Oh, Darkest Dungeon. Darkest Dungeon. Darkest Dungeon. What am I going to do about you? There’s something about a game that gives me heart palpitations that I love. And not the good heart palpitations either. This isn’t a holding hands with your new love speedy pitter-patter. It’s that feeling of your foot plunging to the ground when an unexpected drop or declining step appears. But prolonged at times and less sudden. You put yourself in this situation. And you will do again and again and again. You love it. I know I do. I am enraptured with this game. And yet I find myself unable to play it for long stretches. The sheer wave of relief after completing a taxing run in one of Darkest Dungeons……well dungeons, is always a welcome feeling but also a release button. ‘I’M OUT! That’s it, I’m done. I need to relax and unwind. This leisurely hour of Darkest Dungeon wasn’t relaxing it was strenuous and cruel. But I’ll be back. Maybe an hour later or the next day but I will return for me delicious punishment’.
Darkest Dungeon is a roguelike, turn based combat game. You are given a brief explanation of the happenings, 2 party members and a quick tutorial dungeon. Then the rest is up to you to decide. You have a combat phase and a micro-management/upgrade phase. You assemble your team of up to 4 members per expedition, their skills and their position in combat. There are over a dozen different hero types. Each with different roles in combat. As each character type is different, they all have different skills and preferred positions. The Crusader prefers to be up front where he deals the most damage. Whereas the Plague Doctor prefers to hang out in the back, chucking ailments at the enemies and buffs for your team. You venture out into whichever dungeon you subject them to and then at the end you pick up the pieces and tend to them. Each dungeon will have several options to choose from. Some of these include; a quick skirmish where you have to complete all the room battles. Explore, where a set percentage of rooms need to be passed through. And even Kill the (insert foul being for killing) which act as mini boss and boss encounters. These missions will require more planning as they tend to be longer but offer better rewards.
After your mission, you’re automatically transported to your estate, in which your party recuperate and prepare for the next mission. The central hub of this game is a town under threat from neighbouring dungeons. It is here that you’ll decide the down time for your team. Do you go to the caravan to recruit new members? The blacksmith to upgrade your heroes gear? Or maybe the pub or brothel for your weary warriors? There is no time limit or AP gauge here so you can go at your own pace and think your choices through. It’s a nice, calm lull that offers relief for the player as well as your team. Once you’ve made all your choices it’s back out to the dungeons for another round.
There are 5 dungeons in total. With the titular Darkest Dungeon being the end goal. Each dungeon is randomly generated. Although the same, in corridors connected to rooms, each offer very different experiences and aesthetic. The Ruins offer Unholy beasties that attack your team’s sanity just as much as their health whilst the Weald’s enemies tend to inflict ailments such as blight and bleed upon your party. It’s these differences that require planning ahead, as picking a team willy-nilly will result in bad times or even death for your team. And in this game; when someone’s dead, they’re dead, Jim. Prepare to get attached and have your heart broken as your Highwayman, Greg gets shanked to death by a butcher in the Ruins. When an enemy dies, unless by blight or certain situations, their body will remain on the ground and in the spot they were standing. If you want to attack an enemy behind them in the line-up, your best option may be to get rid of that corpse as soon as. That way your close quarters Crusader can end him swiftly. This feature requires extra thought but can be switched off in the options, as well as a number of choices to make the game easier or harder for yourself.
I mentioned enemies attacking sanity before and that is a key feature of this game. When you enter the combat segment, your team each have a health meter and also a sanity meter. As you progress through the corridors and enemy encounters your team’s sanity will deteriorate. Sometimes because an enemy specifically cast a sanity affecting attack. Other times because the enemy landed a critical hit and now your hero’s confidence wavers. Even progressing through the dungeon puts a toll on your heroes. The light is your friend in this game. If that starts to fade so does your teams spirit. Luckily before each expedition you get to purchase provisions before you set off. The usual antidotes for blight (this games version of poison ailment), bandages to stop bleeding and buff potions. Food can be purchased and eaten any time out of combat. This’ll heal your selected member a smidge. But don’t get greedy! As you progress through the dungeon your team may get hungry and require a piece of food each. If you’re short on rations, well too bad, your team take a hit to sanity and health for your lack of planning. Torches can be purchased too before you set off. The light provides another gameplay element, play it safe or go bold and daring. Your screen lit like a beacon will provide ease for your party and a less stressful venture. It may also provide mapping possibilities and a chance to startle an enemy team, giving you the upper hand. With less light though you have a higher chance of earning more loot and landing critical blows. But be afraid of the dark, as it can give the enemy the jump on your team and will cause their stress levels to rise quicker. If a character’s stress level is pushed too far they will have a moment of resolve, where they’re tested to see if they’re strong enough to power through their fe ars or if they’ll crumble and become a detriment to your team. They might power through though. Then they become stronger than before, able to hit harder, heal themselves randomly and increase morale among your team lowering stress for all. Should they fail though, then you might want to chuck them as soon as you get out that dungeon.
