Most RPGs revolve around the adage that “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” As your brave band of heroes fell terrifying beasts and grow as people (ie level up), while reaping the spoils of war. Red Hook Studios’ Darkest Dungeon is a little more realistic and bleak in its world view, because whatever doesn’t kill you in the world of Darkest Dungeon will cause your party of adventurers permanent physical and mental scarring that they probably will never get over.
The best way to describe Darkest Dungeon to the uninitiated is that it’s like playing D&D with a particularly masochistic DM that is studying for their masters in Psychology.
Darkest Dungeon weaves a positively Lovecraftian tale of one man’s obsession with the occult, and discovering the secrets hidden within his family’s estate which ultimately leads to our narrator opening a portal to hell in which all manner of trouser wetting terrors spring forth. He then does the less than honourable thing of offing himself and leaving this monumental fustercluck of demonic proportions to you, his sole heir. Who then, for reasons that are never explained, rather than finding a particularly unscrupulous estate agent and being done with it, decides to return to the estate and hire every hapless hero he can find to try and expunge the place of the demonic terrors his forbearer unleashed.
So it’s up to the player to gather a group of heroes (there is an inexhaustible supply) kit them out with some serviceable gear, forms them up into a party and send them to their inevitable doom in the nearest pit full of monsters.
Now, usually when you send your party into a Dungeon in most videogames, you simply have to think about how you’re going to get to the end, kill the boss and get out with all their limbs intact. Worst case scenario you must make sure you keep them alive because the game features the dreaded permadeath. In Darkest Dungeon you have to worry about all of that…. And make sure your party doesn’t lose their marbles and eventually keel over thanks to a stress induced heart attack.
At every turn your party’s resolve is tested as eldritch horrors twist in the darkness as the light from your torches slowly flickers and dies. Tough battles against living nightmare fuel damage not only your health, but your mind. The tense situations that your party face can ultimately break them, leading to permanent psychosis while overcoming insurmountable odds can boost a character’s morale and change them for the better.
Battles are turn based affairs and presented side on; they take a little getting used to, but work remarkably well. Where each of your four party members are placed in the line affects what attacks they can perform as well as who they can heal (if they can). Each attack has a different range, for example cutting down a monster with a sword requires your character to be near the front, while chucking a grenade means they need to stay at the back. Each attack can then only effect enemies at certain ranges too. Melee attacks generally can only be launched against the front ranks of beasties, while gun and missile attacks focus on enemies towards the back of the line. You can of course switch places to adjust your tactics and use certain attacks and abilities, but just to make things more awkward, there are attacks which will force characters to switch places or rearrange your party chucking any carefully constructed strategy you may have been thinking of straight out the window.
When an enemy is killed, they don’t simply fade out of existence like in most other RPGS, instead their corpse is left behind and takes up a place in the enemy lineup and needs to be destroyed before the rest of the enemies move up. This is both a blessing and a curse; On the one hand, if a corpse is in the very front of the line and you have a character that only uses melee attacks, he can only hack up the corpse while the other enemies hide behind it. However, it also stops other melee based beasts from attacking you if they’re stuck behind it, and if you’ve got some good ranged fighters on hand they can fill the buggers full of lead and arrows before they can move their former comrade out the way.
As your party fights its way through each hell spawn infested catacombs, haunted forest and murky swamp, it is inevitable that at least one member of your party will become so stressed they’ll have their resolve tested. It appears that your adventurers are very easily stressed as pretty much anything that happens to them will make them stressed; from fighting high level enemies, walking through the dungeon without a torch, or simply missing a meal. They can even get stressed from missing a turn in battle. As your party gets more on edge they become harder to control. They can randomly change spots in the line, yell at other members of the party (making them more stressed too), throw themselves right at the enemy or simply refuse to act at all. After they’ve had a mental break, the stress bar fills again they end up having a heart attack and 9/10 die on the spot, never to be seen or heard from again. This can happen in a matter of turns, and the tide of battle can turn incredibly quickly, you can walk in one room with a bold band of heroes and walk out of the next with one half dead survivor, suffering from PTSD.
Though there always more recruits ready to take up your cause, it pays to look after your merry band of broken, hollow eyed, whoremongers. If you work them to death you might get them through a dungeon run or maybe two before they keel over. In most games that feature permadeath it hits hard, even in the early stages as you can’t make much progress at all if you’re continually having to use fresh recruits. The harder dungeons, with better rewards, and eventual boss fights require hardened vets to get through. It’s as simple as that.
Even if your party manages to make it through the dungeon alive, almost every member will probably have had their resolve tested and most will develop a negative quirk. These come in three flavours, Abusive, fearful or hateful. Negative quirks make characters act out of turn, or of their own accord. Depending on how severe they are they can also have a negative impact on the entire party, making your crawl through the next dungeon a whole lot trickier from the outset.
Luckily, once you return to the hamlet your adventurers call home you can send them to either the abbey or the tavern to destress and get a little R&R, depending on whether your party members prefer to pray, or drink their troubles away. However, if you want to get rid of those pesky negative quirks you can have a party membered sectioned in the local asylum. If you catch a negative quirk early, and are lucky, occasionally a negative quirk can turn into a positive.
Ocaasionally when a party member’s resolve is tested, they will develop a positive quirk. They may make characters heal other party members in between turns, provide a minor boost to their stats or have them shield members from a potential deathblow. You never know how each new encounter will affect your party in the long run. The randomness of the whole affair keeps you on your toes, and makes you take the extra time to make sure your party is properly prepped and recuperated before each run.
Darkest Dungeon is a test of resolve for everyone involved; both on screen and sitting on the couch. It’s difficult by design, but it’s a test that you will want to return to, again and again. Much like the Souls series it satisfies a strange masochistic quirk, though the first few hours do feel like you’re bashing your head against a brick wall at times, but once it gets its claws into you (and the concussion really sets in), you’ll find a charming and quirky Gothic dungeon crawler that presents a unique and challenging take on the genre that acknowledges just how stressful life as an adventurer can be, without ever becoming too frustrating itself.