Darkest Dungeon does not hold your hand. Mistakes are harshly punished at the flick of a wrist and mismanagement of your resources is a fatal error you won’t make twice. The game, by Red Hook Studios, is a carefully crafted, 2D gothic dungeon crawler, and wears its Lovecraftian influences on its sleeve. A successful Kickstarter campaign brought this game into the public eye, and almost two years on, it’s finally been released.
The game hosts 14 unique hero classes, each with their own style and takes on combat. Your teams consist of four of these heroes who interact with each other differently. A combination of turn based combat, and the way your heroes work as a team, allows for an enjoyable in-depth level of tactical thinking playing out throughout the game; and if you want to survive, you’re going to have to think ahead. Death is most certainly the end for your heroes, and whilst you can replace them, there’s simply no method of gaining your favourite hero back – and that includes going back to previous saves.
One of the more prominent ways in which Darkest Dungeon differs itself from other games is its more ‘realistic’ approach to dungeon crawling. No one could plausibly spend so much time in such horrible conditions and not be the least affected by their surroundings. The affliction system makes use of these stresses. Fail to manage your teams’ mental states, and you’ll have a crippled group of paranoid, greedy, hopeless champions who can’t work with one another, let alone take orders from yourself. This creates an interesting dynamic to combat; more aggressive, hard hitting opponents pose a more immediate threat, but that weaker looking monster at the back will likely make up for its frail form by producing stress, and that’s going to add up over time – can you afford to take on any more stress?
Once a certain level of stress has been reached, a hero will gain an affliction, a debuff that’s permanent unless you splash out a sizeable amount back at your town for some destress time. Fail to do this, and they’ll eventually die from a heart attack.
The town acts as a hub to organise your heroes when not dungeon crawling. Various upgrades, shops and methods of destressing are available, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. The game encourages you to take on multiple teams as destressing takes time, and while a champion is visiting the brothel or flagellating themselves with a whip in the chapel, they’re going to be unavailable for your next mission. This creates an interesting juggling act which forces you to repeat earlier content to level up alternative heroes. Luckily, depending on the dungeon you choose to visit, this can be a short experience, so repetitiveness doesn’t become much of a problem.
One of the game’s biggest strengths is the atmosphere it creates. The art style, music and narration blend seamlessly together and more than make up for what little story there is guiding your efforts. The aesthetic of the game won’t appeal to everyone, but the gameplay on its own is more than enough to keep the attention of those who don’t actively seek out dark fantasy as a genre, but those who do will enjoy all the plague doctors, gothic jesters and occultists that their heart can take.
So often it is that we see Kickstarter games so overrun by feature creep from stretch goals that the company buckles under the task they’ve set themselves and fails to deliver, making their game feel incomplete when released. Worse yet, we simply never see those early access games released full stop. Darkest Dungeon is the little game that could and will act as an example to all future game Kickstarters. Red Hook Studios were sensible and realistic in what they promised, and as a result, released a full and polished game that’s enjoyable as it is unforgiving; and this game is very, very, unforgiving.