I have a love-hate relationship with roguelikes. While I like the element of surprise that naturally comes with randomly-generated areas, the punishing element of permadeath is something that has driven me close to insanity more than once. Darkest Dungeon features both randomly-generated areas and permadeath, while also incorporating a stress mechanic that can literally lead your characters to insanity very quickly. Darkest Dungeon could very well have ended up being a game that I despised, but I’m happy to report that my feelings are the exact opposite.
Darkest Dungeon is the epitome of a dark game, and not just because of its title. You begin by inheriting a gothic mansion from your ancestor, who lived most of his life inside of it in leisure and luxury, but his curiosity of an unspoken power in its depths got the best of him. This resulted in him unearthing an evil portal that unleashed all manner of beasts and devastation upon his home. The horrors that he witnessed drove him to suicide, which leaves it up to you to take back the mansion and drive out the evil that awaits.
The premise of the game is very simple, but there is actually a lot going on under the hood. You and 3 other adventurers voyage into one of a handful of areas in the estate to kill the monsters inside, with each location’s randomly-generated terrain containing a mixture of treasure, traps or enemies. The quests that you will accept before going into these areas consist of basic tasks like exploring 90% of an area or defeating all of the enemies, though the real challenge comes in trying to make it all the way through to the end without one or all of your teammates getting killed. Maneuvering through the game can be done with simple clicks of the mouse, as movement is done entirely on a 2D-plane and battles are turn-based.
This is all brought to life with a fantastic, hand-drawn art style that is consistently jaw-dropping. Everything from the sinister character models to the dark and decrepit hallways ooze with evil personality, which really gives the game a vibe that is all its own. The game also features terrific narration from Wayne June, giving all of your adventures an ominous narrative while also occasionally revealing more of its grim storyline. The game’s dark and depressing atmosphere is perfectly-realized in all aspects, though it never gets to the point where it feels overdone or forced.
Darkest Dungeon is absolutely brutal in terms of difficulty, as there are always a handful of things for you to juggle that have the potential to ruin your life if you aren’t careful. You need to be sure to purchase plenty of torches before heading into an area, as the darker it gets the tougher the enemies get, though the rewards for victory are also greater the tougher the enemies are. You’ll also need to bring plenty of food to both heal your team and feed them when they occasionally get hungry, though packing too much will block you from picking up more loot. The risk and reward system that is at play here is so wicked and cruel, as you constantly need to gauge whether or not to just accept survival or to shoot for success.
Darkest Dungeon’s perhaps most defining feature is the Affliction System, which results in all members in your party accumulating stress from things like taking damage, running out of food, being in the dark for too long and so on. If their stress levels get too high then they will go insane and do things like attack themselves, cower from enemies and even increase the stress levels of the rest of your team by incessantly berating them. Once they go insane their affliction will need to be dealt with outside of battle, making each time insanity strikes your characters a serious pain in the butt even if it can occasionally lead to some helpful stat boosts.
Strategy is a very important element of Darkest Dungeon and is essential to master if you want a prayer of getting through it, as things can go south in the blink of an eye. Choosing the right formation for your characters to ensure your strongest characters are at the front of the line and your healers are towards the back is imperative, as is also being sure that your characters are in the right position to attack specific foes. Healing items replenish very little health and are hard to come by, which means that you need to do everything you can to take as little damage as possible over a series of several battles to avoid losing your warriors. You can’t leave a quest without forfeiting all of the loot you’ve come across, so it’s an all or nothing scenario every time. This results in some truly tense moments, as the quests will often wind up in circumstances where several characters are on the verge of death and there is just one more battle between them and safety. Oftentimes you’ll find that one of the game’s tough-as-nails boss battles are waiting for you on the other side, resulting in the quick annihilation of your entire team and all the progress you made.
Darkest Dungeon is constantly auto-saving, so there is no way to get around any of the unfortunate events that can (and will) take place.
As alluded to previously, if a character’s HP reaches zero they are gone for good and sent to the graveyard. Considering that death is a very common occurrence in this game there is a necessity for an endless pool of replacement characters, and Darkest Dungeon always has more warriors for you to replace your deceased ones with. The new characters that show up for you to recruit are picked from over a dozen classes that all have their own unique stats and abilities, as well as weapons and armor that can be upgraded. Having a character survive for a while allows you to level them up greatly and make them a force to be reckoned with, though that only makes their certain doom at some point down the line all the more difficult to swallow.
Fortunately, the game does offer a brief reprieve in between the punishing levels by way of the Hamlet, which serves as the game’s main hub. The Hamlet is used to do things like acquire more warriors, level up your weapons and armor, or even to deal with your warriors’ stress and afflictions. Sending a character off to deal with stress or an affliction will take up a week of in-game time that is equal to the completion of one quest, so it’s important to set up multiple teams to pick up the slack for teammates who will be temporarily out of the action. You will gradually expand the Hamlet with heirlooms found in each quest, which will unlock further benefits while also making the facilities more efficient. Regularly managing the Hamlet is a lot of fun and is a nice change of pace after returning from a quest.
Darkest Dungeon is a fantastic game that fans of challenging, old-school RPGs will adore. The game does nothing to hold your hand, as it will instead take your hand and throw you face-first into hell itself. While it might just be a tad too brutal for those who can’t tolerate these kinds of punishing games, for everyone else it is simply an experience you can’t afford to miss.
- Available On: PC
- Published By: Red Hook Studios
- Developed By: Red Hook Studios
- Genre: Roguelike, RPG
- US Release Date: January 19th, 2016
- Reviewed On: PC
- Quote: "Darkest Dungeon will push even the most hardcore gamers to their breaking points, but those who are brave enough to take it on are in for a dastardly roguelike rivaled by few others."