Perhaps Darkest Dungeon’s greatest accomplishment is how it balances its often brutally punishing difficulty with the huge sense of accomplishment when things go your way. Though The Crimson Court expansion adds a bunch of impressive new content which easily matches the quality of the vanilla game, it tinkers with that fine balance in ways that is sometimes to the detriment of the player’s experience.
After installing, you can start a new game with the DLC enabled, where it lives alongside the usual stuff from the very beginning of the standard narrative, your disaster-strewn quest to redeem your family’s honor by ridding your crumbling estate of the unholy creatures that have taken up residence within its grounds. Alternatively, The Crimson Court can be inserted right into an existing play through (be it regular, or the shorter, more forgiving Radiant type), meaning your favorite veteran heroes can get a chance at tackling this new threat.
Whether you started a new game or continued an existing one, the DLC makes itself known right away, when an infestation of mosquitos engulfs your hamlet, causing panic and confusion. Once you make your way over to the estate map, you’ll notice that the new dungeon region, the Courtyard, is accessible right away.
Developers Red Hook have made a particular choice when implementing their new dungeon region, one I think will divide fans. Once you’ve completed the first (lengthy) quest in the Courtyard and defeated its first tricky boss, this particular dungeon doesn’t remain open for the duration of the campaign like the others. The only way to return is by recovering Invitations; a new item type dropped by enemies in the game’s other locales
In established games, this leads to players having to return to previously beaten dungeons to re-earn the right to embark on the new one, instantly increasing the amount of grind needed. It’s a choice I’d like to hope has been made to add variation to the gameplay, but the cynic in me can’t help wonder if it's been implemented this way to extend the duration of the extra content. As a result, I found the best way to play through the new content to be to start a fresh game with the DLC enabled. At least then my heroes were fighting through dungeon areas for the first time, even if I wasn’t.
The new area itself both looks and behaves quite differently from the others in the game. The ghoulish half-light of the Courtyard’s exteriors give it a desolate feel, and the bizarre insectoid vampires inhabiting it display the same degree of macabre imagination and accomplished art style as the game’s original enemies, whilst feeling like a fresh enough take on the traditional vampire mythos so as to make fighting them a new, if terrifying, joy.
And terrifying is right. Even low-level creatures like the Supplicant and the Manservant have punishing attacks, and each can infect your heroes with the Crimson Curse (more on that later). Then, as more high-ranking enemies turn up, things take a turn towards the downright vicious. Take, for example, the 18th century dandy-inspired Esquire. This seemingly unassuming mid-level enemy has a ferocious attack called Skewering Repartee. With a flick of his foil, the Esquire not only damages all four members of your party, but also has a chance of causing bleed, and triggers the Riposte state, allowing him to reply to each of your attacks for a limited time. Meanwhile, at the top of the enemy tree, there are the four new dungeon bosses, plus the new roving boss, the Fanatic, who randomly surprises you with an encounter which invariably ends in disaster for your party.
The bleed mechanic plays a huge part in the new area, not only in the way you take damage but the way you deal it too. In fact, the DLC is (appropriately) absolutely awash with blood. Even the new hero, the Flagellant, follows the theme, with many of his abilities requiring his own blood to be spilled to work. He’s a curiously nuanced take on the standard tank template and fits in well with the existing cast of damned souls that make up the roster.
The Crimson Curse itself is obviously DD’s take on vampirism. This cross between an affliction and a disease requires party members to scavenge and ingest a new item, ‘The Blood,' regularly to keep the ill affects at bay. When cursed heroes enter the thirst state, their combat efficacy is reduced: when The Blood is ingested, combat prowess is greatly improved. Herein lies an issue. Darkest Dungeon has always been difficult—its unforgiving nature is part of its DNA, and is one of the things I really appreciated about it when I first gave it a look. With The Crimson Court, though, many of the new mechanics seem to ramp up the difficulty further, this time in a way that feels unfair in ways it didn’t before.
It’s not that any one addition feels game-breaking. It’s more how these mechanics interact that causes the difficulty spike and leads me to the conclusion that there are some balancing issues still to be worked out. In particular, The Blood, which is increasingly important as your heroes all inevitably fall to the Curse, seems disproportionately scarce. Not so much of a problem on its own, but add in the usual tribulations of the mounting diseases, huge amounts of stress, frequent afflictions, and just, well, dying, and you have a seriously tricky set of mechanics interacting together in such a way as to make the challenge feel more stacked against the player than ever before. And because the Curse affects heroes whether they’re in the new area or not (and those other mechanics haven’t exactly been toned down to compensate), it feels like yet another layer of difficulty to add to an already rock-solid game.
Red Hook seem to agree with me because hotfix updates for the game since the DLC’s release have addressed my two main criticisms. The frequency of Invitation drops has been increased, as has the likelihood of enemies yielding The Blood. As a result of these tweaks, players should now be able to spend more time within the Courtyard, and less time being frustrated by the Curse’s effects. It’s heartening the devs have identified the issues, but I’m sure the balancing will remain ongoing.
New content-wise, I love everything The Crimson Court brings to the party. Each new mechanic feels well thought out, and the new area and enemies are up to the game’s high visual standard. My issues are with how this new content has been integrated. This version of DD’s difficulty feels unbalanced in a way the pre-DLC version did not. Hopefully, this will end up just being teething problems, with the developers already addressing this on a daily basis.
I feel the greater issue is how Red Hook have allowed access to the new content. The way the game forces you to replay dungeons in the main game just to be able to visit the area you’ve just paid to access seems misguided at best, and at worst, a cynical way to extend the life of a collection of content that may have felt a little light in isolation. Unfortunately, I think this only trades criticism over length for the potentially more serious criticism of the unfair treatment of fans, something Red Hook have always been careful to avoid in the past. Hopefully, the continuing fixes address the DLCs failing in a swift enough way as to avoid any serious damage to both a rightly vaunted game and a developer’s previously sterling reputation.
Andy is a freelance writer for Game With Your Brain. You can follow him on Twitter.