"Remind yourself that overconfidence is a slow and insidious killer."
Darkest Dungeon is a roguelike dungeon crawler RPG that I've kept an eye on ever since its release in Early Access back in February 2015. Despite being impressed after seeing it in action at a friend's place, I only decided to buy it after the game was fully released and I had just gone through a streak of challenging RPGs (out of which I could count Age of Decadence and Underrail), wishing to see for myself whether it is such an unforgiving title as others have made it out to be. Besides that, its Lovecraftian influences were an immediate draw and I also wanted to find out if Nodrim's claim that the game was far too RNG-based was true or not.
"There is a great horror beneath the manor.."
The game begins with a letter from The Ancestor, a wealthy man and owner of the Hamlet, a residence below which lies the Darkest Dungeon. Tired of conventional means of spending his fortune, The Ancestor came across ancient tales which warned of a fabulous power that could be found below the Hamlet. Thus, he began funding expeditions that eventually discovered a portal to another realm, inhabited by all sorts of Eldritch creatures that were just waiting for an opportunity to visit his world. The intro ends with the Ancestor's letter to his Heir, in which he asks him to come cleanse the Hamlet and Darkest Dungeon from this evil.
"In time, you will learn the tragic extent of my failings."
As you've probably guessed, you play as the Heir and act as a contractor for adventurers who dare to venture into the Darkest Dungeon for coin. The game is split into two big parts: the first one involves managing the Hamlet by upgrading different buildings and taking care of your adventurers when they're not on missions. The second part is, as you've probably guessed again, the actual missions you can send these "heroes" on.
"Great heroes can be found even here, in the mud and rain."
Let's take a look at our unfortunate adventurers, the cannon fodder. Recruitable from the Stage Coach, they arrive weekly and are spread across 14 classes, from the healing Vestal to the maniacal Jester or to the bulky Leper. Each class has its own set of seven unique combat skills and seven camping skills, out of which you can select any combination of four. Each adventurer has a few positive or negative quirks (characteristics which affect the performance in combat or the way they interact with special items in dungeons) and diseases, which helps to set them apart, since the roster limit is 25 and you're bound to have multiple adventurers of the same class. The heroes also wear armor and weapons that can be upgraded and up to two trinkets, and progress in levels from 0 to 6.
A lesson that is difficult to be learned but is paramount to your victory in the Darkest Dungeon is that these adventurers are expendable: there will always be others coming on the Stage Coach with which you can replace the fallen ones. Two observations about this: I found this to be a weakness of the game, as there is no possible way to lose due to the fact that you'll never run out of adventurers of low level. However, once a high level adventurer is dead, the hours invested in him/her are lost and you have to raise another one to that level to cover the gap. This took a toll on my nerves, but I'll come back to the grindiness of the game later.
"Let us burn out this evil."
Regarding the missions on which the heroes can be sent, there are five different regions where these can take place, and these are the Ruins, the Weald, the Warrens, the Cove and the Darkest Dungeon. Each region comes with its unique set of mobs that deal certain types of damage and have different resistances (physical, CC, bleed, blight, etc). Since you can only send four heroes on a mission, this makes choosing the party composition very important and I have had great fun playing around with different teams. The provisioning phase (prior to the actual mission) also depends on the zone in which the mission takes place, as for example the Weald has more blockages and thus needs extra shovels, whereas bleed damage is predominant in the Warrens and journeying with plenty of bandages is a wise choice.
"Huddled together, furtive and vulnerable, rats in a maze."
After you select your party composition and choose your provisions, it's time to enter the dungeon and complete the objective. Unfortunately, there isn't a great variation of possible objectives: most of the time you'll either have to slay all the creatures in the dungeon, explore a certain number of rooms or beat its boss. Also, missions come in three categories, which determine how big the dungeon is: short, medium and long. Nonetheless, the time spent in the dungeon is split in doing two things: exploring hallways and rooms and battling the horrors you come across. In the exploration phase, you come across Curio items on which you can use specific provisions to obtain positive effects (if you came prepared; if not, they're better left untouched!). A few negative quirks come into play here, as for example kleptomaniac heroes may choose to keep the loot for themselves, which I thought was brilliant. There's also an interesting mechanic in which you manage the light level in the dungeon by using the torches you have brought with you. At lower levels of light, enemies hit harder, are more likely to crit and drop more loot, while your heroes are stressed more easily (I'll talk about stress in a bit), whereas at higher levels of light the opposite is true. This leaves you with a tough choice: do I choose the risky and dark path for higher gains or do I play it safe and make less profit?
