The catacombs run deep with nebulous, writhing horrors of oddly groping tentacles and the pulsating, severed entrails of delvers past. A madman can be seen huddled in a corner, rocking and raving about his level five Occultist who survived three Death Blows, only to succumb to blight. That madman is me, by the way. Darkest Dungeon is a dungeon crawler/roguelike that boasts emphasis on high risk and rewards with a hearty helping of probability and customization. Although cruel, its siren song brings every adventurer back after a trip to the bar or brothel.
Like any respectable roguelike, Darkest Dungeon doesn’t offer much with regard to story. The opening sequence is a slideshow of ominous and once verdant locales with voice over from the protagonist’s relative, pleading for help to restore their opulent family’s prodigious name. Throughout the game, small stories before boss dungeons offer insight into said relative’s practices, piquing one’s interest as to what actually transpired in the “Darkest Dungeon.”.
Although barren in plot and characters, Darkest Dungeon is all about gameplay and atmosphere — at least initially. I’ve dumped over fifty hours into countless, harrowing excavations. The first ten hours were mind-shatteringly engrossing and tense. I stumbled and skinned my knees as I learned just how punishing the chains and jagged cleavers of pigs were. During the following ten hours, I capitalized on lessons learned and entered mid-tier dungeons with smart strategies and deftly crafted teams. My knuckles whitened as I gritted my teeth, praying that my Bounty Hunter survived before being driven mad. Level three and four heroes fell in the face of bosses — and my occasional greed. During the next ten hours (thirty total, for those keeping track at home), I cautiously and conservatively explored until I felt confident that I could take my level five characters into the hardest dungeons (well, besides the “Darkest Dungeon”).
With bated breath, I ran these caverns with upgraded equipment, customized skills, and names of personal friends attached to each adventurer. SMACK! SLASH! A dear friend gets cut down. No, no, no, no, no. The time and resources invested in him, my attachment to him — everything, gone in a flash. If only I had upgraded my village to its fullest extent. If only — no! There goes another hero. I have to get out. My good friend’s been driven mad with pessimism. She keeps yapping about how they will all die, stressing out my other mercenary. Stop it! Nothing good can come from your negativity! I’m going to lose everything and everyone. Escape. No! Caught! And — everyone’s dead. Everything I put into those four is instantly vanquished. No save scumming. Back to the drawing board, whatever that means.
The following hours were less fun. While I’ve enjoyed my entire experience, not everyone will appreciate this sense of loss and time seemingly evaporated because of poor planning or RNG gods spitting on their progress. At the time of this review, I haven’t beaten the game, though I’m close. The amount of time and resources one must invest is huge, and much of it is repetitious. However, roguelikes are known for making players cover the “same” ground. The dungeons, of course, are procedurally generated and each recruited hero of the same class comes with slightly different specs, abilities, and vices.
Customizing each character to suit the player’s unique needs makes Darkest Dungeon bearable in its constant excursions into the catacombs. Those with a strategic sense will love theory-crafting and testing out several different four-person teams. Each class is entirely unique and few, if any, fit a clichéd mold. At the outset, newcomers may find the lack of tutorials frustrating, as the various numbers and terms aren’t fully explained. Darkest Dungeon offers a glossary, but even this doesn’t explain everything in the game or how the numbers directly interact with one another. For a game that punishes with permanent death, a lack of adequate explanation is hard to justify.
Some of my friends have asked me if the game truly has “permanent death.” You, the player, will never enter the dungeon yourself. Instead, you send four mercenaries in who have four abilities each that only work in certain positions in line. They can die. Arbalests go in the back, and sword-wielding lepers go in front. Other classes are less obvious and offer enough variety in abilities that any position can be justified. The emphasis on ailments, moving position, resistances, and stress management make team constructing wonderful fun for the first thirty hours or so. If a dream team dies, fretting is warranted, but free heroes can be recruited with each trip to town. Although the recruitment pool is random, greater choices are available depending on the amount of upgrading done at the stage coach — all heroes start at level zero, though.
The entire town can be upgraded. From the stress-reducing tavern to the ailment-removing sanitarium to the weaponry-upgrading blacksmith, players can dump scavenged resources into all sorts of areas. This is where much of the grinding comes into play. Just because I had a team of level five characters ready to go into the “level five” dungeon didn’t mean that I should have. I had to upgrade my blacksmith and guild. Unfortunately, this grind slows the pace of the game to a crawl, and it will undoubtedly frustrate many. In my case, I enjoyed the game enough that this didn’t bother me, but the enjoyment declined considerably. Another downside of upgrading equipment and abilities is that each gain is seemingly insignificant, with each step increasing healing by a point or accuracy by five points. The choices here aren’t interesting and don’t substantively change how characters are crafted. Although making a far more involved upgrading system would require much more work and balancing from the developers, the existing system feels like a lazy decision and a missed opportunity, which contrasts with an otherwise engrossing, foreboding experience.
Battles take place with each ally and enemy taking turns. Players choose an ability and target, and then the camera zooms in dramatically. This fancy camera work intensifies what would have otherwise been a sleep-inducing affair. The sound effects complement this artistic approach to combat with gritty, thick arrow slinging and hammer slams. Every impact feels like it matters, and not just because the numbers say so. I physically winced at critical hits and nervously bobbed my leg up and down as I hoped that my Jester was only joking about his wounds. I yelled at units to shut up as they derided allies. All of this wouldn’t be possible without the astounding presentation and unique take on what many consider to be overdone game design: turn-based combat.
Some may take issue with the stills and modest animations throughout the game, but the dark atmosphere and mystique of labyrinths suit this style. Darkest Dungeon also controls well, though some clickables, like doorways, can be surprisingly arduous to select. With otherwise polished controls, coupled with every other slick design element, I found these occasional frustrations more odd than anything else.
What a ride. Although I have no intention of putting this game down just yet — in part due to determination rather than pure pleasure — I can easily recognize why this title isn’t for everyone, or at least how the first half of the experience is for many, with some humbly vacating the premises later on. If I were to score this title purely based on the first half of my experience, it’d be pushing a 90% overall, but given that the end-game is such a tiring slog at times, I have to communicate this setback to readers. Combine these woes with a surprisingly dull upgrading system and Darkest Dungeon feels like it reaches just shy of excellence. As for me, a scaly tentacle of eldritch origin has wrapped itself around my waist, and I simply can’t resist.