Released by Red Hook Games in January of 2016, Darkest Dungeon is a 2D fantasy-based strategy game with roguelike elements. Not an RPG in the truest sense, Darkest Dungeon instead focuses on the slow deterioration of your team members mental and emotional states as they progress through the titular dungeon. The game can be brutally difficult and infinitely frustrating. With the release of Darkest Dungeon 2 right around the corner (scheduled for 4th Quarter 2020 as I write this), the time is ripe to revisit this lair of Lovecraftian horrors.
Red Hook came together in 2013 with a unique vision. Traditionally, dungeon-delving in games is a heroic enterprise, carried out by powerful paragons of virtue. But, what if the characters were all selfishly motivated mercenaries who would be worn on by the constant grind of combat or terror? Who were haunted by the things they had seen, and had to turn to vices to compensate? Might they eventually no longer be fit to be heroes at all?
In Darkest Dungeon, Red Hook attempted to ask and answer those questions. They also made a terrifically difficult game where every false step might be the last for one (or more!) of your characters.
STORY – YOUR INFERNAL LEGACY
The premise may be a familiar one – you’ve inherited a property from a deceased relative. You travel to your new home and begin to set everything aright.
But this is no peaceful, placid farm waiting to be managed and coaxed into productivity and felicity. Instead, this is a destroyed, old hamlet, sitting under a crumbling ruin – the same place where your ancestor committed unspeakable acts and unleashed horrors and madness on the surrounding countryside before taking his own life. It is now up to you to restore the community while yanking out the festering evil by the roots.
Your tools are mainly human ones – mercenaries, drawn to your new home by whispers and rumors of wealth and glory. These are not the usual shining paladins and virtuous stalwarts, though – your mercenary troops may include grave robbers, thieves, half-human abominations, and even students of the dark arts who, like your deceased uncle, are peering into realms best left unviewed by human eyes.
The town itself can slowly be turned into a refuge and rehabilitation facility for your slowly deteriorating troops. The destroyed abandoned buildings you find upon your arrival can, after weeks worth of time (in-game), be converted into something like a peaceful, border town filled with all the trappings of civilization.
But, always just a few steps away, are the maddening horrors threatening to tear your little realm asunder.
GAMEPLAY – Exploring The Endless Dark
The gameplay elements are fairly simple – you select a team of four adventurers from your “stable” of those available, and head into one of the four (later five, up to seven with DLC) dungeons and do your best to accomplish the mission objective. You accomplish this by moving left to right along a series of hallways, heading from room to room, until you have either completed your objective, failed and been wiped out, or retreated back to the safety of town.
Sounds simple to the point of boredom, yes? Not so fast.
Turns out there is a certain… variety among the denizens of these hallways and rooms. There will be skeletons and brigands, sure. But, maybe, evil cultists who can dismay your party and terrify them? Gigantic larvae who spit poison and spread disease? Ambulatory fish creatures and their squid-like bodyguards? Even powerful, dark denizens of an alternate universe?
Yup, those too.
If that isn’t enough, scattered throughout the halls are various items for you to investigate. Some may provide treasure, others may be deadly traps, still others may curse or heal your party. A deadly game of experimentation awaits, as you attempt to determine what inventory elements you might be carrying that would provide a positive result from each of these. You can ignore them completely, but you will be leaving potentially game saving treasure and inventory items behind if you do.
Also, certain personality traits may cause your party members to trigger these items all on their own, whether you want them to or not.
And all this is capped off by “boss” level encounters with terrifically powerful foes who will absolutely wipe your party off the face of the earth unless you figure out the means to defeat them and fast. Defeat actually means something here: Darkest Dungeon is played on a real-time Ironman difficulty, meaning each fatal mistake remains fatal. There will be no easy relief via a “Load Game” screen.
The insane variety of enemies and obstacles means that not only will your experiences never be the same, but the heavily RNG-dependent nature of combat means that desperate last stands can end in triumph – or sure things can end in bloody disaster.
Those Who Are About To Die, We Salute You
The troops you command come in a variety familiar to anyone who has played any type of fantasy RPG – you have melee-centric tanks, back-row dwelling healers, and a few different varieties of ranged DPS characters. These characters are delivered to you via a stagecoach every week, and their appearance is completely random, meaning you can’t ever count on a specific character or even type of character being available at the time when you need one.
