Darkest Dungeon Switch Review
Darkest Dungeon has been delivering twisted and awfully bleak moments since it first arrived on Steam Early Access back in Early 2015. It eventually turned into a full release a year later, then made the jump to PS4 and Vita in September 2016. Tweaks and additional downloadable content have been added to flesh out new mechanics, but no matter if playing the original or the complete content version, Darkest Dungeon will always be praised for its compelling and rewarding mechanics. It successfully mixed dungeon crawling with stressful party management, along with a ruthless narrator to drive home the despair felt when a trek into a dungeon backfires and the party is no longer sane enough to continue their adventures. That description is Darkest Dungeon at its heart, an unforgiving piece of video game entertainment, and now Switch owners get to experience all this psychological trauma first hand at home or on the go, as Darkest Dungeon‘s design is another game perfectly suited for either long or short gameplay sessions.
The game begins by telling the player they have inherited an estate from a family member. This would sound like a great time to celebrate, but said previous owner decided to go deep into the dungeons set around the estate, pushing too far and releasing unknown evil and dread into the world. It’s the player’s job to gather a group of adventurers and explore those cursed dungeons, slay the evil that has arrived and live happily ever after…if only it was that easy.
Every time the game boots up, a little message appears warning the player that a lot is expected from them. “Darkest Dungeon is about making the most of a bad situation. Quests will fail or must be abandoned, Heroes will die and will stay dead permanently” it states on a dreary black background as the title screen pops up. There is so much truth to this, because the core built into Darkest Dungeon is all about managing the party and their adventures, making sure to know when to keep going or retreat. There are rewards for pressing on, but on the flip side, this puts adventurers at risk of going insane, or even worse, suffering from a painful death – heart attack by stress – handicapping the rest of the unit who is now a team member down.
It’s this sense of pressure from the risks involved that makes Darkest Dungeon such an engrossing time. Having a successful dungeon trip brings a smile of relief – things could have gone much worse – but that is only one trip, since all has to be done again to push deeper into the depths and accomplish the tasks given by the quest giver. Games can be frustratingly hard, but the challenge in Darkest Dungeon manages to keep frustration at bay, even though things will not go your way multiple times. This is an addictive hook, the balance with trying to keep team members alive or letting them go and hiring new people to take their place is one that will always be happening throughout the game.
There is plenty of power given to the player to prevent such atrocities that might befall the band of adventurers by using the game’s main hub, Hamlet. This area is where players can hire new adventurers, upgrade equipment/skills and learn fresh new skills. It’s also helpful for sending adventurers who are too stressed to continue by submitting them to stress relieving areas of Hamlet, usually the church or tavern. If they have been suffering from some sort of mental state, then checking them in with the Sanitarium will allow them to be cured from their problems.
Doing all of the above, bar gaining new adventurers, costs money, and money isn’t’ free, it has to be earned by collecting loot and finishing quests, and so there is this gameplay loop where everything comes together in harmony between dungeon exploring, fighting, keeping people alive and find new adventurers, as much as one can in such a dreaded setting. There is never a time where a player becomes stuck, since it costs nothing to hire new adventurers, so losing an experienced team member can be easily replaced, then the cycle begins with the new character that has to go through shorter dungeons to level up. Since dungeons are based around character levels, and the max level isn’t high (6), it means that even taking new heroes into the low level dungeons is still a challenge, with just as much attention and planning needed to go into the smaller dungeons as it would when taking on the bigger, longer and harder areas. And for all those who died? Well they are now laying to rest in Hamlet’s graveyard, which the game uses to show respect to all who have died in the player’s attempt to finish the game (hint; they will be lots of deaths, so don’t get too attached).
It’s easy to see Darkest Dungeon as a roguelike experience. There are many features that can be associated with that popular genre, such as permanent death, random dungeons, and repetition, but there are many things that make this distinctly not a roguelike. Darkest Dungeon is at heart an RPG, it features dungeon exploring from a side perspective, with fantastically drawn grim art presenting the adventurers walking left to right as that reveal the dangers of the dungeon. Each dungeon is made up of large and small squares that link to each other to create a random map, with each square having the potential to contain objects that could turn into loot, a trap or a random battle. Light is extremely important in regards to exploring the dungeons, as the light dwindles with each move, the stress levels begin to increase and the enemies begin to gain more advantages. Using items, such as torches, refill the metre and make it safer to explore. This is a key mechanic, as the light plays into how characters gain stress, and the stress mechanic is one of the more distinct and threatening parts of Darkest Dungeon‘s gameplay, a feature that manages to thematically and mechanically bring the feeling of hopelessness to the game.
