Euphoric Highs and crushing lows are as much a key theme in Darkest Dungeon as are the Lovecraftian aesthetic or the turn-based combat. The game was designed to always have you on the edge of your seat, one trap away from death, one cursed book from insanity. The game thrives on its ability to make you both nervous and excited at the same time, when the stakes are the highest, Darkest Dungeon is at its finest.
Boiled down to its base, Darkest Dungeon is turn based rogue-like about assembling a party of hapless heroes and pitting them against a myriad of enemies from simple bandits to giant eldritch horrors. Throw in a handful of upgrades, equipment and improvements to your Hamlet and of course perma-death and the game play loop is instantly familiar. However Darkest Dungeon is anything but ordinary and stands above others in its genre with meaningful new mechanics and an incredible aesthetic.
The game oozes style from every pixel
It would be criminal to not begin by talking about Darkest Dungeons art and sound design. The game oozes style from every pixel. Bathed in deep lore somewhere in between the darker classic fantasy of Dark Souls and the works of H.P Lovecraft; it ticks all the right boxes for fans of dark, psychological horror like me. The world your player character inhabits, as the caretaker of a Hamlet left to you by a long dead relative, is one no stranger to death and despair and it shows in the designs of the characters compromised of 14 different hero classes. The real star of Darkest Dungeon however isn’t even its art design, it’s the narration. Throughout your adventures your heroes are always accompanied by the narrator, describing the scene, giving advice, adding the deepest layer to this world. The narrator voiced by Wayne June of Lovecraft audio book fame made me play Darkest Dungeon with all of the lights off, the narration turned up just to lose myself in this world.
A sense of insurmountable dread builds while playing, every victory, every upgrade you pour your hard earned cash into, every new weapon or skill you acquire for your heroes makes you remember that failure could be round any corner. With heroes being very much expendable the more you upgrade one the scarier it is to send them out on missions, knowing they are your strongest and any stray blow could be there end builds a tension I haven’t felt since X-COM: Enemy Unknown. However death isn’t the only danger in Darkest Dungeon, it twists the general task of managing characters Health Points by adding in another element in the form of stress.
The death of a comrade, a missed attack, an enemy critical strike, low light levels all of this and much more can contribute to building the stress of your heroes. When that stress meter reaches a hundred, your heroes resolve is tested if you are incredibly lucky they will triumph in the face of danger and develop a new positive trait, however the more likely outcome is a terrible affliction. Ranging from insane to abusive or irrational these change the way your heroes will act, they may not listen to you, refuse to be healed or eat, yell at comrades. These afflictions make every encounter more stressful every journey back with those heroes a risk; it’s the heart of Darkest Dungeons 4-Hero squad based combat, flipping things on its head at the drop of a match. Of course the ultimate price to pay for a stressed hero, if you do not lower there stress via recreational activities at the Hamlet, is death. If a hero’s stress meter reaches two hundred he will have a heart attack and die, making enemies which raise your parties stress either a bigger threat depending on your parties’ condition.
when the stakes are the highest, Darkest Dungeon is at its finest
Darkest Dungeon is without a tough, but ultimately fair. Perseverance is key, it’s a game for those looking for challenge, not one for any who are easily frustrated, otherwise it may prove too challenging to be playable. The managing of multiple resources from character stats to light and food levels coupled with a combat that is ever changing depending on the makeup of your party makes for a steep learning curve and even once mastered a lot of the game is up to luck. However I never felt failure was any other fault but my own, I never felt cheated. Darkest Dungeon is the perfect storm of skill and RNG (random number generator) even with every roll of the dice I felt that my decisions or lack of preparation were the real cause of my downfall.
As I progressed through the dungeons, facing harder foes and eventually bosses which could feel almost insurmountable, I never once thought about the endgame. Darkest Dungeon has a list of objectives and foes to defeat but I never played for this reason, I never tackled dungeon after dungeon just to tick a box. The real driving force is by far the progression in your heroes and your Hamlet; unlocking more ways to treat stress or afflictions, more available upgrades for your heroes, more heroes to use etc. The more resources and heroes I had the better I felt I was becoming, the stronger my heroes were the more I had to lose but at the same time they gave me the ability to gain so much more. Darkest Dungeon is my Spelunky, my Rogue Legacy, to me is the epitome all of those games that feature a cycle of try, fail, try again and progress that little bit further. It’s a game I’ll go back to when I just want to lose myself in a game, it will never be a relaxing experience but it will become a comfortable one that I can become lost in, where I can always improve, but will always challenge me, that’s the greatest strength of Darkest Dungeon.
Darkest Dungeon is not a perfect game; some parts of the seam arbitrary like the addition of corpses in combat, diseases among the other types of affliction or the inability to have any combination of heroes as some refuse to work together due to beliefs like the Abomination and the Leper. The only other real criticism I can levy at Darkest Dungeon is the lack of clarity in the UI, when learning knew abilities I had to re-read them a few time to realize exactly who this was effecting, what way, the buffs and de-buffs etc. However in the grand scheme of how good Darkest Dungeon is and what it gets right, these were minor complaints.
Lovecraft once wrote: “The oldest and strongest fear of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”. Darkest Dungeon reflects this statement in the best kind of ways. It inspired genuine fear in me, that I was going to lose my best heroes, that I would have to retreat from a mission, I would fail, it made me afraid to venture into the next room due exactly to fear of the unknown. The game creates a sense of genuine creeping dread I haven’t felt in a long time, but it builds on this dread in ways games like X-COM never could, simply because of their aesthetic. It looks, sounds and feels like a Lovecraftian tale of the horrors of the unknown, then reflects the fear this creates into how you play.
Darkest Dungeon does what so few games can; it melds gameplay and lore into one complete package. It does it with mechanics and aesthetic that could stand on their own two feet, but together create something incredible, something where no matter how many times I fail I went straight back to it. I will keep playing Darkest Dungeon for the foreseeable future and continue to lose myself in it over and over again, I mean, I’d be insane not to.