Well, hallelujah and go tell it on the mountain: another Early Access success story!
I know it sounds like I’m being sarcastic here, but sincerely: in a world where there’s so much to complain about with the current state of Early Access and Steam Greenlight and asset flipping and unfinished projects, it’s always worth it to celebrate when one works out well.
And Darkest Dungeon worked out very, very well. Not that that’s a great surprise to anyone who’s been following this brutal dungeon crawler. Darkest Dungeon was fully released on the 19th of January of this year, and with a full release comes a full review.
Developed by Red Hook Studios, Darkest Dungeon is a roguelike strategy RPG with a reputation for being harsh and unforgiving. You play as the owner of a massive mansion with a history of dark secrets and black magic. After a portal is unlocked that releases a menagerie of Lovecraftian creatures into the mansion grounds, you must hire on mercenaries to defeat the ancient evil and reclaim your birthright.
On paper, it sounds like just about any turn based fantasy game you’ve ever heard of, but there is plenty to set Darkest Dungeon apart.
The first and most obvious thing is the art style. The 2D art direction is heavy and bold and dark. The mercenaries and the creatures they face are some of most uniquely designed characters I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a style that lends itself perfectly to the unusual experience that Red Hook has created for its players.
Darkest Dungeon forgoes the obvious Fighter/Wizard/Healer class structure of most roleplaying games and creates heroes that are unconventional and sometimes frightening. The Leper’s hideous disease has caused him to fear death far less than his other companions, and he makes for a powerhouse of a front line combatant who might be more prone to accept the merciful hand of death than dodge an enemy’s swing. Compare that with the Occultist, whose study of forbidden Eldritch secrets can be used to crush his enemies or save his friends—but sometimes with a price in blood.
Nothing is simple in Darkest Dungeon. Unlike other games, it isn’t enough that your party get out of a battle alive. Because while they might escape with their limbs intact, the same can’t always be said about their minds. In addition to your standard health bar, Darkest Dungeon includes a stress counter to reflect the mental damage that is done when your comrades die or you stare into the void of an unspeakable evil. Madness is very much of a part of this game, and as those stress counters add up your heroes will crack in a variety of ways, including paranoia, hopelessness, and abuse. These quirks add up to debilitating traits that follow the character from dungeon to dungeon, unless they skip a week’s adventure to get patched up at the Sanitarium. Too much stress can also lead to heart attacks and death, so you’ll spend a lot of time figuring out the best ways to help your mercenaries destress between bouts—whether it’s through prayer, gambling, or a visit to the brothel, everyone has a different preferred taste. What follows then is a series of cycling out some mercs to the dungeons while others wrestle with their sanity, which actually ends up being an excellent way of testing out different team builds.
While playing Darkest Dungeon, I found myself thinking a lot about the 2013 city simulator, Banished. Darkest Dungeon is to other turn based strategy RPGs what Banished is to SimCity. Banished is a brutal city builder that pulls no punches and requires a true attention to detail in order to succeed, as opposed to SimCity, where city building is pretty straightforward. Just like Banished, Darkest Dungeon requires you to be very methodical and thoughtful, whether it’s in lining up your party, choosing what treasure is worth the risk, and whether or not a fight is worth it. Because there are plenty of ways to die in Darkest Dungeon, and it’s most likely the one that you weren’t thinking about that will get you in the end.
As your heroes build up experience and bring home loot, you’ll be able to unlock and upgrade various services around town, such as the Blacksmith or the Guild Master. These upgrades are the little perks that will save your favorite character or spare you another heart attack. And that’s particularly important because part of the brutal reputation that Darkest Dungeon has acquired is through its permadeath system. Each and every move you make is final, and the measure of a good player comes from knowing when to fight and when to flee.
Every bit of this leads up to an incredible gaming experience. Darkest Dungeon is the kind of game that you could get completely lost in, testing out new strategies and throwing your monitor out a window when they inevitably fall flat on their face. Because in terms of difficulty, Darkest Dungeon has completely earned its reputation as a side-scrolling Dark Souls. But just like that game, if you have the willpower to keep calm and focus on the task at hand, you have a frightening and exciting experience on your hands.
More than anything else, Darkest Dungeon is about patience. You have to work through the different areas piece by piece, paying close attention to your provisions and your sanity. With the right combination of strategy, preparation, and courage, you’ll make it through alive. For now.