"Fear and frailty finally claim their due."
The stress I've mentioned a few moments ago is one of the best mechanics of Darkest Dungeon, which pays a special attention to the mental sanity of the adventurers that no other dungeon crawler RPG does. Besides making sure that the heroes are not wounded mortally (which means reaching 0 hp), you also have to watch their stress level, which ranges from 0 to 200. Stress can be gained in multiple ways: lack of light provided by torches, enemies using stress-inducing attacks or scoring crits on their attacks, and even having to clear blockages with your hands because you forgot to bring shovels or having no more food when you're hungry. A hero that reaches 100 stress has becomes either Afflicted (for example, one of the Afflictions is Masochistic, where the hero can refuse to be healed) or Virtuous. Reaching 200 stress causes a heart attack that brings you on Death's Door, a state in which you have 0 hp but further hits have a chance of ending you. Of course, there are plenty of ways to reduce stress: certain classes like the Jester have stress healing abilities, you can visit and spend a week in the Abbey or the Brothel in the Hamlet, or you can camp in the middle of a medium or long dungeon. The stress mechanic works so well that I often wondered why it isn't present in other games like this. After all, it makes so much sense, as constant battle with monsters should take a toll on the combatants that's more than just physical.
"These nightmarish creatures can be felled, they can be beaten!"
Having covered both dungeon exploration and stress, let's talk about the actual combat. The way it works is that both sides have 4 positions, from the first labelled with 1 to the last labelled with 4. Each class skill can be used from a set of positions on the player's side and affects a set of positions on the enemy's side. As I've mentioned before, it is great fun to figure out different party compositions with adventurers that take advantage of certain positions, as there are also synergies between different classes (for example, the Houndmaster can mark a target and the Bounty Hunter can collect a bounty of that target, dealing double damage; or a Jester buffs the party with extra attack Accuracy, thus covering the major weak spot of the Leper, his low Accuracy). Naturally, you would have a healer or ranged adventurer in the back (a Vestal or Occultist or an Arbalest) and a frontliner in the first position (the tanky Man-at-Arms or Leper), but the possibilities are ample.
Combat is turn based, with each side attacking in turn with its members, although the Speed stat can determine how often/fast each of those members attacks. I have to say that I enjoyed the boss fights in Darkest Dungeon, which all come with interesting and different mechanics while being pretty difficult. Out of them, my favourites are Brigand Pounder (a cannon accompanied by a squad of soldiers where you must prevent the Matchman from firing it, unless the party takes massive damage) and the Swine Prince (who is accompanied by Wilbur, a piglet who marks party members for extra damage and enrages the boss if attacked, causing his attacks to become AoE). Overall, combat is very challenging (although sometimes RNG can screw you royally) and I found it important to always enter a dungeon prepared with a party composition that takes advantage of the weaknesses of the enemies specific to that type of zone. You also have to learn which enemies should be focused first and when it is better to CC or heal rather than deal straight damage. Failure to learn these lessons will result in heroes permanently dying, since the game has only one save slot and autosaves often, hence its unforgiving nature.
"A little hope, however desperate, is never without worth."
After completing a mission or perhaps failing it and retreating from the dungeon, your wounded and stressed heroes return to the safe surroundings of the Hamlet with loot that can be used to upgrade the different buildings, which in turn can be used to heal their stress and upgrade their gear or skills. There are five different resources which are used to, well, do anything in the game, and they are obviously acquired by completing dungeons. Gold is necessary for upgrading weapons, armors and skills, buying trinkets and provisions. The other four resources (portraits, busts, deeds and crests) are used to upgrade all the buildings in the Hamlet. For example, the Blacksmith can be upgraded to reduce the cost of weapons and armors, but also to unlock upper levels of those items which deal increased damage and offer better protection (armors and weapons come in levels from 1 to 5 and are wearable by an adventurer of the same level). Skills work exactly in the same fashion and are trained or upgraded at the Guild. There's also a Sanitarium in which heroes can spend a week and lock a positive quirk (for a hefty amount of gold) or remove a negative quirk or disease. All in all, managing the Hamlet provides a welcome distraction from the stressful adventuring through the dark dungeons.
"A victory, perhaps a turning point."
