Set right your family name in Darkest Dungeon, an excellent gothic RPG that demonstrates the horrors of dungeon crawling.
Developer/Publisher: Red Hook Studios
Platforms: PC (Version Reviewed), PS4 / PS Vita (2016)
Release Dates: February 3, 2015 (Early Access), January 19, 2016 (Full Release)
The fickle nature of Steam’s Early Access program overshadows the excellence of some of the titles to grace the service. Games development takes its time to get right, even if parts of a finished product are ready for public consumption. Darkest Dungeon is the best example of the process producing excellence, mixing the goal of a completed project with the responsive evolution, in part, by the way of public criticism. It has helped independent developer Red Hook Studios mold an amazing amalgamation of gothic sensibilities with the deconstruction and demonstration of what it truly means to be a warring “hero.”
A long forgotten ancestor has called upon you through the mail. Ruined by years of extravagance, he learned of a demonstrable power hidden underneath his large manor. Spending the remains of the family fortune on workers, they dug deep into the Earth to discover “antediluvian evil” escaping from a once forgotten portal. Now, the surrounding land has suffered from the unintended consequences brought forth from the expedition. You are tasked, under birthright, with bringing peace once more by defeating those ravenous monstrosities.
Darkest Dungeon leans heavily on its gameplay systems, taking precedence over story.
Alas, it can never be as easy. Darkest Dungeon will require the best and brightest of its players, and rightfully expects nothing less. At first, you are in charge of a small band of warriors who take up home in your esteemed manor. A few will come crawling in at first, willing to take up arms as noble adventurers. With a selection of four, you branch out and scout the neighboring Ruins in a set formation.
Combat is focused on strategic placement, with a party line placed in four separate slots. Tanks and high damage per second characters take up the first two slots, often taking the of the damage and returning it in like to the front ranks. The back two slots are usually reserved for healing and damage over time classes, often providing numerous ways of inflicting and restoring damage either immediately or over time. Based on party placement, however, you can only reach certain enemies from current positions, meaning you will need to switch out attacks and skills to cover all the bases.
Darkest Dungeon leans heavily on its gameplay systems, taking precedence over story. You need provisions before striking out on an adventure. Food, antivenom, torches, holy water, bandages; these items are bought with hard-earned gold to protect against the obstacles that lie in wait. The more you take, however, the fewer rewards you can bring home. Playing it safe is always viable if the alternative means there’s nobody available to bring home the spoils. You need heirlooms to upgrade player equipment, skills, recovery facilities and equipment prices, making the inventory balancing act an important task to perfect.
The entire game is about checks and balances, and nowhere else in Darkest Dungeon is that clearer than in the field. In addition to damaging you through attacks, gouging blood and dripping poison, monsters can cause you stress. One of the most important functions of the game, stress must be kept in check as player progress, lest they take too much and become afflicted by the horrors of battle. They will become selfish, defeated, cowardly and refuse to function properly, needing to recover in the town’s inn or abbey to drink, gamble and pray the terrors away.
The game weaves a hauntingly realistic representation of post-traumatic stress disorders…
A full playthrough of Darkest Dungeon evolves at a particular point during gameplay; it’s the moment when you realize your characters are just pawns. Your instincts naturally tell you to protect your team, to worry about their wellbeing, preventing them from their ultimate doom. That way leads to madness in a multitude of ways, especially when you are paying thousands of gold pieces to lock in positive quirks or removing established ones just for them to perish on their next adventure.
That ultimate realization is a magical meta moment, one that embodies the true spirit of Darkest Dungeon. The game weaves a hauntingly realistic representation of post-traumatic stress disorders that reflects our reality within a fictionalized gothic world. Most break, nobly needing help to better themselves after encountering their horrific times. Very few, however, find strength through intense adversity and persevere on their own. Stress acts more than just as a gameplay mechanic; it serves as a reflection of us. Mental health issues come to the forefront without overbearing exposition, deftly fitting into the game’s ambiance.
