Darkest Dungeon Review

Darkest Dungeon PC Review

“Quests will fail or must be abandoned. Heroes will die. And when they die, they stay dead. Progress autosaves constantly, so actions are permanent.” The first words that hit you when you fire up Darkest Dungeon let you know what you are in for. This new RPG, created by indie developer Red Hook studios, is not your standard adventure game featuring unrealistically gallant characters happily swashbuckling their way through challenges and monsters.

No, this game is a slug-fest that does not shy away from exploring the kinds of psychological scarring that would surely accompany a descent into an unholy hellhole crawling with pagan gods and monsters from another dimension.

There is no main character and there is no hero. There is rather an infinite cast of fortune seeking adventurers, scoundrels, holy fighters, and demons that are willing to descend into ancient dungeons to beat back a tide of creatures that are spilling out of a dark portal. Daily there are more and more of these monsters appearing and threatening to take over a nearby hamlet.  It is the player’s job to assemble teams of characters and bring them safely through various missions inside the dungeons, where they can amass treasure and experience that allows them to grow their strength and improve their attacks. There are a total of 14 classes of characters, each class having its own attacks, weapons, and accessories.

It is not nearly as simple as it sounds however, and though Darkest Dungeon is a mostly side-scrolling, point-and-click RPG, the attention to detail is astounding. Not only do characters have hit points (HP) like in most RPGs, they also have a psychological stress meter that goes up every time the character experiences something stressful or fearful during an adventure. If the stress meter gets too full, characters give in to certain vices or dark tendencies such as masochism or selfishness that end up hurting themselves or the party as a whole. An extremely stressed out character will become unresponsive to user controls and go rogue. A full stress bar can even ultimately lead to a character having a heart attack and dying for no other reason.

Similarly, if characters have triumphant or relaxing experiences on an adventure, they will have their stress meters lowered and become more likely to overcome stressors and express certain virtues that can greatly help themselves or the party.

Battle is at the heart of the game and it can be both extremely fun and frustrating beyond any reasonable measure. There is much more strategy required here than is usual for turn based RPGs. Each of the character classes has very different skills that not only inflict damage on enemies, but can affect stress levels or defense levels of other characters in the party. A healing spell cast on an ally by an Occultist, for example, can also cause bleeding as a side effect, which will then damage that same ally on the next turn. Similarly, a weak poison dart attack by a Grave Robber can cause tremendous poison damage on an enemy over the next few turns.

The tide of battle can turn in a second. Everything can seemingly be going your way, when all of a sudden, an enemy lands a critical hit on one of your characters. In response, all other characters’ stress levels shoot up. Stressed out characters disregard commands and stop attacking. The Vestal class healer is too despondent to do anything and won’t cast a healing spell for a few turns. The enemies see their opening and wipe out two characters that are at death’s door. Fortune has turned and the party is in shambles.

This kind of result is very typical of the successes that I had when I first started playing the game. There are so many intricacies to master and so many different stats to keep an eye on that there is a high learning curve initially. I found myself swearing very loudly and pretty often as I watched characters that I had proudly worked up for hours and hours fall victim to heart attacks or random critical attacks and disappear forever. But such is life.

There is a lot of planning that goes into pulling off a successful adventure including selecting a good solid team of characters and equipping them with the appropriate amount of provisions to keep them healthy and sane. Not only is fighting a challenge, but so is resource allocation. The player has to fund everything for the expeditions including the buildings in the hamlet such as the blacksmith, guild, tavern, church, and sanitarium that allow for characters to learn higher level skills and acquire treatments to lower their stress meters.

Ultimately, for RPG fans, the game is a delight. Inspired by the writings of early 20th century horror and weird fiction writer, HP Lovecraft, the game is brilliantly atmospheric. It is uniquely moody and spooky. The narration and script are over-the-top yet poetic in a way that is very reminiscent of the best writings of Lovecraft. We get wonderful and colorful turns of phrase like “swarthy workmen” or “damnable portal of antediluvian evil” that lend a fun B-horror movie feel to the whole experience. Red Hook Studios did a good job ensuring that game maintains a level of deliberate campiness that keeps itself in check. The game does not stray by being cheesy or overly earnest, fates that befall many games like it.

The writing and narration combined with the beautiful hand drawn graphics unite to create a gaming experience that feels both literary and cartoonish. The player feels like her or she is fighting his or her way through a graphic novel which lends a feeling of whimsy that makes up for the sometimes frustrating gameplay. There is a lot of grinding involved in this game, but the grind is generally pretty fun. It is surprisingly addictive and great to play in the wee hours of the night.

9 out of 10