Darkest Dungeon PS4 Review
The works of H.P. Lovecraft are to Indie developers as First Person Shooters are to Triple-A developers: Lovecraft’s haunting, thesaurus-filled stories about cosmic horrors, immortal sea creatures and existential madness have long been a cult following that is rarely featured in mainstream media, but continues to serve as a dark backdrop to almost every type of genre through Indie games.
Darkest Dungeon may just be the most notable of Lovecraftian-inspired Indie games, thanks to its immense success through Kickstarter; originally pitched for $75,000 to be funded, the game made nearly three times the asking amount and was released on Steam to critical acclaim, despite officially being in early access for over a year. Now, after continuous updates and a planned expansion, developer Red Hook Studios has officially classified Darkest Dungeon as “complete” while also releasing the console version on PS4 and Vita, with cross-save support to boot.
The story of Darkest Dungeon revolves around an inherited estate, left behind by a suicidal relative who hired an expedition to unearth the mansion’s buried secrets only to find misery and despair…and a whole host of dark creatures. Players are tasked with forming their own expedition to explore the titular dungeon and its many floors filled with traps, terrors, and treasure. The game begins with a stock amount of player characters with no customization options beyond their names as well as the cryptic message that not all of them will survive: taking a cue from RPGs like Fire Emblem and XCOM, death is permanent and irreversible in Darkest Dungeon: once a character falls in battle, they are permanently removed from the party, requiring players to find a suitable replacement from the revolving door of misguided adventurers to pick up the slack.
Naturally, the ideal strategy is to keep as many party members alive as possible, as they will learn new abilities and gain stronger equipment the more they succeed in their expeditions. But the Darkest Dungeon is harsh and unforgiving, and the enemy has a tool that is almost more dangerous than any physical weapon: stress. As characters suffer repeated damage through enemy attacks and traps, their individual sanity bars will increase. This is compounded further by each character’s own phobias, which are listed alongside their positive traits: one party member may suffer increased stress when facing certain types of enemies, while another may grow more insane when suffering from the bleeding status effect. A party member that reaches a high level of sanity will end up taking more damage, incurring more negative traits, and babble incoherently at the growing hopelessness overtaking their very souls.
Put simply, you want to keep your party members sane. Fortunately, there are various stress relievers found in the main world map, such as taverns and brothels. Leaving an afflicted party member behind to literally drink their cares away will eventually put them back in tip-top fighting shape, but it also leaves them temporarily removed from the party. The character’s traits can also require them to seek out specific kinds of rehabilitation, such as God-fearing characters who can only relieve stress by visiting a church.
The micromanagement of Darkest Dungeon extends beyond its party setup; combat comes with its own meticulous set of rules during each turn-based battle. Players and enemies have their own turn orders, which can be affected through various interruptive abilities such as stunning an opponent or activating a strong attack that requires a longer wait time. The orientation of characters also makes a big difference, such as ranged characters being able to attack enemies from the back, or melee characters only able to attack the front row. There are also various attacks that can force characters to change positions, which can lead to less-than-ideal scenarios like the healer being forced into the front while the fighter has to skip a turn to re-arrange their positions.
If you couldn’t tell by now, Darkest Dungeon is a deeply complex and frequently difficult game. Its roguelike elements can result in numerous failures even under ideal preparations, while nearly every necessary resource can prove finite or otherwise unobtainable; fail to carry enough food during an expedition and the characters will lose HP from starvation. A lack of torches results in increased player sanity and increased damage from enemies. Every single element can make the difference between victory and agony in Darkest Dungeon, which is what makes it such an addicting form of punishment for RPG and resource-managing players alike.
It goes without saying that for a game with so many different systems to keep tabs on, Darkest Dungeon requires a simple interface to make the necessary changes and adjustments. On PC, it achieves this with a tried-and-true keyboard and mouse setup. Unfortunately, the console version falters a bit in making all of the menus and options controller-friendly. Rather than rearrange the interface to work better with a controller, Red Hook Studios has instead opted to introduce a large number of button combinations in order to navigate each part of the menu. This includes holding down one shoulder button to navigate one menu, another two-button system to read what that option does, and another to initiate the action. Memorizing the controller layout almost feels like a game in itself, and more often than not players will begin to question the obtuse interface decisions made in the console version.
It’s a shame that the console version of Darkest Dungeon couldn’t have been a bit smarter with its controller layout, because the rest of the game shines in brilliant darkness as it did on PC; the 2D artwork is a great mix of hard lines and grotesque imagery, quite similar to Hellboy and other comics by Mike Mignola. The persistent narration is delightfully campy with its dreary delivery and macabre musings, and the fear of death (or insanity) makes every duel feel like a tense brush with death. And players will die, again and again and again. But like a certain other difficult series centered around darkness and sun bros, Darkest Dungeon’s maddening tendrils will manipulate even the most frustrated folks to try again…but consider sticking to the PC version to avoid the added frustration of fumbling around with the controls.