It can't be all that fun to be a character in a game called Darkest Dungeon. You spend all your time in caves and ruins, risking your life while fighting horrible monsters, watching your friends suffer and even die. The emotional toll must be high.
Turns out that idea—that heroes can suffer from mental fatigue and eventually crack under pressure—is one of the central, most interesting notions at play in Darkest Dungeon, a new PC role-playing game from Red Hook Studios. It's out in Steam Early Access this week, and has been hanging around the #1 best-selling spot since it came out on Tuesday.
I've played a few hours of the game and… well, I've mostly gotten my ass kicked. I'm really enjoying it, though, and plan to play more. For now, I thought I'd give a rundown of what the game is all about for those who are curious.
You know how I said it lives up to its name? It sure does. Here's a trailer, which captures the vibe and shows off the whole etched-in-black-wax art style:
So yeah, lots of dungeons. Also, it really is dark—light plays an important role in the game, and if your torch goes out, things get darker and much more difficult.
Darkest Dungeon is a dungeon-crawler all the way down to its black, pustulated core. See, there's this manor, and underneath the manor are twisting, randomly generated dungeons. You are in charge of the manor, so it's your job to hire new recruits, equip them, and guide them through the dungeons in search of loot, relics, and boss monsters to kill.
The whole thing is randomly generated, from your characters to your enemies to the dungeons themselves. Each time you venture into a new dungeon, you run into random encounters, hit random traps, and find random loot.
Each dungeon is a collection of straight lines—there isn't really much exploration to speak of, you just move forward from one room to the next, hoping you don't encounter too many monsters along the way.
Each of your characters has his or her own name (which you can change) and unique character quirks (which you can't). Maybe they loathe the eldritch and get a boost while fighting them, or they have a fear of the dark. As they spend more time in dungeons, they pick up more quirks, both for good and for ill. It's a bit like the orcs in Shadow of Mordor, really, or like any Sim in The Sims.
Then there's the other big XCOM influence: If any of your characters dies in combat, they're gone for good. Your manor and its upgrades will remain, but you can lose an entire party in a few minutes if you're not careful.
Most of the chatter I've seen about Darkest Dungeon has been about how hard it is. And it is hard. Very hard. In fact, it's so hard I'm not sure I'd recommend it to a lot of people I know. I could easily see someone putting an hour or two into this, getting mercilessly, repeatedly crushed, and giving up.
Combat is a turn-based thing, and you'll want to carefully arrange your four party members to best take advantage of their various strengths and take down the opposing party. The more you play, the more you'll learn how your enemies work and how to anticipate their attacks, and my early impressions are that the combat system is deeper than it may appear to a casual observer. There are stats and modifiers attached to everything, tons of buffs and debuffs flying every which way, and I haven't even gotten into weapon and armor upgrading, which I'm sure adds a layer of complexity on top of everything else.
It's difficult to heal HP while in a dungeon, meaning that you'll be constantly asking yourself whether it's worth pushing forward, when you know that one more tough battle could mean losing half of your party. And losing half of your party will likely mean losing the other half of your party.
And then there's the other main challenge: The ever-deteriorating mental health of your party members.
Darkest Dungeon wears its Lovecraftiness on its sleeve, which means that in addition to freaky monsters, the game embraces madness as a game mechanic. Every time your party members do something good, their stress level lowers. Every time something bad happens to them—an enemy lands an attack, they stumble into a trap, you retreat or abandon a mission—their stress level increases.
Thing is, the bad stuff causes way more stress than the good stuff recovers, and bad stuff is more or less constantly happening. I've found that my characters' stress levels more or less constantly climb, no matter what I do.
If a character's stress gets too high, they become afflicted with some sort of disorder or other, which can affect their behavior or effectiveness in battle. That significantly compounds the game's already steep difficulty, since after you get a ways into a dungeon, you'll find yourself with a whole party of badly wounded, extremely stressed characters, all of them about to snap, die, or both.
Once you're back in town, you can undo the effects of combat stress, diseases and even negative quirks by sending characters off to one of a few different buildings—a chapel, or a sanatarium, or a tavern, that sort of thing. Dispatch a character to do some drinking or some whoring, and their stress level will drop, though their personality afflictions will remain. Send them to the sanitarium to cure one of their negative quirks.
Rehabilitating stressed characters costs money, so if you're not successful enough in your dungeon raids, you're not going to be able to afford to keep your party members in good emotional and mental health. Furthermore, if you're doing poorly on a run and opt to flee back to town, your entire party takes a large amount of stress. Not only do you miss out on most of the rewards in the dungeon, but you wound up with fewer useful characters to use on the next run.
All this means that as your characters get higher level, they also get more difficult to deal with, since they'll develop all sorts of bad personality traits. (As if this game wasn't hard enough!) In my first game, I got deep enough in a sinkhole of low funds and mentally dysfunctional party members that I started a whole new game, and I'd imagine I'm not the only one who's done that.
There's just so much to keep on top of: money, resources, sanity, health, injuries, sickness, and equipment, and most of those things are regularly turning against you and making it more difficult to manage the other things. It's likely due in part (in large part, even) to my inexperience, but I've found myself regularly feeling as though the game has turned on me, and that I've spiraled past the point where I can recover. While I admire Darkest Dungeon's commitment to difficulty and complexity, it can be a bit overwhelming.
Darkest Dungeon isn't a "finished" game. It's early access, which means there are unfinished features, and the game will be changing regularly until it reaches its final state. We've played lots of good early access games in the past—Elite: Dangerous spent most of last year in beta, and Invisible, Inc. and Crypt of the Necrodancer are two more that come to mind.
Even compared with those games, though, Darkest Dungeon feels remarkably far along. It's got a lot of levels to play through, a bunch of characters, a ton of different gameplay elements all woven together and apparently fully functional. It's deep, chewy, and complex. You can't currently play it to completion, but that doesn't make it feel any less complete.
I'm sure the final game will be a bit different from the game I've been playing—and I do hope they make it at least a bit more welcoming to newbies—but still, this is a very polished early access game.
So far, I'm digging Darkest Dungeon. It's grim and punishing, but there's just so much going on that I can't help but want to dig deeper in hopes that I'll come to understand it better.
I was chatting with Luke about it earlier today, and he said something along the lines of, "It gives me the Diablo feeling that Diablo never gave me." I like that, and get what he's saying. This game feels a bit like I remember the first Diablo feeling, but it's so much deeper than that, particularly in how you invest in and develop such a wide variety of characters. You watch them get physically stronger, mentally weaker, then unexpectedly die and be replaced, all while your town gets better suited to keep a larger and larger army alive and sane. It may be challenging, but it's also been rewarding enough to keep me coming back.
That said, it's early access, and I've only played a few hours. I'm betting that more than a few of you are also playing, so I hope you'll share your own thoughts on the game below below. Also, if you have any tips, I'd love to hear 'em.