Darkest Dungeon

“Let me share with you the terrible wonders I have come to know…”

Game Name: Darkest Dungeon (2016)
Developer: Red Hook Studios (have made only this game)
Platform: Windows, OSX, Linux, PS4, Vita, iOS, Nintendo Switch, XBOne
(reviewed on PC and Vita)
Categories: Lovecraftian Horror, Turn-Based Party Combat, Real-Time 2D Exploration, Gore-gous Art Style, Carnage and Viscera, the Darkest Tone, Bleak and Brooding, Punishing Difficulty, Structured Rogue-Like, Sacrificial Risk/Reward, Engrossing Story, Best Narration, RPG Equipment, Skills, Traits, Afflictions, Madness and Stress Mechanics, Town Development,  Procedural Missions, Dark Fantasy, Perma-Death,

May Appeal To: mettle testers, metalheads, medal earners, angsty teens/tweens, masochists, self flagellators, punishment gluttons, horror fans, disturbed obsessors, H.P. Lovecraft freaks, Alice Cooper and other pasty consumers of black eyeshadow
May Repulse: God fearing folk, scaredy cats, responsible parents, the busy, the previously abused or burnt, [boring] well-adjusted citizens, self respecting abstainers, and that one dude that knows his limits

Comparable To: a bunch o’ games that leap to mind…. but aren’t all that similar after consideration. It bests Bastion’s charismatic voice-overs. It champions TellTale Game’s bold, bright comic book style. Early Final Fantasies’ turn based, four person battle system -complete with spells and items- are the closest that I can dredge to measure its architecture. Dungeon of the Endless is a rogue-like exhibiting mysteriously ominous environs and specific character roles in defeating the bloodthirsty swarms. (This one also had a transactional battle system that is closer to Darkest Dungeon’s mission setup.) Etrian Odyssey and early Wizardry games are contenders for the labyrinthine, tile based exploration and testicle crushing difficulty DD may have taken inspiration from. Long story short, it’s a primal RPG amplified by modern conventions flying in the face of its predecessors, and no comparison does it justice.

Learning Curve: An hour for the basics, 3 hours for familiarity. And I continuously absorbed min-maxing and party synergy techniques throughout the entire duration.
Game Length: 50 hours
Difficulty: Extreme – this is in my top 10 hardest games. Logistical management, mechanical understanding, and superb tactics are all requirements to ride, though situations arise where your prided strength and cunning gets gimped due to a random night-time ambush or a party member’s mental duress is the first domino to fall during a crucial boss battle. RNGesus giveth and RNGesus taketh away. Cojones of steel and calculated sacrifice will dictate just how much a party wipe or rare item loss will set you back though. This is not Dark Souls where you *merely* lose currency!

Mastery: Heaven help you. There are 20+ bosses to thwart, 15 classes to decipher (and individuals to max), over 250 trinkets to loot and equip, endless procedural dungeons to delve, and at least three DLC packs that change up the flow, mode, and enemy roster should you tire of having your ass curb-stomped in the vanilla ways.

Story: “Ruin has come to our family.” Your ancestor, fattened and softened by the spoils of luxury inherited wealth affords, discovers ancient parchments describing a portal to untold dimensions. Nevermind the warnings of behemoth, tentacled horrors consuming humanoid cutouts – he becomes obsessed. As only those with tentative ties to the orthodox world, the aged man squanders familial riches, able-bodied laborers, and unparalleled effort in unearthing the promised stone archway beneath his very estate. After years of sacrifice, his pursuit triumphs though sanity’s rebukement affords naught but one survivor after entangling fleshy monstrosities beyond the active portal. This survivor beseeches his heir to don the mantle and resume tugging those threads the ancestor had unraveled for so, so very long. His suicide sealed the delivery of your current instructions and bequeaths the gray, foreboding countryside to you as well as perpendicular ruins perched high atop a hazardous cliff facing – the once opulent manor standing ghastly, spectral, uninviting.