It’s this hopelessness that made me mention not to get attached with team members. If you overcome that step, then the hardship of losing a strong adventurer won’t be as soul destroying. To overcome the hardship of Darkest Dungeon, you need to make full use of the unlimited supply of mercenaries willing to fight for you. In other words, becoming a heartless bastard is the best way to proceed forward in this game. Each of the various classes has a desired position in the formation of four and also will have a preferred distance of attack. This is a game that makes players truly think about class abilities and party composition – it’s so vital to understand as it can mean the difference between survival or death in the crucial moments of battle. There are many classes included, from something as standard as the Crusader, who is a knight that sits on the frontlines and can dish melee damage, the Houndmaster, who uses his faithful dog to do some vicious damage, to things like a Plague Doctor, who sits at the back and specialises in poisons and debuffs, while a shapeshifter, who changes into a monster to deal incredibly damage, sits in the middle, but his ability comes with the cost of adding stress to the rest of the party when he transforms into beast mode.
The balance of great combat and strategy keeps Darkest Dungeon from becoming monotonous or boring. Players always have to be on their toes, and with so many ways to experiment with the classes and the turn-based combat, even the repeated nature of the game is repelled. Throw in the stress mechanics that can cause your fellow adventurers to receive a random buff or debuff, usually the latter, to their mental state throws a spanner into the works. With so many diseases and mental hardships featured, this feature remains a surprise for a good few hours. I even do not mind some of the reused assets, which are brought in for enemies that appear in the harder dungeons – the typical colour changes of existing enemies – just because the gameplay itself is brilliantly crafted. Be it playing for 20 mins or seven hours straight, Darkest Dungeon digs deep into scratching an itch to push on forward and finish off a boss or two on the quest list, and there is a lot of them to get through in a game that can easily last over 100 hours.
While everything that was available on PC (apart from Steamworks) and PS4/Vita is here in the Switch, be it through the main game and its available downloadable content, it’s not without some issues. The game itself is well ported in terms of performance, although it runs at 720p in both docked and handheld mode. Luckily, the 2D art means that the game manages to stay looking good on a 4K television without appearing to be suffering from poor image quality, which happens often with 3D visuals. The sound remains intact, with the brilliant narrator delivering his dreaded dialogue as things happen in the game. It’s not quite on the levels of Bastion, as there is more repeated dialogue here, but the voice actor does a great job in setting this tone of despair, hopelessness and evil throughout the game, something that fits well with the brooding visuals.
Unfortunately, the move from mouse to controller takes some getting use to, as controls are convoluted, with some instances requiring combination presses to access areas of the menu, then moving the sticks when the button combinations are pressed. It’s not user friendly, taking time to get used to before settling in. The issue is I could easily see this being a problem when stepping away from the game for a while to then come back in a few weeks and forgetting that the controls all over the place, needing to learn them all again. The touch screen helps somewhat when playing in handheld mode, but because the game has a stacked user interface, it’s easy to accidental touch the wrong part of the UI. This is my only real issue with the game, everything else has had a fantastic transition to the Switch, offering a great game to play at home or on the go.
Darkest Dungeon still remains a fantastic, dark RPG on its move to the Switch, one that offers a challenge stacked with replayability. It’s one of the few hardcore RPGs that I can stick with without getting annoyed or bored at its difficulty. It’s a shame that the deep and rewarding gameplay is spoilt by poor controls, but once used to their awkwardness, what remains is a brilliant release for Nintendo’s system. Darkest Dungeon is suited to the mobility of the device, thanks to the short dungeon times. It is a game that will keep on giving players constant nightmares and hardships as they slowly become engrossed in the gameplay loop, while probably going insane at the same time trying to go deeper into the lair of evil that is known as the Darkest Dungeon, a game that is one of the best indies available right now on Switch.