The voice is sombre and sonorous. “Ruin has come to our family” it begins, opening Darkest Dungeon’s narration with the tone that will permeate the hours of gaming to come. The speaker is the Ancestor, the head of a once noble household who, driven by insatiable curiosity, turned the wealth and influence of his house towards unnatural experimentation, occult rituals, and delving into places that should very much have remain un-delved.
Consequently ruin indeed arrived, and worse; evil doers, foul happenings and even unspeakable cosmic horror prowl around his shattered manor, lurking deep in the night and at the edge of sanity. Drawn by a message from the Ancestor, distant relatives arrive at the beset hamlet that cowers under the shadow of the manor. Can they vanquish the evil that has been unleashed and restore the oh-so-blackened family name?
Kickstarter success Darkest Dungeon, now out of Early Access, is most readily described as a roguelike RPG. Adventurers of 14 different classes arrive at the hamlet via stagecoach, eager to claim the treasure and glory that awaits in the different dungeons around the manor. The player may add them to their roster of heroes, which is put to task in squads of four that fight their side-scrolling, turn-based way through the evil the Ancestor has unleashed in dungeons around the manor.
The player’s party lines up in four ordered slots – confronting enemy parties similarly arranged – and each hero has a suite of abilities that can only be used from and can only target certain slots, making party order and selection key to success.
The term “hero” is used advisedly though, as reporting for duty are the likes of Occultists, Grave Robbers, and Abominations, and even the ostensibly morally righteous among the arrivals are carrying their own emotional baggage from (mis)adventures past.
Because the ingenious basic question behind Darkest Dungeon is this; what is the mental price to pay for RPG heroes that battle unspeakable horror day-in, day-out? Healing spells might knit bones back together, but can they erase memories of a comrade bleeding to death in front of you? And what about sanitation? Dungeons are sure filthy places, rife with diseases that open wounds are surely best not exposed to. Oops.
Even as their physical battles with evil continue then, the heroes of Darkest Dungeon must also limp back to town after each expedition not just with sacks full of treasure, but also newly acquired plagues, phobias, unnatural obsessions, and addictions. As heroes gain more experience, they also gain permanent quirks from their exposure to trauma, both positive (e.g. a hatred for the undead that causes bonus damage against that enemy type) or negative (e.g .kleptomania that makes them steals treasure in dungeons away from you).
A hero’s stress level is a metric that must be managed as carefully as physical health while adventuring. If it reaches 100, the hero’s resolve will be tested, and if they fail the check (which happens most of the time), they will be struck with an affliction. Afflictions take various forms; abusive heroes turn on their comrades with verbal barbs that increase the recipient’s own stress; masochistic heroes may refuse healing or even stab themselves, and so on.
Hit 200 stress, and your hero will just flat out have a heart attack. Look, fighting a giant ectoplasmic jelly in which the bones of a previous victim are visibly suspended is clearly a worrying activity.
If heart attacks or cumulative battle wounds cause a hero’s health to hit zero, it initiates the game’s “Death’s Door” state. The fate of any hero at Death’s Door is in the hands of the RNG any time they receive further damage; they may survive, or instead be killed – permanently. As the death of a capable (or favourite) hero is often a grievous blow, it’s a game mechanic that may often cause you to whisper “please please please” or yell “NOOOO!” at your computer.
Get used to it. Many heroes come to the hamlet and few will ever leave again, the town’s graveyard piling up in testament to your failures.
Darkest Dungeon is a game that loves you to make tough choices, many of them not just in the actual dungeons but back in the hamlet, where your heroes (living AND dead) can be found between expeditions. While Darkest Dungeon is an RPG, it could also be accurately described gameplay wise as something like Dungeon Adventurer Manager 2016.
Adventuring brings in treasure, and treasure can be spent to have heroes learn new skills, to improve their weapons and armour, or to send them off to the tavern, church or sanitarium to try to recover from the horrors of the last mission. Recuperating activities take a hero a week – or one dungeon expedition’s worth of time – which also necessitates the need to have multiple hero squads on the go.
Inevitably, there most often isn’t quite enough gold to get everything important done. This might mean that a party’s crucial healer has to start the next mission while not fully recovered from the stresses of her last, or that your adventurers might not be able to provision themselves with all the food they need – or all the torches, forcing the party to creep more fearfully through the gloom, and to deal with harder-hitting monsters.
If all this sounds tricky, it is. What seems like the easiest missions can sometimes unravel very quickly. Traps snare your heroes at every turn, boss fights especially are especially uncompromising, and almost every stats-buffing trinket comes with an accompanying penalty to some other stat. Even a hero’s trip to the tavern to forget seeing a half-corroded face in that ectoplasmic jelly might result in debilitating permanent alcoholism.
But the game seems remarkably finely tuned to the point where things seem tough, but not unfair. Most often it feels like the player’s own choice that is either vindicated or comes back to bite them, both in battle and elsewhere – it’s remarkable, for instance, how often you find yourself trying to decide if you should throw away the last of your bandages in order to carry more treasure. Calamitous party wipes may occur, but after pouring one out for Dismas the bulimic highwayman, you’ll pick yourself up again, determined to avenge him.
Even so, none of it would probably work without the game’s tone-nailing presentation. The game’s woodcut-style artwork looks gorgeous, and does a lot with the help of clever use of camera movement, creature-specific add-on effects and good sound design – though you’re actually looking at what is effectively a still picture, you’ll feel like you saw and heard a carnivorous worm stretch out and bite an armoured knight.
But MVP here is the narration, which is probably the most pitch-perfect and integral to the success of its game since Bastion. The Ancestor commentates and recounts in a way that simply couldn’t instil the eldritch atmosphere the game’s creators are clearly aiming for any better. Whether he’s commenting on the action in dungeons or explaining the backstory of the various horrors the heroes must face (“To reassert my rule, I sought out unscrupulous men skilled in the application of force”), his lamentations, warnings and exclamations (“A decisive pummelling!”) never get old.
What’s not to like? Although there’s a bit of variation to mission types, there’s little to the randomly generated corridors and rooms of non-boss missions, and the game’s systems require you to grind up a good stock of characters to challenge the later dungeons, which can get a bit work-like at times. Ultimately though, it’s never too bad, because there’s always new class combinations to explore and new heroes fresh off the stage coach to foolishly get emotionally invested in.
First and foremost, Darkest Dungeon is a concept game that has hit its mark perfectly, a tonal masterpiece where everything from the art to sound, writing, difficulty levels and gameplay features contributes perfectly towards the whole picture that the developers aimed to paint. Turn off the lights, place a single lit candle next to your monitor, and creep hesitantly forward into its dark spaces; the way ahead will be hard, but the rewards are substantial.