They will gain an affliction, such as Selfish, Fearful or Irrational. These may cause your worrywart to freeze up on their turn or switch places with one of your other party members. They can even run from combat and that’s them gone for this dungeon, you’re one man down now. It’s not just the enemies out to get your team either. The corridors are littered with traps that’ll sneak up on you if the light is dim. Obstacles will appear such as a mound of bricks that you will need a shovel to dig through. ‘What, you didn’t bring a shovel or find one in your travels? Tough.’. You take so long clearing the way that the light goes dim and your team each loses sanity. The hallways are littered with temptations too. Curios they’re called in this game. Your team stumbles upon random stack of books. The choice is yours to make and for which member of your party. Do you let them investigate or play it safe and walk on? A quick glance can’t harm your Grave Robber, Gael much surely? Whoops, she reads and gains the quirk Night Blindness and so now if the light is below a certain amount, she does 10% damage less to opponents. And honestly that’s one of the better negative quirks to get.
Yes, you heard that right. Quirks. Each hero has a random set of quirks when you recruit them. These can be positive or negative. A positive quirk can ensure that they fare better against certain monster types or have increased HP among other things. Negative quirks could mean that a particular hero is nerfed in a certain dungeon or under certain conditions such as low light. Sometimes they’ll have a quirk which makes them instantly investigates certain Curios if found, possibly gaining them another negative quirk. Or Flagellant, which means in town they’ll only go to the Penance Hall to de-stress, which may be occupied by the roaming caretaker who randomly takes up spots meant for your heroes to recover mentally in. And if quirks weren’t bad enough, there are also diseases that your team can contract. Diseases are rarer but can be gained through combat and Curios too. A party member might get afflicted with The Red Plague which decreases HP, critical chances and bleed resistance. It’s these possible pitfalls that make every dungeon venture a gamble and a constant assessment of your situation whilst exploring. Dread is the name of your friend when playing this game. ‘Hello Dread! My that’s a nice urn there. Mind if I have a cheeky peek inside?’ “Of course! Go right ahead, watch for syphilis though.”. ‘Sorry Dread, I didn’t quite catch that. Did you whisper syphilis? Am I going to get syphilis from this innocent urn?!’. And that’s how Reynauld the Crusader contracted that disease.
Thankfully the town offers cures and treatment for diseases and negative quirks. For a price, obviously. Treatment isn’t free and sometimes that Grave Robber you’ve had since your first real dungeon, who was always in your prime line-up. Sometimes the damage of Darkest Dungeon is too great or costly and you have to make the choice. Spend your hard-earned money on fixing her up, back to beautiful Gael. Or dismiss your loyal member and recruit a new, less tainted by the harsh surroundings, hero. Darkest Dungeon isn’t all evil though and does offer help too. After completing missions you’ll gain money, trinkets and upgrade material. The trinkets can be given to individual party members. Each member can hold 2 trinkets and some trinkets are classed based. They range in rarity and also effectiveness. Some will be great but others not so much. Sure, one may raise your characters HP by 10% but it’ll also reduce their speed by 2. But, aha! Find a hero with 0 speed already and suddenly that trinket doesn’t seem so bad. You can’t miss what you don’t have. The upgrade materials you earn can be used in town to upgrade the surrounding buildings. Upgrading the caravan will increase roster size or selection of heroes after each mission. Upgrade the blacksmith and he will allow you to buff your party members weapons for more damage, among other things. But establishments will only take certain upgrade material. And certain materials will be more available in certain dungeons. Thus, encouraging expeditions into the more unfamiliar dungeons.
If this all sounds rather complex, it’s because it is. Darkest Dungeon isn’t an easy game. And there are lots of nuances to get used to and you will learn from mistakes you make. I am playing the PS4 version and although the team, Red Hook Studios have done an admirable job porting a complex game to console. It does suffer from confusing controls. Something I have got used to but because there is a lot to manage on screen, it requires a lot of different inputs. And that can take some time and errors along the way to ingrain into your memory.
Overall, I would recommend Darkest Dungeon. But I would also recommend looking it up on YouTube or other game sites and watching some combat gameplay. If you like the look of it, can handle stress and won’t fling your controller across the room at the sometimes seemingly biased RNG then you’re in for a rewarding, gorgeously pleasing game that’s chock full of great visuals, animations and sound design. Text doesn’t do justice to the transition when you or an enemy performs an action. And there is a narrator of your quest who is ever present in town and in combat. Wayne June is his name. He does a fantastic job of setting the mood and boosting your confidence. When you critical hit an enemy into the ground and you hear the powerful “Crush. Them. All” be commanded, you can’t help but feel riled up, imposing and ready to conquer the Darkest Dungeon of them all.