Four minutes into playing Darkest Dungeon for the first time, I scrawl, “WTF?!” in the notebook I keep beside my keyboard. My Highwayman is dead. My Crusader is almost dead. I face the second battle of the tutorial, and I’m genuinely reconsidering everything I thought I knew about myself as being “decent at video games.”
Limping past the corpses of his enemies, my Crusader makes it to my hamlet. It’s a dour looking place, all gothic architecture and thick shadows deepened by the reddened light of what I assume is sunset. Darkest Dungeon’s 2D art style is distinct, with muted colours emphasized by heavy black brushstrokes in lieu of brighter highlights; here in the hamlet, a monochromatic colour scheme shifts with the day-night cycle, mimicking what I later learn to be one of the most important factors in this game:
The hamlet is the heart of Darkest Dungeon, a place for recruitment, recovery, and retirement of would-be, current, and deceased heroes. Fortunately for us, there’s no shortage of the former — and soon enough, you’ll become numb(ish) to the latter. By week 79, I’ve got a graveyard full of ‘retired’ heroes, dead from a myriad of causes, each etched upon their gravestone: collapsed permanently while clearing an obstacle, succumbed to blight, slain by a vile Fungal Artillery, perished of hunger. The Abbey rises behind the graveyard, a place for our heroes to indulge in stress relief via meditation, prayer, or self-flagellation; these spiritual options are balanced by the more visceral ones at the Tavern, where drinking, gambling, and pleasures of the flesh are on option. Given the trials and tribulations your heroes experience while adventuring, they need these moments of rest.
You’ll want to take care of your roster of heroes: they are the soul of Darkest Dungeon. Fourteen classes expand upon your standard RPG stereotypes, and each of them brings a different dynamic to your party. Although perfectly in keeping with the game’s dark, heavy aesthetic, the heroes’ personalities shine through their animations, design, and speech; in fact, Red Hook Creative Director Chris Bourassa is collaborating with artist Trudi Castle on a series of comics providing an official backstory for each hero (check out the Arbalest, my personal favourite). Character customisation is limited to changing the colour of armour, skin, and hair. Each hero arrives in your hamlet with a French-sounding name, which can also be changed.
Although you could put together a party of four of the same class, you’ll find each of those heroes to be unique in their strengths and weaknesses — and there are many of these to work with. From being afraid of shadows to being a kleptomaniac inclined to pocket loot to familiarity with adventuring in certain locales to being strong-willed against stress, the perks and flaws of your heroes add to the complexities of Darkest Dungeon. You can play the game on some casual settings that soften the impact of negative traits and allow for a gentler learning curve; this is not an easy game. This game seizes upon the gritty, harsh lifestyle of soldiers fighting day in and day out: your heroes get stressed, selfish, scared, and hungry, and they yell at each other, which creates more stress, and suddenly someone dies of a heart attack which is extra stressful, so then a chain reaction starts and…
… well, if you’re me, you start cry-laughing about how your party screamed each other to death, type up a melodramatic tweet, and tag one of the developers in it.
One of Darkest Dungeon’s most appealing aspects is its dedicated, responsive development team. I’ve received responses to most tweets, or at the very least, a like on it — an acknowledgement that they’re watching their audience. I’ve used Twitter to report bugs, to chat about the art style, and to groan helplessly about one encounter or another. During the several months I participated in early access, I watched a huge number of small, significant improvements implemented — from things as simple as disease icons to an entirely new hero class, the Abomination. Just before launch, the dev team supported the #WeNeedHeroes hashtag, where early access players shared stories of their trials, tribulations, and sometimes even their successes, in game.
Have no doubt: despite the fact that you will struggle and experience rage-quit worthy failures in your adventures, there are some incredible successes to be had. Some are more luck-based than others — such as whether your hero receives a Virtue versus an Affliction after reaching their stress threshold, or whether your idiot highwayman will gamble away a great trinket (*weeps*) — but the majority come through skill. Darkest Dungeon rewards you for paying attention to details, and while the UI is dense with information, it’s all relevant.
But most of all, you’ll want to pay attention to the “Light” mechanic. When leaving your hamlet to go exploring, you have the option to purchase torches. Keeping your party well-stocked with torches means your heroes are more likely to surprise monsters and thus seize initiative in battle than to be surprised, while lowering the damage monsters inflict; as light levels decrease, inversions of the above become true, as stress contributions increase. So, too, will your heroes’ chance to crit increase, and loot drops improve.
Some heroes perform better in low light than others. Some prefer bright surroundings. The challenge of balancing light levels with supplies, hero traits, stress levels, monetary rewards, and the increased likelihood of death is incredibly fluid.
Returning to the hamlet after adventuring provides a much-needed change in all the juggling and strategising necessary to succeed in the outside world. Instead of worrying about whether your hero’s stress level is about to cross a threshold, you rush them into recovery — if there’s a slot available for them to recover. Maybe you shuffle them to the Sanitarium to remove a negative trait or lock in a positive one; maybe you only have enough coin to do this for two of your four heroes in need. Coin is a precious commodity early on, as are the artefacts necessary to upgrade buildings such as the Blacksmith and Guild, for gear and skill improvements.
The details of Darkest Dungeon may prove themselves to be tedious to gamers looking for an environment to leap into, murder some monsters, and walk away from. Even for those who seek a challenge, the frustration when your best hero misses three times and ends up slaughtered feels less like the game beat me than the RNG beat me. Still, swallowing the occasional blow to my pride has been well worth it to watch Darkest Dungeon develop into a full-featured, complex, and rewarding gaming experience… regardless of what I have to put my heroes through to get a good meal.
This title was purchased by the reviewer.