Darkest Dungeon is a game that, I think, everyone should play because it teaches an important life lesson. Life isn’t fair and you have to deal with it. It really embodies the old saying of “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy”. In Darkest Dungeon, there isn’t an option to manually save. It auto saves every time you exit the game. This means that if your favorite character dies during a mission, that’s it. They’re gone.

At its core, the game hearkens back to the old turn based RPGs, but with a heavy Lovecraftian theme. The basic premise of the game is that some estranged relative of yours manages to unleash an unspeakable horror upon the world (I say “world”, but the repercussions don’t seem to spread beyond the hamlet near which his giant mansion is located). He then realizes that he’s made a terrible mistake and does what is quite possibly the biggest “dick move” in the history of mankind. He offs himself and sends you (conveniently his sole surviving heir/relative) a letter that says something to the effect of “your problem now lol”. Or as I see it, a very impressive “you touched it last” power play.

You hire unwitting suckers adventurers to form groups and go explore the various parts of your estranged relative’s old estate and clear out the awful, unspeakable evil that has taken residence there. Each group consist of a maximum of four people (you could take less than four in the same way that you could gnaw off both your hands). The cannon fodder adventurers come in all different shapes and sizes ranging from crusader to cleric/healer person to highwayman. Ideally, you want to fill out your group with a balanced mix of skills and abilities that compliment each other, but are also adaptable for when things inevitably go so far south that you start seeing polar bears.

The Line Up

This is where we get into the first major change/improvement Darkest Dungeon brings to the “stand in a line and fight” style of game play. There’s actually a line. Or rather, there’s a marching order. The person in the first position is actually at the front of the group and vice versa for the person in the fourth position. The same is true for the enemy side. Different character’s abilities will target different positions in the line. For example, the crusader’s “smite” ability can only target enemies in the first and second position while the highwayman’s “pistol shot” can target the back three rows. As you might imagine, this means that a number of abilities comes with a forced movement aspect to screw with your specifically arranged group positioning, which can turn an encounter from “probably survivable” to “wanton slaughter fest” in short order.

Through out the game you will also need to try to manage the mental health of your sacrificial meat sacks adventurers. In addition to a standard health bar, every one also has a “stress bar”. Unlike the health bar, which starts full and empties as you sustain damage; the stress bar starts empty and slowly fills and things happen. Stepping on a trap, walking in the dark, receiving a critical hit from an enemy, rooting around in a bookshelf and finding unspeakable eldritch knowledge are all things that cause stress. Some enemies have attacks that deal primarily stress damage.

Being Tested

When a character’s stress bar fills all the way, they suffer from an affliction. A little message pops up on screen that says “character name‘s resolve is tested” followed by what their affliction will be. Things like, paranoid, selfish, fearful, and abusive are examples of what sort of afflictions a character could be stuck with when their stress bar is filled. This will change the character in some way while their are suffering from it. For example, a fearful character will often spend their turn trying to move to the back of the group rather than following your command. They also interact with the rest of the party, saying things like “This is futile, we’re all going to die!”. As you can imagine, this deals stress damage to the other party members. Oh yeah, and if that weren’t enough; if that stress bar gets filled again after they’re afflicted, they get so stressed out that they have a heart attack and die. I’m not kidding. This actually happens.

Afflicted

 

There is a chance that the affliction will be a positive one like courageous or focused, but the chance of that is very slim compared to the negative ones. As you might expect, the positive afflictions have an opposite effect to the negative ones. Normally buffing the character in some way and making them say things like “Strike while the fiend is weak!” which reduce stress damage for party members.

It gives each adventure a sense of desperation and urgency as it is much easier to accumulate stress damage than it is to alleviate it. I found that it seems to be pretty common for at least one of your soon to be cooling corpses adventurers to come away from an encounter with an affliction. The positive ones fade after the adventure while the negative ones stay until their stress damage has been reduced back to zero; but doing that takes time and money.

It is also important to note that just because one of your monster snacks adventurers gets a positive affliction once does not mean they will always get that affliction. I thought I would game the system (my first mistake) and assemble a super team filled with those who dealt positively with stress. I quickly realized my mistake when I sent them after one of the bosses and my “elite team” became something that sounds like the start of the world’s darkest joke “A masochist, a paranoid person, two cowards walk into a crypt”. With the punch line being “They all die. Horribly.”

You return to the stricken hamlet next to the mansion after each adventure. You can send your stress ridden party members to the tavern or the church to participate in a number of stress relieving activities which all cost an enormous amount of money. I’ve certainly left some of my lesser used/liked somehow still breathing blood bags adventurers gibbering madly for months on end because I couldn’t justify the cost of fixing them compared to how useful they had been in the last expedition.

That sentence should speak volumes to you about this game. It made me so desperate for funds and resources which might give me the slightest edge or increased chance of survival that I willingly cast aside the ones too weak to be of use to me anymore. This game is amazing; it doesn’t pull punches, it challenges you, and then forces you to deal with the outcome of everything that happens.

DD warning

To compliment the game play, the aesthetics of the game are spot on with the over all theme. Everything has a distinctly hand drawn look with a heavy emphasis on dark, bold lines. The enemies all look sufficiently intimidating and terrifying and have me wondering if I’ve bitten off more than I can chew with almost every fight that I get into. And then there’s the narrator. I haven’t found a narrator I’ve enjoyed this much since playing Bastion. There aren’t many instances when something as simple as the narrator really makes the game, but this is certainly one of them. For almost every action, there is a response from the narrator. His responses are eloquent and verbose, themed after Lovecraft’s writing style. Eventually, you’ll have heard them all, but hearing repeats of the same dialogue didn’t bother me in this case as it felt natural to the theme of the game.

Darkest Dungeon was developed and produced by Red Hook Studios. It can be purchased on Steam for $19.99 and I think it is well worth the money. If nothing else as a stark reminder of our own mortality, but also because it’s a ridiculously fun and challenging game. However, if roguelike games do not appeal to you, this game might not be the best investment. That being said, I still think you should give it a try. Everyone needs to experience the crushing defeat of having an entire party die in a single fight to appreciate the better and happier parts of life.

Overall Score
93 %

Equal parts frustrating and amazing, this game will keep you on your toes the entire time with its unforgiving combat and interesting take on the "turn based RPG" genre.

Fun 90%
Graphics 95%
Story 85%
Replayability 100%

About The Author

Things I love: Video games, comics, steampunk, space
Things I like: Cyberpunk, hard cider, not being in the sun, pokemon
Things I dislike: The sun

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