Your new home stands guard as a tombstone, greeting scores of riffraff and ne’er-do-wells covering great distances to raid its former glory. They’ve heard the rumors. They’ve brought their weapons. You need adventurers. Your pockets are not yet empty. So how many strangers will serve as flagstones underfoot towards the goal? If madness is hereditary, what fate is there to reward your curiosity, currency, and courage?

“To fight the abyss, one must know it…”

Presentation: Darkest Dungeon is convincingly steeped in in its own fascinating lore. Played straight and unrelenting, every element of the graphics, effects, narration, descriptions, UI, and gameplay contributes to a dedicated vision of despondency and despair. Very little hope resides here as each minor success must be carved upon the corpse of opposing foes. Terror skyrockets due to very tangible losses, permadeath, autosaves, and thrilling music punctuating asshole-tightening battles hinging upon consistently smart forethought and execution on the part of the player.

In accordance, the mood is grim, so grim that only the gothic, heavy line work concealing furtive gazes below shadowed brows could do it justice. The sprites and graphical assets are unified, coherent, morbidly beautiful, and attractively grotesque. Stomping, trilling music squeals its protest, war drums beating the pulse of a shambling, horned, demon army in its approach. Veins pump faster, the innate reaction to snarling, spitting abominations wielding gnawed bones and leaping forth from every shadow. Your torch grows dim, the party’s physical and mental breaking points evident in the gloom. The camera jolts right, the rough animation of a thrusting halberd catches your Crusader in the gut. His depreciated life erupts numerically as a black halo darkens his visage; he screeches some negative outburst foretelling doom and similar stress indicators cascade across his ailing team members. The off-kilter camera resettles, the enlarged sprites regaining their normal sizes prior to the tint of red fading in the wake of such a vicious blow.

And through it all, a narrator’s voice growls baritone against the darkness. Jaded, sardonic, and wielding vernacular as a spear, the disembodied predecessor whom excavated these malevolent tunnels haunts the player’s journey, a self-inflicted death all but sharpening his wicked tongue. A pleasing presence, his ragged tones jab viciously as battleaxes cleave their mark, they temper patience in the throes of a battle’s crescendo, and bemoan the trappings of our fleeting and decaying existence.

Unique FeaturesMore lepers brandishing sword shards per capita than other titles!
I mean, this mansion’s like a Mecca to the uniformly infected and combative scourges.

The art style and narration is bar none my favorite thematic presentation of any other video game in history. Map navigation is a clever use of sprites in a maze of mobs and concealed traps. The conventional party system is made less conventional by the positioning required for certain attacks and abilities. The world is convincingly dangerous and wet, sopping, drenched in madness – sanity thresholds overfill through strained excursions; individual traits abound like manias, infections and phobias; the very UI will play tricks with the player’s mind through sustained play; and characters mysteriously disappear from the roster in order to “collect themselves”. There are over 60+ triggered events that impact the “living” town as it develops: rat infestations, vanishing abbots, rays of sunshine (gasp), bumper crops, surges of available meat adventurers for the grind, etc. These are but few of many artistic details and touches that do more than enhance and polish the immersion. I find that extremely unique.

“The task ahead is terrible, and weakness cannot be tolerated.”

Gameplay: Very much a desperation and sacrifice simulator, the player is ultimately tasked with managing the various currencies: busts/portraits/deeds/crests (shop expansion), gold, people….

Gold, by far the most common asset, greases palms in the somber village intermissions in order to: hire adventurers fresh off the stage coach, raise training levels, purchase armor/armament, finagle spare trinkets from a passing gypsy, and outfit crucial equipment (torches, medicine, holy water, etc.) for each expedition into the five realms. The weald, cove, ruins, warrens, and proverbial Darkest Dungeon, a hellishly organic nightmare realm, await – each with their own theme, hordes, backdrops, interactive curios, status effects, and bosses. Missions to these realms span from sanctifying three nodes on the map to defeating multiple corrupted beasts unique to the area.