And boy, is ambiance ever an important factor in Darkest Dungeon. The drums of war beat into battle as your party creeps ever steadily down into darkness. The music creeps in a manic pace as violin strings quicken their pace. Light becomes a system of its own, with more light giving into surprise and scouting bonuses and a torchless run leading to higher stress, greater rewards and punishing critical hit bonuses. Enemies, as wonderfully designed in their art style, also fit into their settings with remarkable ease. You can’t help but feel encumbered with the same tense feelings party members accumulate over their adventures.
It was important to keep them protected; to make sure they push to the task’s end.
Most of my discussion so far about Darkest Dungeon goes far into depth about the gameplay systems for a reason. The game has an underlying story that your ancestral narrator paints slowly on the path to the final dungeon, but the one that the player creates is a crucial second half of the coin. Forming A, B and C teams is essential to tackle missions of various difficulties, but it puts your characters in differing tiers of importance.
Reynauld and Dismas are the only characters that are given canon names, and they can be brought to the game’s final sequence. Despite no instruction at all (I only learned of a possible achievement post-review), they became the de-facto leaders of my worrisome tribe of warriors. No matter how many times characters would pass away from heart attacks, get disastrously comboed into oblivion or ultimately dismissed, I had a certain connection to them. It was important to keep them protected; to make sure they push to the task’s end.
That odd dissonance solidified my appreciation for Darkest Dungeon as a strategy RPG that has dramatically less story involvement. Its brutal combat system means the player earns their victories, rather than patting them on the back at every turn. I can derive pleasure that my jester tells jaunty tales, or that a stressed character cried out in horror, or that the last thing a vanquished foe hears is the Eldritch curses of our Occultist. Ambiance fills in for story importance because the gameplay systems are overwhelmingly excellent in nature. Gameplay is vastly more important here because the developers rightfully emphasized it in development.
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In the long run, though, I can see why a large number of people won’t appreciate Darkest Dungeon. Even myself, who appreciates and relishes in the difficult video games of old, hit a stunningly sudden difficulty curve in the latter third of the game’s story. Not only do punishing bosses return with bolstered stats, but every attack is designed to stress you and your party out to outlandishly extravagant limits. Because of this the player, more often than not, has to craft teams with the sole intention of bringing back money and heirlooms as sacrificial lambs.
To me, it defeats the purpose of the “progression by learning from your mistakes” narrative that has been pounded into your head from minute one. Random number generation is a critical factor for most skills, attacks, and stats, seemingly setting a limit to how much the player can counteract with trinkets and equipment. Late-game Darkest Dungeon ratchets up the numbers against you, as opposed to increasingly difficult enemies. Getting hit harder by stronger variants becomes a tad tedious as you ramp up to the final challenge areas, but getting over that hump sets you right back on the path to glory.
I recognize the bumps in the road as minor inconveniences, however. Darkest Dungeon is the sum of its parts, and the new things it brings to the table outshine everything else. Complexity can be a good thing, and when you apply it positively to the RPG, great things can happen. Gameplay systems feed into narrative structure, which feeds into art direction, which feeds into gameplay mechanics. The major design tenets not only flow through one another but feed each other in a symbiosis. Everything is in the right place, with Red Hook Studios striking an impeccable balance in their machinations.
There’s something that the Darkest Dungeon taps into that isn’t quite replicated. It has a simple art and animation style that projects like a comic infused with gothic sensibilities. It plays like a D&D dungeon-crawling campaign with added house rules to expand upon the base game. It sells itself as a ghost story, hanging onto a narrative drip as you become immersed in a low fantasy horrific world. You feel like a kid who’s stumbled upon the most terrifying choose-your-own-adventure pop-up book but can’t pry away.
Released fewer than three weeks into the new year, Darkest Dungeon has already solidified itself as an early Game of the Year contender.
A copy of this game was provided to GameSided for the purpose of this review. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.