My first expedition in Darkest Dungeon was quite successful. Of the four heroes that went in, one was killed by a rabid dog, and two suffered severe mental trauma, manifesting as bouts of crippling paranoia. The last one was so shook up by the whole ordeal that he became a tippler – a sad alcoholic who can only find peace at the bottom of a bottle. Not bad for a first run, really.
Darkest Dungeon is a roguelike RPG, and a very punishing one at that. It has all the staples of the genre – permanent hero death, randomly generated levels and the seemingly-insurmountable goal of defeating some ancient evil. It’s not a game you play but rather a deadly puzzle you must devote full attention to because you’re never more than one slip-up away from loss. Fortunately, you’re never really short on brave souls willing to risk life, limb and mind in pursuit of glory and riches – your success will be built upon the backs and graves of numerous adventurers.
While Darkest Dungeon is quite a difficult game, it does have a unique mechanic to control difficulty: Darkness. It’s true that the best rewards are reaped from the darkest reaches by the bravest explorers, but your party can still carry some torches to light the way. Light and darkness being scalable rather than binary, you can fine-tune the degree of risk you’re willing to take by increasing light through torches or even some abilities. The risk vs. reward system works rather well once you get used to it – torches can be lit up and extinguished on the go, allowing you to brighten things up if your party takes a few bumps too many. Of course, there’s also the pressure of achieving success before the last ember sputters and dies.
Apart from being stabbed, shot, clobbered, torn to shreds, boiled alive or crushed under falling rocks your heroes also have to deal with Darkest Dungeon’s second unique mechanic: Stress. The constant dread of adventuring will take its toll – first a hero’s resolve will be tested and if it fails, a fatal heart-attack may occur. Often as fatal as a festering wound, stress is a constant reminder that death lurks behind every door and in every forsaken hall even when you’re not dealing with Eldritch horrors.
Your heroes, especially once they have a few expeditions under their belt, develop their own quirks – which is really just another way to specialize your group beyond choosing which skills and trinkets they equip for the journey ahead. While the random nature of those quirks can be frustrating at times, quirks can still mean the difference between success and failure as they can tip the scale in a multitude of ways: from extra accuracy, to a stalwart personality to an additional combat boost. Of course, not all quirks are positive and the stress of dungeon-eering can (and will) expose your heroes’ worst traits as they develop a myriad of phobias and obsessions, all with tangible gameplay effects.
Your heroes also posses skills you can buy and upgrade. From a total of 8, each hero can have 4 skills readied at once, and those cannot be changed mid-expedition. A lot of effort has gone into making each skill feel valuable in its own way. With the right skill set, each hero class can usually perform several roles to fit different tactics and play styles. For example, a Crusader can be your typical front-line melee warrior, destroying enemies with his massive sword, but should you desire you can upgrade that same crusader to be a support-oriented healer, rallying your party and providing healing and comfort. The skills you choose are what dictates a hero’s position and role above all, even before class comes into play.
When you’re not out on an expedition, you will be managing a small town that will serve as your home base. The town will initially provide a few basic services but as the weeks go by additional buildings will be unlocked: from a mysterious vendor selling wondrous items, to a skilled smith that will upgrade your weapons and armor. All the structures can be upgraded using heirlooms your heroes bring back from their successful forays into hostile lands. Keeping your town at peak condition can be just as important as surviving your expeditions.
While design and style aren’t the top priority in roguelikes, Darkest Dungeon does an excellent job that most definitely deserves a special mention. From the hand-drawn Gothic art style to the grim narrator who delights at every misfortune (be it yours or the enemy’s), the game’s art and sound set the mood absolutely perfectly – the narration, especially, adds a great deal to immersion and is easily one of the best I’ve encountered in a game since The Bard’s Tale and Bastion taught us how big an impact a good narrator can have on storytelling.
Darkest Dungeon offers exactly what it advertises: dark dungeons filled with unspeakable horrors and bloodthirsty beasts. You’ll probably fail often but that will make success that much sweeter. The next expedition will always learn something on the back of its predecessor. If the grim and gritty setting, the constant danger and high difficulty don’t deter you, Darkest Dungeon can easily consume many hours of your playtime.Some of our posts include links to online retail stores. We get a small cut if you buy something through one of our links. Don't worry, it doesn't cost you anything extra.