My dear unknown friend,
It is appropriate that I first heard of Darkest Dungeon from a member of my gaming group. “Oh it’s addictive,” she breathed, “careful of that one.” When she said addictive I envisioned the typical, “Just one more,” button mashing scenario. I was so wrong. Darkest Dungeon gets inside your head like the latest release from Sutter Kane.
Like all brilliant traps, Darkest Dungeon lures one in with simplicity. 2D animation. Four player party arranged in a line. Turn based combat. “You know this,” whispers a reassuring voice, “this is as old as the hills.” Yet cracks start to appear underfoot. Instead of being strictly turn based there’s a randomizing element, dice being rolled to determine order of play. I can’t count upon a healing spell being cast before my fighter is attacked, and wait, what’s this? A stress meter? This is when I realize that the design goals of Darkest Dungeon drill much deeper than just swiping a few words from Lovecraft’s lexicon. Red Hook Studios wants to examine the cost of a dungeon crawl. There’s a psychological toll in seeing a member of your party brutally murdered and Darkest Dungeon extracts that payment.
The back story for Darkest Dungeon is that your father drank, gambled, and caroused his way through the family fortune before turning his attention towards the Dark Arts and Things Man Was Not Meant To Know. Too late he realized his folly as his manor and the hamlet surrounding it were overcome by an accursed influence. He dispatched a letter begging you to return and set things right, then sent a musket ball through his own skull.
Game play for Darkest Dungeon revolves around a few major areas. First you need to clean and upgrade the hamlet your father trashed so thoroughly before he committed suicide because you need to attract adventurers you can recruit to explore and clear the dungeons your dilettante father so thoughtlessly left behind. The hamlet will also become your base of operations for the healing and outfitting of your party members when they’re not confronting the eldritch horrors beneath your feet. Remember the psychological toll I talked about? Different people have different ways of coping with it. Some pray. Some drink and visit brothels. Some check into sanitariums. All can be made more effective and less time-consuming if they are upgraded, which of course costs money which requires exploration of those dungeons and tunnels that lay below. A hamlet with upgraded facilities also tends to draw a higher class of adventurer. And so it goes.
Dungeon exploration/combat reveals a similar depth of planning and design. There are fourteen character classes in Darkest Dungeon, expanding from the strictly Lovecraftian into a wide world of pulp goodness. I do not wish to ruin the surprise of discovery but I will admit when I saw Plague Doctors and Grave Robbers as characters my blackened little heart beat a touch faster. Each character has seven skills, four of which may be equipped for each dungeon exploration. However, the character’s place in the line-up may have an effect on their skill. As an example the Grave Robber has a skill named Poison Dart which may only be used if she is towards the back of the party, in a support role, positions three or four. Which is all well and good, place your fighters in the front and spell casters and healers in the back as we’ve all learned from countless games before, until that tentacle appears from nowhere and swaps your Paladin and Vestal Healer from positions one and four mere seconds before combat begins. Thankfully you spent the extra money for that special scroll before this dungeon crawl began. Right? You’re not some heartless middle-management type who would scrimp on anything so potentially life saving. Only a penny-pinching drone straight out of a Ligottian corporate horror novella could be so uncaring while keeping an eye fixed on the bottom line.
I am not engaging in hyperbole here. When friends who review video games professionally learned I was playing “That Game” I heard statements such as, “I was a month late turning my review in,” and “That was one of the few games I reviewed while I was only halfway through it.” Yet they heaped high praise upon the game itself. It was simply the fact they could not grind the game for hours on end, for their own mental health they had to step away after two to three hours. One told me towards the end of the game he stopped naming new party members because they were going to die or go insane and he did not want to grow too attached to them. Yet there was always a sliver of hope, a thread of promise that teased them back to continue on.
The threat of madness looms large in Darkest Dungeon. Like all RPGs you must ensure that each character’s hit points stay above zero, but in addition there’s the stress meter we’ve mentioned previously. Any time a party member is killed or suffers a Critical Hit there’s the possibility that the stress meter of the other party members will increase, and if they increase too much they may acquire a Quirk or even suffer a heart attack. Quirks may be Positive or Negative with each character having five slots for each. Some such as Kleptomania will cause a character to steal all available treasure or Slow Reflexes which is pretty self-explanatory. Positive Quirks such as Steady and Quick Draw can be locked in with a visit to a sanitarium so you may wish to wave the white flag and beat a hasty retreat should you stumble across one.
All deaths in Darkest Dungeon are permanent. Auto save is always on. At any point in a dungeon crawl you may wave the white flag, hit eject, and the remainder of your party flees the dungeon still alive. You simply forfeit any treasure you have accumulated up to that point. So it is your choice at all times. Do you whisk the remaining party members to safety, leaving all the treasure they’ve collected and sacrificing the cost you’ve invested in provisioning them with torches, rope, food, etc, and the cost you’ll have to spend in healing them so they can be dispatched once more to face the horrors that lay below or do you gamble and take the chance that at least one of them will make their way back to see the sun once more? Of course they’ll be half-mad and nearly dead yet on the other hand, healing one person costs much less than healing four, and you have a hamlet to rebuild. Whole families rely upon the hard choices you’re forced to make.
I have included the official screenshots and trailers so you can see and hear the art and sound design. I personally loved it. It has a definite Mike Mignola influence while doing its own thing and the voice work is effective. At the beginning of each adventure he narrates a bit of back story as to the cause of the eldritch horror that awaits below but this is not a narrative driven game, these are more for color and as such they are highly effective.
The controls are crisp and on point, if you desired to you could play this entire game with just your mouse. Replay value is exceedingly high with a lot of upgrades, both hamlet and characters, and a lot of treasures and trinkets to be found. In addition there are three distinct areas with different monsters and randomized dungeons. Everyone that I’ve talked to still has a copy installed on their machine and still tinkers with different combinations of characters, skills, and positions.
RPGs gloss over the true toll of their adventures. Heroes return to town, clerics cast spells, everyone sleeps, hit points are restored, all is well. By focusing on the cost of the trauma, the quirks and the stress, the decisions in provisioning versus cost, Darkest Dungeon brings the horror home. As the Zen proverb says, “it turns the light to what is directly underfoot.”
Addendum: h/t and thank you to Daniel Hubbell for pointing out that Wayne June, the voice talent behind the wonderful back stories, has an established background in Lovecraftian audio.
Review written by Acep Hale