What’s all the fuss about…Darkest Dungeon?

Constantly hearing about a particular game, wondering what exactly is the big deal?  In our regular series, we delve into the hottest community games and ask the important questions: Why do they generate such a devoted following? Is all this fuss is warranted? And if so…are they worth your time?

What is it, exactly?

It’s been just over a year since Darkest Dungeon achieved full release after a successful Kickstarter campaign and a period of Early Access on Steam. At the end of 2016, developers Red Hook celebrated passing a million sales across all formats, and with the sizable free Radiant update on the horizon, and the upcoming Crimson Court DLC due this year, the game’s stock is certainly riding high.

At its heart, Darkest Dungeon is an RPG with party management, and turn-based combat. A disturbing, gothic tone and characterful, comic-book inspired art set it apart from the raft of survival-tinged RPGs, but it’s the game’s affliction system that really defines the experience. Darkest Dungeon asks the player not only to manage your party’s physical state, their health, hunger and disease, but also their psychological wellbeing, too.

How does it play?

If you’ve ever played a dungeon crawler, you’ll feel right at home here, but even if you haven’t, the developers have done a fantastic job in making what could have felt quite impenetrable seem familiar and welcoming to a new gamer. 

A cinematic sets the scene: An unexpected letter from a now deceased relative, explains you’ve inherited your family’s estate. The problem is that the aforementioned relative took decadence to a whole new level. Not content to live a lavish lifestyle, he dabbled in the dark arts, delving deeply into his land, and infesting the family estate with literally every type of evil you can think of. It’s up to you to take back your birthright from these abominations.

During a brief tutorial that never feels too like handholding, you’re introduced to the Hamlet, the small village adjacent to your estate that serves a base camp for your adventuring. You’ll also get a brief taste of combat, and become acquainted with the Narrator, a constant omniscient presence who offers insight, commentary, and dark humor throughout your quest.

Then, after recruiting some heroes right off the stagecoach and equipping them with the necessary provisions for their journey (torches to keep back the darkness, food to stave-off hunger) it’s time to enter the unknown.

You can choose from a handful of different locations, each with their unique perils and enemies, such as the undead-infested Ruins, the witch-inhabited Weald, or my personal favorite, the Cove, home to fish-creatures galore. Once inside each procedurally generated dungeon area, you’ll walk you party from left to right, exploring the location and uncovering loot. Pretty straightforward.

That is, until your find yourself in a battle, and you realize this deceptively simple 2D battlefield has some serious depth. You attack with each hero in turn, with the type of attack dictated by their position in the four space ‘rank’. Tank-like classes thrive at the front where their strong attacks do more damage and their thick armor can withstand more of the enemy’s onslaught, while you’ll want to keep your weaker support heroes towards the back where they take less damage but are limited to feebler attacks.

In keeping with the game’s pervasive tone of hopelessness, the heroes on offer seem damaged from the start. There’s no simple warriors or mages here (and no smiles either, for that matter). Darkest Dungeon deals in anti-heroes; lepers, grave robbers and plague doctors. And if they seem tortured before you take them into the depths, just wait until they’ve experienced the horrors beneath. This is where the game’s affliction system comes into play. A build up of stress -- unavoidable as there are so many causes -- results in your heroes losing their nerve, becoming suicidal, or just moping around at the back of the fight. There are serious lasting consequences to too much stress. Quirks build in each hero’s profile, some positive, most not. A party member be wounded repeatedly by a skeleton, for example, may develop a fear of the undead. Even sending them to either the Tavern or the Abbey, the game’s means of reducing stress levels, can result in negative traits. My longest serving hero, a morally bankrupt highwayman with a haunted look, developed a drinking problem from too much self-medication. And when I gave him time off to recover from the horrors he’d witnessed, he disappeared on a week-long bender.

Darkest Dungeon throws constant choices your way. Do you rotate your heroes, giving them chance to recover, or throw them back into the terror for the reward of greater riches at the risk of damaging their mental state beyond repair? Do you dare venture into a dungeon without the comfort of torches (darkness increases the chance of finding better loot, but also increases stress, and gives the creatures who lurk in the gloom a considerable advantage)? Can you afford to stay in the depths to search the dungeon’s final room, with two heroes on death’s door and one practically throwing herself on the enemies’ blades for sweet release from the relentless mental trauma? It’s in this stress mechanic where Red Hook have gotten the risk/reward balance just right, leaving you constantly facing a decision whether to roll the dice or consolidate, and ultimately, it’s the thrill of this that keeps you coming back for more.

Is the fuss justified?

Darkest Dungeon is notable if just for the Affliction system, which could be considered its main contribution to the genre, and a mighty contribution it is. Elsewhere, there’s nothing that’s quite as revolutionary, but that’s ok. Because Darkest Dungeon as a whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. We may have seen many aspects of this dungeon crawler elsewhere in a pretty packed genre, but it’s the way it all comes together so perfectly, that mix of the old-school and the new, that makes Darkest Dungeon such an utterly gripping package. The unique atmosphere the game conjures with its fantastically distinctive artwork, coupled with the deep but accessible gameplay is an unholy mixture that is devilishly compulsive. There’s absolutely no wonder it has such a devoted following.

Worth a look?

There’s never been a better time to get into Darkest Dungeon, especially with so much new content incoming. If anything about the game’s aesthetic or gameplay appeals, it’s well worth giving it a try. And that’s even if you’re not a hardcore RPG veteran. Yes, there’s talk of DoTs, crits and buffs, but everything is explained completely in-game, so you’ll never find yourself floundering. Equally, there’s tons of depth to the strategy just waiting for you to uncover it, if you want to.

There’s one last thing to bear in mind when taking on Darkest Dungeon: Don’t be expecting a cake-walk. Once you’re in the thick of it, the difficulty can be seriously punishing.

My advice? Don’t bother naming your heroes. You’ll only get attached.