Review: Darkest Dungeon

by Brandon Eckerd

There are many games with a phenomenal story that weaves itself seamlessly into gameplay, but very few games that write the story for the player as they play. Darkest Dungeon fits firmly into the latter category. A roguelike survival RPG that draws heavy influence from the works of H. P. Lovecraft, Darkest Dungeon asks the question, “what kind of impact does dungeon crawling have on the mind of an adventurer?” The answer to this question, according to the game designers at Red Hook Studios, is incorporated into every facet of the game. The game doesn’t pull its punches, but more difficult adversity results in greater rewards. It is a dark game that, as the game designers say before the game even begins, forces you to make the best out of the bad situation.

The opening to the game shows your ancestor, once a man of tremendous wealth and social standing, became obsessed with the occult and the potential power that could be drawn from alchemy and necromancy. This lead ultimately to his own demise, as well as the decrepitation of the hamlet near his estate. You are called in to uncover the mystery of your ancestor’s actions and recover the wealth lost in the ruins of his estate.

Various beasts how inhabit your land, but you do not fight them yourself. Instead, you enlist adventurers who come to the hamlet. Darkest Dungeon tells not only the story of your ancestor, but the stories of adventurers and vagabonds, searching for glory and redemption in the aphotic depths beneath your ancestor’s once-esteemed estate. There are different classes with different skills and stats to join your roster. Adventurers have different stats and traits, some positive and some negative. One adventurer may have a greater resolve when exploring ruins, but be an irrepressible kleptomaniac who steals half your loot under your nose. Another may be more resistant to being stunned by enemies, but be deathly afraid of the dark. These traits make every character unique and change how you build your party.

Each time you enter a dungeon, you can bring four adventurers. As you explore the dungeons, you collect treasure which can be used to improve your adventurers or upgrade facilities in the hamlet. The stronger your adventurers become, the more challenging dungeons you can face.

Combat is done in the standard RPG turn-based format. Difficulty, however, is not static. Instead, you are equipped with torches. The brighter your torch burns, the easier the enemy. Snuffing your torch emboldens your adversaries, but the rewards for victory increase exponentially. Each one of your adventurers has four skills to use in combat, but these skills can only be used from certain positions in your party. For example, a knight with a sword can only attack when he is in front while an arbalest can only attack from the rear. This leads to team composition and party order to play an integral role in strategy. In response, your enemies will attempt to pull and push your adventurers out of position to disrupt your careful plan.

Every adventurer has an Health stat. When the Health stat reaches zero, they are put on Death’s Door. In this state, their stats are penalized heavily and any source of damage, be it from an enemy attack or a poisonous blight, has a chance to kill them permanently. When an adventurer dies, there is no way to bring them back.

Each adventurer also has another stat, referred to as Stress. This is the unique mechanic that separates Darkest Dungeon from other dungeon crawlers. As you explore, your party will face monsters and horror that test the limits of their fortitude. Every scream of a madman, incantation of a necromancer or beat of a monster’s drum increases your adventurers’ Stress. Stepping on a pile of toxic mushrooms or reading the passages of an uncovered scroll sends your heroes closer and closer to insanity. When they reach their breaking point, they can become Afflicted (a 75% chance) or Virtuous (a 25% chance.) Afflicted heroes become selfish, paranoid and hopeless. They will disobey your orders, forces their allies to the frontline or choose to heal themselves instead of their wounded comrades. A Virtuous adventurer gains a stat bonus and has a chance to remove some of their allie’s Stress every turn. One a character’s Stress reaches its absolute maximum, the character has a heart attack and is instantly put on Death’s Door. Stress can be relieved at the hamlet once your current venture is over, but for the price of some of your hard-earned gold.  

The result of these gameplay elements is a never-ending, changing story about the struggle of your heroes. One group’s story might be the triumph of an easy venture into the cove, slaying every beast come across without nary a scratch. But another group’s might be a tale of desperation, where your crusader falls into a spiral of paranoia, pushing your bounty hunter to the frontlines where he is torn to shreds by the gaping maw of a carrion-eating worm. You will grow attached to your adventurers, until the day they die in combat, you relieve them of duty or your triumph over the darkest dungeon.

Darkest Dungeon is an enjoyably tough game. It has a decent learning curve, and many, many times you will be forced to look closer at the game’s details, which are brilliantly displayed in the game’s user interface, to carve out your victory. Once you overcome the initial step of understanding what the numbers mean and what abilities do, you can quickly get lost in coming up with the best strategy and team composition.

If you are looking for a challenging game, rich in story and creative writing, Darkest Dungeon is for you. If you want to delve into the darkness and face off against cruel abominations in the black of night, Darkest Dungeon is for you. If you want to overcome tremendous adversary for glory and gold until every monstrosity has been expunged from your honorable land, Darkest Dungeon is for you. Every turn, every step matters in Darkest Dungeon; it will test your wit and resolve as much as it tests your adventurers’. Here is to one more foray into the dark.

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