Even characters of the same “class” are not the same, as each character comes equipped with a potential suite of eight skills, with only 4 currently learned. You may have skills that you’ve learned through bitter experience to favor. But a new arrival fresh off the stagecoach may not have that particular suite of talents developed yet. Do you spend precious currency on them before they have proven themselves? Or do you send them down into the dark “as is”, hoping that they will validate themselves as being worthy of further development?
You can, throughout your adventures, discover items that will benefit your troops. However, disappointingly, you are never given the chance to find magical armor, weapons, or the like. Each character has two “trinket” slots that can be populated, but their gear otherwise stays mostly static unless upgraded via the Armory in town. This is one of the few areas where Darkest Dungeon could have really made some improvements – the trinkets are mostly boring “stat sticks”, freely interchangeable between characters. Some further personalization would have been welcome here.
However, given the number of fatalities you are likely to encounter, perhaps it is best not to have pieces of gear bound to any one character in particular.
The fact that nothing is certain makes every character that much more precious after they have spent some time with you. However, the “Stress” mechanism within the game also means that your hero’s mental and emotional states are constantly unwinding. You can spend some time in the various stress relieving activities in town to try to mitigate this, but doing so means that the hero who is resting up is on the bench and not available to you for that week. This creates an endless seesaw of balancing multiple teams of adventurers with complementary synergies, each going out into the ruins in a weekly rotation while the others rest up and try to recover from the horrors that have befallen them.
The sad truth, though, is that all this treatment costs money – so much money, in fact, that you will eventually find yourself triaging your roster. Is it worth it to try to cure this character from the Bubonic Plague, Egomania, and Kleptomania, or should they be quietly exiled, never to return, while you develop a new person with similar specialties?
Your Hamlet: A Sanctuary Under Siege
Your town itself is also another “character”, requiring care, feeding, and development. The stagecoach that brings new arrivals provides you with only a trickle of new bodies at first, and needs to be upgraded before it begins shuttling in larger numbers of meat for the grinder. Your stress-releasing buildings also need to be upgraded to be able to work on more than one character at a time, and to be more effective in general. In order to learn new skills or to upgrade their existing ones, your characters need access to more buildings within your hamlet that are not even available when you begin the game.
It would be challenging enough if all that was required for these upgrades was currency, which you will also be spending quite a bit of keeping your characters relatively healthy and sane enough to function. But each of these facilities also requires two (out of four) components, in ever increasing numbers, to unlock higher level upgrades. The components are only found, as you may have guessed, within the dungeons themselves. This creates yet another area which requires a balancing act of resource management. Do you send a lower-level group of new adventurers in to the dungeons to simply seek experience and development? Or do you send out a more powerful group of potentially damaged troops in search of the Seals, Busts, Portraits, and Deeds required to pay for your next upgrade in town?
GRAPHICS AND SOUND – Muted Colors And Ominous Voices
The graphics are unusual – reminiscent of a limited palette comic book more than anything else. Despite the seemingly limited amount of graphic development, the game is strangely atmospheric nonetheless – the blood splatters, poison effects, and ever decreasing light levels take full advantage of suggestion and inference in lieu of high-rez graphics.
After the first hour or so, you will no longer be noticing the limited stances and movements of the characters and backgrounds, but will instead be reacting (strongly) to the looming presence of ever more powerful enemies, and will be entirely bought into the tale being woven before you.
If it seems that the graphics were designed with elegant minimalism in mind, the audio-visual spectrum is slanted heavily towards the “audio” side of the spectrum. The music is delightfully evocative, and the sound effects are top notch.
Not enough can be said about the narration in the game, provided by Lovecraft interpreter Wayne June. His voice overs, as the departed spirit of your malevolent uncle, are perhaps the best narration ever provided for a game. It is his voice that propels you forward, that damns you with faint praise when you are successful, and darkly comments every time you fail.
This is a game that completely rewards being played in a dark room with a set of excellent headphones on. Don’t be surprised if you scream when being interrupted by your housemates. You have been warned.
Darkest Dungeon was reviewed on PC.