I’m aware that this review is over two weeks late now. Turns out I didn’t factor in a holiday to Japan where I would little to no internet connection. But here it is, just a little late.
I will also mention that this game is still early-access on Steam, so it’s not complete. The fact that I’m doing this review absolutely contradicts what I’ve said before about not wanting to review incomplete games. But I will happily make an exception for Darkest Dungeon as it’s a very playable early-access game. Like the developers behind Hand of Fate, Red Hook Studios have successfully kickstarted a game and then put forward an early access that isn’t just a shell or a few core concepts.
Darkest Dungeon is pure dungeon crawler with rogue-like, RPG and choose-your-own-adventure elements. I picked this little gem up in the recent summer sales and if you can’t already tell, I’m loving it. Well sort of, it entertains me. Actually, it’s more like keeps me playing, drives me to win. Truth be told, it invokes so much rage so much of the time, and then deep wells of depression that only a faint glimmer of torch-induced hope can remedy me of.
Darkest Dungeon is punishing, gruelling, depressing and has me cry, “That’s not fair!” more than any other game I’ve played. You lead a band mercenaries as they try to reclaim a mansion and its grounds from the dark sorcery that now occupy it. With a party, you conduct forays into different dungeons, randomly generated each time. This is generally accompanied by a mission such as, “clear all room battles” or “explore 90% of the rooms”. Your party moves in single file down corridors through rooms. The corridors have random encounters, traps and loot, though there’s always a risk that the loot bags will contain something nasty. Your party can consist of four individuals of various, unique classes, each with four out of eight class abilities to choose from. Each character starts with 3 positive traits and 3 negative traits/diseases, and gain more of each the longer they last. The combat is turn-based with positions on the battlefield being very important, even if it’s only a one-dimensional plane.
At the moment Darkest Dungeon sound reasonably generic, though fun. There are several unique ideas and game mechanics that make this game great. The core mechanic behind the adventuring and battles is the illumination of your torch. When your torch is at full illumination, everything is alright. But after taking half a step, the light starts to fade. The darker the dungeon, the stronger the enemies, the weaker your party, the more unlucky they are in aiming and finding positive loot (or at least that’s how it feels) and the easier they gain stress.
This leads to the second mechanic, stress. Everyone has the same set stress limit. You gain stress in darkness, when a character dies, from falling into traps, from being attacked, from taking damage, from reading creepy shit in books, when another character snaps, says something negative and various other things that feel unfair. Reach half of your stress limit and the character breaks. Sometimes this means their inner heroic self comes out and they more or less become amazing (better attacks, more accurate, self-healing, etc.). But more often than not their inner bastard self comes out and they become horrible to have as part of your team (selfish, insane, depressed, unreliable). When a character reaches max stress, they have a heart attack and die. This happens more often than you think and in a dangerous dungeon, one less character can mean death for everybody else.
The last notable, but not the last unique mechanic are the traits. Each character starts with 3 positive and 3 negative. You assimilate extra traits (such as psychosis, diseases, battle awareness, stress relief conditions) after dungeon runs, your final stress levels and things encountered generally affecting what these traits are. You can remove negative traits or lock the positive ones in town (generally putting people out of action for a week).
So finally, what makes this game punishing, gruelling, depressing and upsetting all the time? Because of the torch-light mechanic, my characters miss an attack, just when it’s needed the most. One character might snap, which causes a huge amount of stress in the other characters, who then also snaps, which causes stress in… well you get the idea. Some of my most core, and most relied-upon characters often die, meaning I have to hire and train up someone new to replace them. I only manage to complete one out of five dungeons I attempt, which means that financially, I’m barely holding on until the next big win. Things that are absolutely necessary for a dungeon are expensive such as torches, food, shovels, etc. You also start to watch all your characters become diseased, horrible individuals who barely fit the “hero” role. The feelings that Darkest Dungeon invoke in me is also what makes this game great. You feel invested in your characters and it helps with the overall Cthulhun vibe of the game. All the characters going insane, nether-realm magics, myself going insane, a very meta concept.
While on principle, I don’t believe in purchasing early-access game, I can highly recommend this one as you wouldn’t really know it was early-access. The visuals are well developed and look frankly amazing, the core mechanics are there and highly utilised and while it lacks a bit of polish, it still performs as a full-functioning game.
Darkest Dungeon is available on Steam for USD$19.99.
The next review in 2-3 weeks will be on 3 Android Games