DARKEST DUNGEON Review
Classic RPGs, at their true core, are a bit like eldritch horrors: intimidating, complicated, and downright maddening when you try to figure out how they work. DARKEST DUNGEON is a roguelike RPG that follows your attempts to solve a Lovecraftian crisis by throwing people with a specific set of skills at it until your basement stops vomiting evil. To do so, the player must recruit and train a motley band of heroes of varying classes, manage their stress and personality quirks, and send them off to their doom, all while rebuilding the small town at the foot of your estate.
Man, this place really went to shit
In more certain terms, developer Red Hook’s ode to tabletop games and H.P. Lovecraft centers on your family’s estate. You apparently have left your ancestral home behind many years ago, which is good because it’s a shithole, housing a crusty old curmudgeon who may or may not be your father. Bored with the life of a wealthy nobleman, he discovered a source of power underneath your house, and sent mining crew after mining crew into the darkness to dig it up, but in doing so, unleashed an unspeakable tentacled evil that plagued the land and drove your unnamed relative to suicide. But before he did so, he sent you a letter, urging you to come back and fix his horrible tentacled mistake. Fortunately for you (but perhaps not for anyone else), word of a grand estate full of adventure and treasures travels quickly, and explorers and fighters are eager to throw knives at skeletons for gold. The story doesn’t develop much past that point outside of random events that occur within the hub town. For the genre and style of this particular dungeon simulator, it doesn’t quite need to, as your primary objective (level up your dudes and kill the big bad) is quite enough.
DARKEST DUNGEON’s mechanics are fairly complicated and make for delightfully stressful gameplay. Each quest is a foray into a different part of your family estate, with varying missions to choose from. Complete enough and a path to the area’s boss will open. Each quest has the player choosing which rooms to proceed to on a top-down map and walking their party through each hallway. Battles are sometimes random, sometimes not, but are always turn-based. DARKEST DUNGEON also makes use of a character’s position in a party line; a heavily-armed Crusader will do better in the front than the Plague Doctor, whose use of status-affecting attacks and weak armor usually land them in the back of the party. As a result, preparing for each quest requires quite a bit of thought and preparation.
“Well the recipe calls for ground beef, but the only thing at the Ralph’s around here is mutant rat, so that’ll have to do for tonight.”
DARKEST DUNGEON is also a “roguelike”, so while the game chugs on, the characters that you lose along the way are gone forever. Lucky for you, more recruits arrive after each exploration, about a week in game time. These recruits have personality traits that can complicate matters or make them easier; traits like “Stress Eater” which makes them eat more provisions than normal, or “Kleptomaniac” which will make them grab things in dungeons that are almost always traps. These can develop into “quirks” which are more permanent and are exacerbated by the game’s Stress mechanic (If the pun occurs before the explanation, is it still a pun?). Similar to ETERNAL DARKNESS, another eldritch classic, characters gain stress depending on a variety of factors, such as enemy attacks, starvation, and by how dark their surroundings are. Once a character accrues a certain amount, their Resolve is tested. Sometimes they become Paranoid or Irrational, though others can become Stalwart or Vigorous. If the personality quirk is negative and they continue gaining stress, they’ll eventually die of a heart attack. This meta game of psychiatric care makes missions become a complicated cacophony of not only managing health and status effects, but also monitoring the environment and a player’s mental state.
Despite the limited dialogue, I found myself relating to many of the characters for some reason
As I mentioned before, DARKEST DUNGEON’s combat and resource management give it a pretty steep learning curve, and the threat of losing a character that you’ve put so much work into makes your decisions even more impactful. Of course, none of these mechanics are particularly novel in concept, but the way they’re combined suit DUNGEON pretty well. I feel that the game’s only detraction in this regard is just how truly unforgiving it is if you’re unsure of what you’re doing or how to proceed, but some masochists may relish the lack of hand-holding.
The game’s theme is especially intriguing. I have a soft, squishy spot for Lovecraftian horrors, and DARKEST DUNGEON very much appealed to that, which kept me going despite the horrible setbacks I suffered. The art style is all very grim and macabre, like a more animated, 2D version of BLOODBORNE. The dialogue is sparse, but effective, lending to the game’s sense of dread and melancholy. The characters are all very well composed and interesting to look at, which is good because there’s not much else for the player to focus on.
Though not being mutilated by this fucking thing is a quest in and of itself
DARKEST DUNGEON was recently released for download on consoles, but was previously available on Steam. As you’ll see at the conclusion of this article I reviewed the game for PC, and this came with its own set of difficulties. Apparently DARKEST DUNGEON is determined not to play for most players, and as a result, a comprehensive list of crash bugs exists along with fixes to them. While this is a major issue when purchasing the game for PC, you should be fine if you’re playing on the Xbox or PS4. If you are using a computer, make sure to update the drivers for your graphics card before playing, or consult the list. This is a frustrating complication that will turn many away from an otherwise engaging title, so keep this in mind when deciding where to pick it up.
DARKEST DUNGEON is a melancholy experience that uses roguelike mechanics to terrify and drive home the danger and duress of the settings in which it places you. The game’s litany of permutations and modifiers never fail to challenge players who simply want to go through their grandpa’s old shit without skeletons throwing acid wine in their faces. These trials are only enhanced by the tone and themes of the game, making for a uniquely absorbing dungeon-crawling experience.
Reviewed on PC, also available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One