters more deadly, able to surprise you, which scrambles your team’s positioning, but, at the same time, offers better loot. So, it is a risk-reward type of situation which you can control at any point during the run. You can manually reduce the torch level or snuff it out entirely if you’re feeling overly confident about your chances. Now, onto the combat, which is the other significant chunk of the game.

Darkest Dungeon, Screenshot, Review

Darkest Dungeon does combat in a turn based manner, with each combatant taking his or her turn in attacking the enemy or buffing an ally, by case. To people who haven’t been living under a videogame-proof rock up to this point, hearing this, or ultimately seeing some screenshots, will give them a very good idea of what it’s about. However, things are not exactly as they seem. You see, character positioning plays a vital role in the game. Each character has certain skills that can only be used from certain places on the battlefield. At the same time, they can only hit certain positions on the enemy side. To give you an example, I was left once with just an arbalest against an enemy that did primarily stress damage. While the actual life damage my Arbalest incurred was insignificant, the skills he had did not allow him to attack the enemy front position which, resulted in me having to retreat or watch my Arbalest succumb to madness after a good number of turns would have passed. Larger enemies can also block melee attacks from going past them, so, it is very important to make sure that you cover these details well when assigning skills to party members and setting up party combinations for your next run. Every character class has a set of 16 available skills. Out of these, 8 are active combat skills, while the other 8 are used in camping. You can bring 4 from each category in any given run. Camping occurs when the dungeon size is medium or large allowing your party to rest, heal, relax and potentially get ambushed at the end of the phase, leaving with double the stress and half the HP they had after taking their breather.

I’ve mentioned Darkest Dungeon bearing the mark of a lovecraftian aesthetic and thematic. To those of you who’ve yet to read H.P. Lovecraft and will pick one of his books up right after getting through this review if they know what’s good for them, a central theme of the writer’s works is that of human kind being constantly assailed by uncaring cosmic beings that they cannot possibly hope to defeat. Often times this leads to the character’s grasp on reality becoming looser and looser until the worm called Madness makes a cozy home inside their heads. This has been translated exceptionally well into Darkest Dungeon. The quirk system is very well fleshed out. Characters start with both positive and negative quirks. As they are sent into action, they will fall prey to stress. Stress is a stat that is separate from health although it acts as another, parallel, health bar of sorts. Stress is incurred through many means, from simply walking through the dungeon, to facing otherworldly enemies, to specific attacks that target your character’s stress level directly. The death of a companion is also quite taxing on the entire party’s stress level. Getting to 100 stress will cause your character to become afflicted. An affliction such as Paranoia will shatter their trust in their teammates which could lead to them refusing heals, buffs or position changes. The Irrational affliction may result in an adventurer becoming more difficult to control.  Aside from these, quirks are obtained after a quest, based on what happened. A character who witnessed too much may refuse to pray or meditate. If one is sent to the brothel to relieve stress, the character may come out of there with syphilis which, in turn, will require treatment. A known cheat will not be allowed to gamble while in town. It’s a very deep and organic system that adds to every character’s identity and provides an extra challenge in picking your party composition as certain quirks, in conjuncture with others, can have devastating effects upon party members. To top it off, every character can be renamed and have their outfit color palette changed.

Darkest Dungeon, Screenshot, Review

Death is handled in an interesting way as well. When reaching 0 health, a character stands at Death’s Door. This means that every hit from thereon can result in said character dying. The same happens when you reach 200 stress. Your character can have a heart attack triggered by further stress. This is, indeed RNG-based and in fact, the entire game falls under the sign of RNG. Attacks rarely do a set number of damage points, thus, resulting in certain situations when what could have been a death blow ends up being an attack that’s 1 damage short. Count in enemy (and friendly) resistances and buffs and you have a combat system that may seem to be your run-of-the-mill turn based combat but is, in fact, an extremely well fleshed out example of turn- based fighting done right, if a bit random at times. The enemies are quite varied, both visually and mechanically. Even simple opponents, such as the Brigand Fussilier will make you shudder knowing that their attacks can affect every party member. Special attention has been given to the bosses. I’ve already mentioned the Shambler (or rather Mr. Tentacly Death) in the first paragraph, but the other bosses you encounter won’t be anything short of impressive. The attention to detail that has been given to them visually sets them apart really well and, naturally, they also differ in terms of mechanics.

Darkest Dungeon is not an easy game. It’s even feels unfair at times. When you first boot it up, there’s a tooltip explaining how it’s a game about making the best of a bad situation. There will be a lot of death. Quests will fail. No matter how lucky you get, you won’t be able to have only heroes with good quirks. You’ll have to find a compromise where their diseases or negative quirks don’t affect the party too much or, at times, you’ll just have to hope that your party will handle one character being abusive. You’ll win combat encounters by the skin of your teeth but the satisfaction you get when you do, or when you see characters level up their resolve, thus becoming more resistant to stress, is immense.

Darkest Dungeon, Screenshot, Review

It may seem intimidating for the new player, but it’s far from impossible to get the hang of everything. On top of that, as it’s spent over a year in Early Access there are plenty of guides that apply to the full version as well. Does it get repetitive? Arguably, yes. However, due to enemy variety, quirk effects and RNG, the combat never feels stale and the challenge, just urges you on. There are few indies out there that do everything as well as Darkest Dungeon. From art style to gameplay, from sound design and narrator, which is truly exceptional, and the writing Darkest Dungeon oozes quality. Its atmosphere is gripping, its handling of terror and madness as seen in Lovecraft’s novels is excellently done. Unless you utterly despise the idea of RNG playing a large role in combat, you owe it to yourself to descend into the Darkest Dungeon.

MateÈ™ Bogdan Robert, NoobFeed
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General Information

Platform(s): PC, PS4, Xbox One, Vita
Publisher(s): Red Hook Studios
Developer(s): Red Hook Studios
Genres: Roguelike
Themes: Strategy, Dungeon-crawler
Release Date: 2016-01-19

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