I have played countless dungeon crawlers and adventure titles over the years. Yet I have never asked the question what affect my countless deaths and insatiable desire to push for that next reward has on my heroes. Darkest Dungeon answers this question with the grueling psychological affect of dungeon crawling and the horror’s they have on heroes.
In typical dungeon crawl fashion, the overall narrative is kept to a minimum. The adventure begins with a relative reaching out to you, he has lost his mind and subsequently ended his own life. He has discovered ancient writings that tell the tell of an ancient power hidden beneath the family manor. He exhausts the family fortune on his quest to excavate the catacombs below to acquire this power but what he finds is and evil that drives him mad. You return to your family home which is in ruin with the single goal of restoring your family honor and eradicating this evil from the world.
Darkest Dungeon divides its time between two types of experiences: turn based combat and exploration focused adventures and the task of rebuilding your family home. While in your hamlet you can recruit heroes and spend your resources improving the surrounding buildings. The overall goal of these upgrades are to fund expeditions into the increasingly horror filled surrounding areas, where the adventure truly shines.
Combat blends the traditional, turn based game mechanics with very unique twists. Dungeons are explored on a 2D plane with a party of up to four heroes all arranged in a line. The position of each hero determines which of their four interchangeable skills can be used and which enemies can be hit. While each hero has only four skills that are active at a time these skill are interchangeable with a total of 7 skills. While this may sound like the traditional dungeon crawler the combat scenarios are far from simplistic. In addition to juggling typical stats like speed, dodge and protection combat forces you to think strategically about hero position at all times. Enemies can use skills to screw up your party order bringing your deadly archer to the front row and sending your tank to the back row. You have the skills to do the same, pulling there powerful back line casters and rangers to the front to deal with them first as they are at their weakest in the front.
Combat is made even more complex by the addition of stress. You are in a constant battle managing the stress of your heroes, get caught in a trap and a heroes stress meter will rise. An enemy pulls off a critical strike the entire parties stress will rise. Stress is the most engaging part of darkest dungeon. As characters become more stressed they become less effective in combat. They’re more likely to miss attacks and less likely to dodge in coming attacks. They also begin to develop debilitating personality quirks, which has a huge impact on gameplay. One of my first heroes was a crusader with the trait ‘kleptomaniac’ which gave him the chance of stealing my reward from completing a dungeon, needless to say I removed him quickly.
This is where the upgrades to the hamlet become extremely important, not only can you upgrade your hamlet with a black smith and a guild that teaches new skills. There are several different additions that reduce stress. Through activities like praying, drinking or visiting a brothel, you can also place characters into a sanitarium to remove unwanted quirks. There is also a medical ward that cures the many ailments your heroes will receive from there time adventuring. The hamlet presents plenty of options however, resources to upgrade each building are limited and balancing which to prioritize is one of the challenging parts of Darkest Dungeon.
Each individual character you recruit will be dead permanently should they fall on a quest. The hamlet provides a source of consistent growth and sense of progression despite the often devastating defeat you will suffer. Characters don’t level up as they do in a traditional RPG, but they gain ranks as they go on adventures. Once a hero reaches rank 3, signifying that they have got a good amount of experience, they will refuse to go on lower level quests. This is where my frustration with Darkest Dungeon arose. If you want to do a lower level quest for a certain reward and all your heroes were higher leveled you would have to dismiss a few of your heroes that you’ve invested time and money into for a lower level party to undertake said quest. Although it did not ruin my overall experience, I can see this being an area of frustration for most players.
At its best Darkest Dungeon is truly one the best immersive experience’s I’ve had this year. The constant state of despair and the overwhelming feeling of accomplishment this title gives is simply amazing. It is truly a unique title that’s offering a different twist on the traditional dungeon crawl experience. Darkest Dungeon is truly among this year’s best titles.