Darkest Dungeon is one of the games of the year.
A densely gripping tour de force that provides endless hours of gameplay despite the seemingly limited scope presented in its immediacy. Simultaneously adhering strictly to the rules associated with in its genre while providing a completely individualistic experience, this turn-based RPG might be one for the ages.
Red Hook Studios, made up of a mismatch of veteran game creators, set out to create a game that, if nothing, completely lives up to its name. Darkest Dungeon is not just a catchy title that is designed to capture one’s eye as they browse the PSN or Steam store. No, it is safe to say that this is about as honest of a title as they came. If the phrase “Darkest Dungeon” does not fill you with intrigue and a desire to see what it’s all about, then I suggest looking elsewhere.
The story does not offer anything particularly new. Seemingly ripped right out of Lovecraft’s diary, the player steps in as the new owner of a gothic mansion with a dark and slimy secret nestled in its nougat centre. As the previous owner narrates his way through his memoirs, we learn that he sought power and fame by excavating the dungeons and catacombs beneath his very own home. Blinded by his thirst for adventure, an ancient evil was unleashed and is threatening to consume the world if not stopped.
Realising that jump-starting armageddon is more than enough for one lifetime, the narrator killed himself and left his successor to handle the mess. This is where we step in. But do not fret, as we at least have the very detailed memoirs of the instigator to guide us through this very dangerous and time-consuming mission. Along the way, heroes can be recruited to form an able four-part team that can concur the dungeons beneath.
There are five dungeons in the entire game: four that must be cleared before The Darkest Dungeon can be accessed. The starter dungeons all represent different locations surrounding the manor: the forest, sewers, tombs and caves, with unique monsters that would best fit those exotic hunting grounds. Skeletons, witches, slime monsters, ghostly pirates, pig-men, bandits, mad-dogs and many more mix together for an impressive buffet of the worst hell has to offer.
And that is without going into the different bosses that lurk in every dungeon. All with elaborate and gorgeously macabre designs, these fierce challenges will leave a lot of your heroes slain and knocking on death’s door. Eventually, after they are all beaten and each dungeon is overwhelmed a dozen times over, the final, darkest of all the dungeons is unlocked with the biggest of the baddies.
Visually, Darkest Dungeon is about as perfect as a gothic roguelike RPG can be. It is ambitious, especially with the design of the creatures, but smartly knows that it should not aim for heights beyond their scope. The small range of dungeons allows for each to be elaborately designed and memorable. Although they all play the same, going from one room to another via a hallway, the monsters that lurk within and the environment of each make them all feel unique. Each dungeon is also littered with treasure and traps, as a risk/reward system is constantly shoved to the forefront.
The soundtrack, composed by Stuart Chatwood, further enhances the dark fantasy atmosphere created by the story and graphical design. Saying that, due to the tense gameplay, I did not really appreciate the brilliance of the soundtrack until after I decided to listen to it separately; it’s definitely worth seeking out.
Now, to the meat and bones. Darkest Dungeon‘s battle system is instantly recognisable while being deceptively deep. The player can have up to four heroes at a time assigned to four different slots within their party. When a battle commences, turns are passed around rather haphazardly between all the heroes and monsters involved, as the player chooses from a range of skills (generally melee, ranged, heal/buff) to employ. The positioning is also important, as a melee-focused hero could be rendered effectively useless if they are not in the first or second slot.
Besides health, players must keep track of the stress that their fighters are experiencing. This element is one that really separates Darkest Dungeon from similar titles, as these hardened and capable heroes are psychologically vulnerable to the hell they are being put through. Once their stress level reaches breaking point, they might start ignoring orders and developing traits that could damage the whole party.
There are 15 character classes available, and surprisingly they all offer their own strengths and weaknesses. More importantly, once a hero dies they stay dead; there’s no reviving them at a checkpoint or reloading from a previous save. No, there is no coming back once that definitive step is taken. Although available pawns are never at short supply, each hero can be levelled up (armour, weapon and skills), so losing one that you’ve put in your blood, sweat and tears into can be frankly devastating.
An area known as The Hamlet serves as a hub area for recruitment and a well-deserved rest. Heroes with high stress levels can be sent to recover either via entertainment (gambling, brothel and liquor) or to pray away their sins. This will leave them sidelined for a dungeon run but is crucial for the development of the characters. This means that at any given moment, a player would need to have multiple well defined and complimentary teams that can be rotated.
Leveling up can also be carried out here and negative traits can be healed as well, at a price. After a long dungeon run (and they do take a while), I found myself appreciating that little down time provided by the Hamlet.
There is very little to criticise about Darkest Dungeon. It does lag at times, which can be frustrating, and the battle system could be a tad faster (although this would take away from the gruelling experience that they’re clearly meant to be). Perhaps the biggest problem for me is the RNG system, where too much of everything is influenced by a random invisible throw of the dice. Especially on harder levels, when suddenly your heroes seem to decide that actually getting a hit in is not all that important. It is a small nitpick, but it adds some artificial difficulty that the game really did not need.
Overall, Darkest Dungeon offers a robust and efficient experience that is not afraid to let the player truly go through the trials and errors that would come with such a mission. Just don’t get too attached to any of your awesome warriors.