Darkest Dungeon is a turn-based JRPG at its heart with 6 levels of experience, equipment, stats, healing, spells, weaknesses, attack percentages, health bars, initiative, and customizable skills all being familiar territory. What differs here is the pre-meditated preparation, ability selections, and persistent stress/contagion/traits acquired from previous encounters. You pluck a four man squad from a roster of 20+, each representing 15 “classes” such as Vestals (dedicated healers), Jesters (position-shifting showmen), Abominations (stress-inducing brawler mutations), Arbalests (ranged crossbow wielders), Hellions (aggressive martial barbarians), and others. Learning complementary roles, fostering their equipment/skill growth, and deploying them appropriately is of the utmost importance. Starting abilities are randomized though they can be replaced or invested in, given enough gold.

Of interest is the positioning system, which enables certain abilities depending on how far left or right relevant to the party line-up (some are specific to a single slot), meaning healers and ranged units require distance while meat shields are more effective taking blows upfront. The party freely juggles position outside of combat though enemy abilities occasionally push and pull them about, requiring a limited shuffling ability in the thick of battle. A smart commander uses lunging and fading attacks to simultaneously reposition and assault the enemy….

Maps play out as a series of two dimensional nodes that may or may not display their contents (usually 5 – 10 total). Players will push in one of four cardinal directions from a node to travel along designated routes in navigating the web, a hallway of lurking dangers lying between. As parties move right, they’ll encounter sporadic battles, eerie halls allowing for haphazard comments to pass between members, or strange interactive structures such as statues, pedestals, fountains, tents, packs, meals, tree hollows, bramble, torches, and other disconcertingly isolated materials. Based on the provisions stocked before battle, players have the option to interact with or without items, taking gambles at what the results will find. For example, applying medicine to discovered food items has a high probability of yielding additional rations. Interacting without an item selected will most risk poisoning. Drinking from a dusty fountain might increase the selected person’s health, but neglecting to consecrate it with holy water could yield a curse. Each of these “curios” has a consistent risk and reward associated with them, and most are located within a particular realm.

Managing an individual’s stress levels are just as important as their health. Many negatives befall stressed individuals including refusing to cooperate, acquiring crippling fears and quirks, stressing others, or having a heart attack. Abilities and critical hits against the enemy can stymie the meter whilst suffering losses, losing torchlight, and simply navigating the spooky tunnels can work against you. For longer dungeons, campfire logs are issued allowing a possible respite to use specialized skills in quelling the tension and preparing for the maps’ duration. Make sure you don’t go to bed hungry!

Covering other concepts quickly:
*The party’s torch level decreases with time, requiring provisions to rekindle. The darker the environment, the more likely an ambush, though the tangible payoff is greater.
*Scouting abilities foretell map kinks, connecting tunnels, and monsters in waiting.
*The tavern, infirmary, sanitarium, armory, and other structures are expanded by random spoils discovered during missions. These are critical to your fighting force and treating the various psychoses and maladies contracted from the dangerous depths.
*You can challenge the Darkest Dungeons at any time. But are you ready?

“Leave nothing unchecked, there is much to be found in forgotten places.”

“The cost of preparedness – measured now in gold, later in blood.”

Additional Comments: Dismas was some miserable “starter” Highwayman I lost in week 3 while learning the ropes. Later, a rare town event allowed me to resurrect him. On subsequent expeditions, the unlucky party gets ambushed by a random miniboss that takes the form of a massive cloaked apparition with a lantern sconce encircling a grinning skull in flame. Upon its defeat, we looted this dripping, bloody burlap sack which increased both a character’s damage and stress levels. Naturally, the resurrected highwayman would be tasked in carrying the “Dismas’ Head” artifact forever after.