With gameplay out of the way, we'll take a look at the presentation of the game. Darkest Dungeon excels from both a graphical and audio perspective. The visuals are impressive, albeit simplistic, conveying the decadent current state of the Hamlet and of the dungeons you explore. One of the most memorable experiences in Darkest Dungeon took place when I ran out of torches towards the end of a dungeon. Gradually, the light drowns out and darkness takes over, making the enemies appear more dangerous than ever yet also immersing me in the atmosphere. The attack animations are also very well done, carrying a lot of weight, making the exchange of blows seem visceral and offering momentum to the battle. In terms of audio, I personally love the soundtrack, although I've read several opinions that think it's mediocre. The Hamlet track is melancholic, evoking the times prior to the Ancestor's unfortunate discovery of the evil that lay below. I also really like Combat in the Ruins, which managed to make my heart pump every single confrontation in the Ruins when it played. However, my favourite is A Brief Respite, the track which plays when the party camps during a dungeon, which undoubtedly suggests the dreadful situation in which the group finds itself, surrounded by enemies and bunched around a small campfire. Besides the soundtrack, the sound effects are on point: weapon and creature attacks, stepping on a trap or the Jester playing his lute and buffing the team. But the real star in terms in terms of audio is Wayne June, the narrator of the game and the one who plays the Ancestor. You've probably noticed the quotes that are all over this review: Wayne June's incredible voice taunts the player with these lines at every step, creating an absolutely immersive and tense atmosphere. Discovering him has been one of the best things I got out of playing Darkest Dungeon, and I recommend you check out his other works (his interpretation of The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe is excellent and can be found on Soundcloud, as well as a few other interpretations of Lovecraft stories).
"More dust, more ashes... more disappointment."
Despite the positive tone of this review so far, I cannot recommend this game wholeheartedly and it's time to discuss why. Darkest Dungeon has a few big flaws that can make it unappealing for some players. One of these flaws is that the game is incredibly grindy: remember how I said that heroes start from level 0 and can go up to 6, the recommended level for the Darkest Dungeon, which is the ending zone? I believe that the game is three times longer than it should be, because there are three levels of dungeons: Apprentice (from level 0 to 2), Veteran (from level 3 to 4) and Champion (from level 5 to 6). In 35 hours, I managed to build an entire roster (25 heroes) up to level 3 and gear them up appropriately for that level (trinkets and correspondingly leveled gear and skills), so I was ready for Veteran dungeons. However, these runs are exactly the same as Apprentice ones, except more difficult. Even the 8 bosses present in the Apprentice dungeons are copied and come back in a slightly stronger version, and the same exact thing happens for Champion runs, totalling up to 8 bosses repeated 3 times. Of course, Veteran runs are more dangerous than Apprentice ones and the same can be said about Champion ones compared to Veteran, which increases your chance of permanently losing adventurers and having to farm them back up from level 0, which costs a lot of time. The excessive grind manifests itself in a different form as well: you need to farm an exorbitant amount of resources in order to fully upgrade the buildings which are necessary for you to progress to the next tier of dungeons. I also have to mention that RNG can completely screw you up sometimes: I lost one of my level 4 adventurers in a Veteran run in a single round because all the enemies focused attacks on him, without me having any chance to prevent this beforehand. And to add to all that, there just isn't enough story to support you doing the same runs on different difficulties 3 times. You get a bit of lore detailing the relationship between the Ancestor and a boss every time you enter the dungeon of that boss (so 24 times), but that's nowhere near enough for a game that should take about 60-80 hours to finish.
"This expedition, at least, promises success."
Undoubtedly, Darkest Dungeon has a lot of good things to offer, yet it also has some major flaws. I admit that I haven't finished the game because the grind has completely put me off. Yet I don't regret buying Darkest Dungeon at all and I consider that the 35 hours spent playing were more than worth its price tag. Basically, the first third of the game is very enjoyable, but redoing that part two more times on higher difficulties will bother anyone who has a problem with excessive grinding and RNG that costs you hours of playing, so I would not recommend Darkest Dungeon to those players. Leaving aside these issues, Darkest Dungeon is a game that excels in its presentation and atmosphere, while offering a very challenging combat system and great tactical possibilities in the way you build your party through the synergies between different classes.
+ Excellent atmosphere, visual style and sound
+ Combat is tense, challenging and rewarding
+ Large pool of classes that encourages the player to experiment with party compositions
+ Different dungeon areas that require different tactics
+ Challenging bosses that require some thought in order to be defeated
+ Interesting and original mechanics such as stress and light management
+ Wayne June!
- Incredibly repetitive and grindy
- Bad RNG can erase hours of playing
- There is no way to lose the game
- Lack of mission variety
- Not enough story