Review: Darkest Dungeon
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I don’t normally stick to one game for long. Usually the longest I’ll keep at it is until I beat it, and in rare cases I’ll start a second run if I had a particularly good time. The thing about Darkest Dungeon is that I did beat it once, after a grueling 50 hours of marches through crumbling ruins and warrens, pitched battles with corrupted fiends, and crushing losses to recover from. I thought I was done, but over time the urge to return crept back, gnawing at the corners of my mind. This is one of the few titles I can’t ever fully quit, thanks to an unparalleled mix of challenging strategy, gratifying progression, and incredible aesthetics.
Your verbose but ultimately moronic ancestor dug too deep beneath the family estate and triggered a sort of eldritch Chernobyl, corrupting acres of countryside and dooming the few inhabitants dim enough to remain. Returning to right what he severely wronged, you must assemble teams of incredibly suspect mercenaries to battle back the tide of evil and recover funds to restore the hamlet you operate out of. These expeditions have steep costs, in terms of gold, sanity, and lives, but are necessary for growing your forces to strike at the heart of the infection. In the hamlet you manage these poor, foolish souls, training them, outfitting them, and treating the different neuroses they pick up from their journeys.
The core of the game is the struggle to balance your assaults on the forces of darkness against the toll it takes on your characters. During missions your people have both health and stress to manage, but health only needs to last to completion while stress stays with them upon return. Adventurers also pick up positive and negative quirks from their travails, everything from keen tactics and sharp eyes to kleptomania and sex addictions. While the management side in the hamlet loosely resembles XCOM in how you recruit, train, and outfit your characters, another huge part of it is managing their stress and quirks by sending them to the sanitarium or abbey or bar to face their demons (and possibly pick up new ones).
Darkest Dungeon is a game rich in storytelling, and not just from the absurdly purple prose of the ancestor who narrates your grim journey. Your mercenaries take on lives of their own as they delve into dungeons, get stabbed and poisoned and vomited on by eldritch horrors, then return to pray away the darkness and lose themselves in rapturous visions. Random events color every aspect of the game, from the crusader who refuses to leave the brothel to the plague doctor who gambles away their secret formula over dice. These are not stable people you’re dealing with, and you’ll be reminded of that every time their stress hits critical levels and they break down, becoming abusive or fearful or hopeless to the severe detriment of your mission.
Once you’re done corralling your madmen in the hamlet, it’s time to venture forth. The base game of Darkest Dungeon features four areas to explore through randomly-generated missions of varying lengths, and a fifth area that forms the final missions. To have even a shadow of a chance in this final dungeon you need more than a dozen characters at max level and fully-equipped, and the meat of the game is leveling up this army without letting any of them die. Once a merc is dead they’re dead for good, so mounting casualties represent very real losses of time and effort. And it’s going to happen now and then, because eldritch horrors are not known for their mercy or predictability.
Missions allow for teams of four, and can focus on exploring, battling, seeking artifacts, or destroying specific targets. They all involve traversing most of the dungeon, navigated by grid map and illustrated by your dour crew traipsing down eerie halls. There’s a load of strategy in just party formation and provisioning, because you need to bring food and torches and shovels and other resources to keep your team alive in the field, and that’s before getting into the nitty-gritty of combat. Rooms have the major treasures and battles, while hallways can have ambushes, traps, and smaller rewards to find. Once you complete the mission objective you can leave at any time, so if your party isn’t coming apart at the seams yet you can keep trawling for loot. There’s also a camping mechanic where party members can use special skills to support each other, but like everything else in the game it’s a double-edged sword because of potential ambushes.
Combat is the real star of the game though, a simple turn-based system expanded with complex skills and interactions, along with frightfully challenging enemies. Both parties are in lines of 4, and skills are dependent largely on position for both use and targeting. Each class has 8 skills, 4 of which you can have equipped at a time. They always have a ton of features, like status effects or interactions with other systems like your torchlight, meaning there’s really no basic “hit with sword” attack. You’ll need to use the full range of stuns, blights, bleeds, and shuffles to prevail against your foes, which can be anything from armored skeletons to fungal zombies to mutant pigmen to shambling horrors from the zenith of existence. Even with ideal strategies battles can swing wildly thanks to a vicious RNG and balancing around a mechanic called Death’s Door, where characters don’t die when they hit zero health but have about a one in three chance of perishing if struck again.
It’s a difficult game, to put it mildly, both in strategy and scope. Your enemies will always be able to outpace you in damage if you don’t use all the tools at your disposal, but mitigating too much damage will leave you open to stress attacks. Ultimately the strategy is solvable but starting out you’ll be dozens (if not hundreds) of hours away from that point, and the random element ensures you’ll never be completely free of death’s grasp. The game also threatens to become repetitive once you’ve worked through a few of the difficulty levels, as the battles you fight in the first few hours are essentially the same as the ones you’ll fight a hundred hours in, just tuned tighter. The developers have included a faster game mode, Radiant, and added features since launch to mitigate the grind, but it can still become a grind if you’re not in love with the combat.
Neither of these points disturb my enjoyment of the game, but one aspect that does is the element of the unknown. When you first start out there’s a steep learning curve to the combat and strategy, and you’re bound to lose a few souls working out the basics. That’s fine, because low-level characters are a dime a dozen. But further into the game your time investment is at stake, and you likely won’t want to risk it to work out new unknowns. A lot of the game’s difficulty is wrapped up in simply not knowing what to expect, and the final dungeon is the worst offender in this regard. The four missions that form the finale are very challenging even when you know what to do, but unless you spoil them for yourself you won’t know, and will risk losing characters not out of poor strategy but simple ignorance.
Fortunately that’s a hurdle easily overcome, and the intense, breathtaking journey to salvation is absolutely worth taking. The presentation of Darkest Dungeon is spectacular, with a beautifully-animated art style of thick lines and limited colors that hearkens back to the works of Mike Mignola. The music is bold and oppressive, and the sound effects are rich and impactful. And I can’t pass up the chance to talk about the narrator, whose every word is the most overwrought, over-dramatic thing you could imagine, bordering on parody but working so, so well with the pitch-black airs of the game. It looks great, sounds great, feels great to play, and challenges you to stick with it even when the chips are down. If you want to send hapless adventurers into nightmarish hellholes to bring you back ancient treasures at the cost of their sanity unto eternity, this is the title for you.