Game Review: Darkest Dungeon shows incredible depth

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Testing the heroes limits of bravery, the video game “Darkest Dungeon”, leads them down a perilous descent into darkness.

James Chaney, Staff Writer

The feeling of loss you feel is indescribable as you ponder the downfall you experienced. Everything had been going swell and only one of your adventurers had become afflicted with insanity, seemingly a minor annoyance. Then, all at once, everything goes wrong, a critical hit, bleeding, more insanity, and then finally death. In the end, you had to abandon the expedition, and only one member of your party made it back to the safety of the Hamlet, raving and mad from the horrors of the estate.

Darkest Dungeon is a game of incredible depth, released in early 2016, by Indie developer Red Hook Studios. The game is a turn-based dungeon crawler, viewed from a 2D, side-scrolling perspective. The game sees you taking parties of four on expeditions to areas in and around your ancestral estate, battling countless horrors inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, all the while, desperately trying to keep your adventures from succumbing to the stresses of adventure. Beyond this, the game is best summarized by the developers themselves, in a startup message for new players they state, “Darkest Dungeon is about making the most of a bad situation. Quests will fail or must be abandoned. Heroes will die. And when they die, they stay dead. Progress autosaves constantly, so actions are permanent.”

They continue,  “The game expects a lot out of you. How far will you push your adventurers? How much are you willing to risk in your quest to restore Hamlet? What will you sacrifice to save the life of your favorite hero? Thankfully, there are always fresh souls arriving on the stagecoach, seeking both fame and adventure in the shadow of the…Darkest Dungeon.”

The game sets itself thusly, with the chilling narration of an ancestor, your ancestor, stating that, “Ruin has come to our family.” The ancestor, who will act as the narrator for the rest of the game, then goes on to describe how he has lived a life of luxury and debauchery, “Fattened by decadence and luxury.” This, however, proves to unfurl as he then states, “And yet, I began to tire of conventional extravagance.”

Tire he did, as we then see him in, “The salt-soaked crags beneath the lowest foundation,” where he, along with the many hired workers, unearth, “That damnable portal of antediluvian evil.” And thus that is how it comes back to you, the heir, who must now venture along the old road to your ancestral estate to clean up the mess of your forefather, who killed himself shortly after sending the letter calling you there, the letter in which the opening cutscene is a narration of, by recruiting those seeking gold, glory, and sometimes even God.

The gameplay of Darkest Dungeon is best described in single words and descriptive phrases, turn-based, in-depth, random, enraging, stressful, but most importantly, rewarding. It is impossible for me to fully describe the pure, ecstatic joy of clearing any expedition with all your heroes still alive after having many near-death experiences, but even more so, with their sanity intact.

Before getting to the main section of this review, it’s important to note that I will not be covering the DLCs as they add completely new elements to the game, and I’m already not going to be able to cover everything. I will also not be revealing too much about the plot, not because I’m averse to spoilers, but more so because the method of storytelling simply doesn’t translate too well to a review, and part of the fun of the game is uncovering everything yourself (there’s also just a lot). I will, however, say that I personally find the story to be something rather intriguing that one cannot help but want to uncover the entirety of.

The game, as mentioned before, is a side-scrolling dungeon crawler, but it’s a bit different from most in the genre. The ‘dungeons’ as I’ll be calling them are a series of interconnected rooms and hallways, which are all loaded separately, so when in a room, you’ll use a directional input (WASD or controller stick) to indicate which hallway you want to go into, and then you’ll walk to the end of the said hallway and enter the next room. That is a basic and somewhat lacking description, as there are often traps and interactable items in these hallways, which can have good or bad outcomes if interacted with such as giving your hero who interacts with it a positive or negative quirk (I’ll come back to this), but there’s also always the chance to get ambushed by unsightly horrors, waiting for you in the dark.

The game relies heavily on chance (rng), and it ends up showing in the combat, but this is not a bad thing at all; in fact, it’s one of the things that makes the game as amazing as it is. The feeling of never knowing how a battle could go forces you to treat all encounters seriously and weigh if they’re truly worth it, and any plans you may have could easily be thrown off by an enemy critical hit or your miss, and this forces you to adapt and think constantly; the system works both for and against you, neither your enemy nor your friend.

While I have the chance, I should also point out how stellar the atmosphere is; it’s dark and oppressive, and there’s a constant feeling of dread present with every combat encounter, especially the bosses, and this is only from the unsettling nature of the many abominations you battle, not at all mentioning the music. The music meets this perfect blend of epicness, ferocity, and is complemented by the narration of the ancestor, but at the same time gives off a foreboding sense of dread, reminding you that the enemy can dish out damage and end your heroes story, but you can end theirs, too.

Outside of expeditions, you’ll spend your time at the Hamlet, a sort of hub area where you can acquire new heroes, upgrade and treat current ones in both mind and body, and buy new trinkets to give your heroes. There are also occasional events around Hamlet, some of which are triggered by taking certain expeditions. Lastly, there’s the graveyard where you can view what is essentially a log of your heroes who have died, and the ancestor’s monument, where you can listen to his memoirs and listen to the lore surrounding his, to put it lightly, delve into immorality.

The last thing to cover is the adventurers you’ll be recruiting, and some of the nuances that come with them. Although each class only has one sprite (a character model), albeit with preset color schemes to pick from, they each become unique individuals through their quirks and dispositions. Never once did I ever doubt the humanity of those I recruited and even found myself becoming attached to some of them. This, of course, is dangerous in a game where death isn’t merely an inconvenience but a fact.

I’ve referred to them as heroes up until now, and that’s because they have the courage to face the horror that far exceeds them but not because they have endless courage and steeled nerves: they will crack. This is an integral part of the game as slowly but surely a stat representing stress will build as points, and at 100 points they eventually crumble, or perhaps not. You see once it reaches 100 they have a very likely chance of losing their grip on reality and becoming ‘afflicted,’ a mechanic that further adds unpredictability and chaos to the game as, for example, a hero who becomes abusive will, unsurprisingly, become abusive towards other party members, bringing down their health, but even more so, bringing up their stress.

If an afflicted party member tops out at 200 stress, they will suffer a heart attack and be brought to death’s door (If already on death’s door they will suffer a deathblow), a simple mechanic I’ll talk about in a moment. None of this is guaranteed, though, as a hero also has a relatively low chance of becoming virtuous in response to the stress and will give buffs not only to themselves but their party members as well. This, of course, all adds back to the very real feeling these characters give the player; they’re not tools. They’re human beings with emotions.

Before I mentioned death’s door, which may sound like a big thing, but it’s really not. All it refers to is the state heroes are in when they reach zero health. You see, reaching zero hp doesn’t mean death; it means that any subsequent damage has the chance to be a deathblow (this becomes especially threatening when a hero is poisoned or bleeding, which deals damage at the start of their turn). Lastly, afflictions are not permanent, but they must be cured at the Hamlet, via the tavern or church.

Ultimately, Darkest Dungeon is a rare gem, something born completely out of passion and care from developers who wanted to write a love letter to a genre of horror, and it ultimately manages to hit every possible mark it could, and more. It’s an extravagant mix of rewards and loss, success and disaster, clarity and madness that you just can’t find anywhere else. The game is currently free on Xbox Game Pass, but even then, it’s only $30, a low price for most games nowadays and really a steal with the hours you’ll end up dumping into the game. Now, “I beg you, return home, claim your birthright,” and deliver your family “…from the ravenous, clutching shadows… of the Darkest Dungeon.”

5/5 paws