What I Liked: Everything. This game really resonated with me and completely fulfilled everything I desired from it. The graphics and narrator make the game iconic and memorable, the resource management make this a worthwhile and complex rogue-like, the dynamic camera instills excitement into every battle, and the difficulty isn’t so much balanced as it is “just right” for creating a predictably dangerous, hostile, and rewarding experience that simultaneously hits the marks of Frightening and Appealing.

What I Disliked: Frustratingly, there are restrictions on adventurer deployment, artificially inflating the amount of grinding necessary especially on specialists:
*A very high level character can not enter a low level dungeon.
*A very low level character can not enter a high level dungeon.
*A character that beat a Darkest Dungeon will not enter a second Darkest Dungeon.
(Meaning you’ll want 20 lvl 6 characters MINIMUM to finish the last stages of the game.)

You also can’t develop a character that is being treated for mania and diseases.

The Vita controls are needlessly obtuse and most are bereft of onscreen indicators!
You might use this string of Street Fighter combos during routine item management:
*Right shoulder + DPad is used to select a character
*Right shoulder + Square to bring up their details
*Right shoulder + Triangle to access party equipment (circle to close this top screen)
*Hold left shoulder to see an item synopsis. X to select and then X again to equip.
(Right shoulder on an item causes the details to flash for 3 frames.)
*Right shoulder + back Vita buttons to change roster filtering modes
(You have a 3×3 pixel icon but no explanation of the four filters.)
*While in a dungeon, the Vita’s back panel sections toggle characters but only in movement mode. (I frequently forget that the handheld even has these.)

Glitches Experienced: Mechanical – when updating skill levels for a Vestal, I was about to select a mission when my team disappeared from the bottom area. I had to grab all new team members to “replace” the missing portraits and flip back to resolve.
Visual – possibly my Vita’s fault. The whitest pixels on screen display as a fluorescent pink, only present for a split-second and evident whenever the “halo” effect shrouds a character’s head, such as a stress level heal. Visual – like many PC games, alt+tabbing between windows can cause the screen to go black, forcing a restart.

Hours I Played: ~55 hours. I proudly claim only 18 character deaths, and bested the mission checklist in 116 weeks. (I used a walkthrough on 2/5 of the Darkest Dungeons after returning from a year long hiatus.)

My Personal Reaction: HA! I beat you finally! Worth every minute.

Noob Tips: True noobs should avoid this one honestly. For any this fails to deter, I recommend swearing off of walkthroughs. The learning curve is just shallow enough that you can experiment with and track expeditions on grid paper or a spreadsheet. Document the mission length, realm, and provisions you pack, along with how many were left over at the end. This can min-max your preferred equipment costs and reveal the varying demands of each realm and the demands of sustained exposure. I also made a point to log what item beneficially activates curios once I determined it.
Play smart and with a clear head. Strike a balance between timid and fool-hardy.

Depth and Replayability: Both, Very High. I’ve already illustrated how immersive and challenging adapting tactics to demands can be. The transactional missions last about 15-20 minutes in brief excursions – an ideal level of dedication to receive either the sweet fanfare of victory or the corrosive burn of a routed defeat. Every engagement is tense, enthralling, an endurance trial, a logistical puzzle, and yields valuable materials to the war effort’s coffers. Unlike many others, this game remained just as engaging for me to the end.

Suggested Value: $40

Where to Buy: Steam, Microsoft Store, Humble Bundle, GOG, Sony Store

Subjective Categorical Ranking:
(Platform capabilities are considered for Graphics and Sound)
                                                                                                        
                                | poor  ||  bad   || average || good || great |
            Fun Factor |██████████████████████████
Unique Gameplay |██████████████████████████
       Controls & UI |██████████(Vita)
         Story & Lore |██████████████████████████
  Graphics & Style |██████████████████████████
    Sound & Music |██████████████████████████

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“You answered the letter — now like me, you are part of this place.”

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