Dark­est Dun­geon

PC, PS4, Vita


De­vel­op­ing Dark­est Dun­geon over the course of a year in Early Ac­cess must have felt a lot like play­ing it: spin­ning plates, strug­gling to rec­on­cile nested sys­tems de­ter­mined to dis­agree. You spot a wob­ble, ad­just and at­tempt to re­cover, but grav­ity takes hold – math­e­mat­i­cally, you’re doomed. If you’re not clob­bered by the game’s hor­rors, you might run out of cash cur­ing he­roes of ra­bies. Push­ing them back into the dark too soon could in­duce a heart at­tack, or their minds might snap, or they could die of hunger. Ev­ery con­ceiv­able step is a fur­ther de­scent into in­san­ity. It’s this as­tound­ing con­flu­ence of sys­tems, in a per­fect state of im­bal­ance, that makes this one of the most en­thralling games to crawl from the Rogue­like ca­daver.

It’s also one of few games to ex­ploit and, to an ex­tent, em­u­late the works of HP Love­craft suc­cess­fully. It owes not so much a debt as a fam­ily for­tune to The Rats In The Walls, a tale of an old fam­ily home on a crag that calls its owner into the depths and to mad­ness, but it bor­rows from the breadth of Love­craft’s bes­tiary. In Dark­est Dun­geon, a re­la­tion writes to you, con­fess­ing his folly at seek­ing for­bid­den pow­ers deep in his es­tate’s foun­da­tions, un­leash­ing – as tra­di­tion dic­tates – name­less hor­rors. As heir to the fam­ily seat, you’re hon­our-bound to erad­i­cate the evil.

This sort of pest con­trol is not a one-man job: from the ham­let at the foot of the crag, you com­mand a gag­gle of ad­ven­tur­ers of var­i­ous classes, from the brawl­ing and buff­ing Man-At-Arms to the shapeshift­ing Abom­i­na­tion. You dis­patch four on any one run, and the vi­able com­bi­na­tions are de­light­fully many. Each class is a mean­ing­ful vari­a­tion on its com­rades, so you have the op­tion of re­cruit­ing mul­ti­ple he­roes of a se­lect few classes to con­tin­u­ally field par­ties you feel com­fort­able with, or to di­ver­sify, con­fi­dent that there will be some­thing in your tool­box for ev­ery en­counter. The Vestal, for in­stance, is an all-round healer and sup­port char­ac­ter – she has a weedy sin­gle-tar­get heal, a still weaker group heal, and a stun. Her op­po­site num­ber is the Oc­cultist, who has a fe­ro­cious sin­gle-tar­get heal that comes with an un­for­tu­nate risk of bleed­ing.

Th­ese spells are the core of straight­for­ward, turn-based bat­tling. While crawl­ing pro­ce­du­rally gen­er­ated dun­geons, ghoulies will spring up and trade blows with you un­til none re­main, you fall in bat­tle, or you leg it. The mis­sions that space out the story-cen­tric boss fights typ­i­cally re­quire you to kill ev­ery hor­ror in the dun­geon, or ex­plore a given per­cent­age of rooms – there are other kinds, but th­ese are the sta­ples, and for the first and fi­nal hours in par­tic­u­lar the rote na­ture of it can be wear­ing. You’ll need at least three full max-level par­ties to beat the game, so there’s no avoid­ing some grind­ing. In ad­di­tion, though the comic book art­work is uni­formly out­stand­ing, there’s lit­tle va­ri­ety within each dun­geon. How­ever, Dark­est Dun­geon’s strength isn’t the range of its ac­tiv­i­ties, but the num­ber of ways in which its lim­ited menu can go badly wrong.

It’s a sur­prise to find that this re­lent­less nu­mer­i­cal tangle of a dun­geon crawler is a hu­man story

It’s a sur­prise to find that this re­lent­less nu­mer­i­cal tangle of a dun­geon crawler is a hu­man story. More in­ter­est­ing than the spells he­roes can sling at the en­emy is how their char­ac­ter de­vel­ops in the face of dark­ness. Along with phys­i­cal wounds, con­fronting mon­sters is a source of stress, as is the gut­ter­ing light of a dy­ing torch, stum­bling into traps or read­ing un­set­tling pas­sages from dusty tomes. If an ad­ven­turer’s stress passes a cer­tain point, their re­solve is tested, some­times re­sult­ing in a pow­er­ful se­cond wind, but most of­ten has­ten­ing de­men­tia. They de­velop an Af­flic­tion, be­com­ing abu­sive, hope­less, self­ish or some­thing worse. Selfish­ness is bad enough, the suf­ferer of­ten shuf­fling to the back of the party in the in­ter­est of self­p­reser­va­tion. Mad­ness, mean­while, de­stroys groups from within. Ev­ery char­ac­ter has quirks, too: per­son­al­ity flaws that may mean they’re ob­sessed with corpses, col­lect­ing dis­eases quicker, or they suf­fer klep­to­ma­nia, pock­et­ing loot left, right and cen­tre. A scat­ter­shot Ar­balest with a lazy eye was a dis­as­trous com­bi­na­tion.

Thank­fully, the ham­let al­lows he­roes to de-stress, be purged of dis­ease and re­ceive coun­selling. The dun­geon crawl doesn’t re­ally end when you com­plete a mis­sion – the next cru­cial test is of your bud­get­ing. Each de­buff re­quires gold and pa­tience to re­move, and only one can be treated at a time. Worse, what­ever treat­ment op­tion you choose, that hero will be un­avail­able for the next mis­sion. In town, the truly ag­o­nis­ing choices present them­selves: is it bet­ter to ad­dress your Cru­sader’s masochism, which lim­its heal­ing, or treat his lethargy? If he’s par­tic­u­larly awk­ward, he’ll refuse to de-stress through any­thing other than a favourite pas­time, such as gam­bling or flag­el­la­tion, ac­tiv­i­ties that can be locked out tem­po­rar­ily by the ham­let’s wan­der­ing care­taker.

Mi­cro-man­ag­ing your party is de­mand­ing, but it’s sui­cide to ne­glect longterm pro­gres­sion. The dun­geon is wax­ing in power, and if your ad­ven­tur­ers don’t keep up, you’ll hit a dif­fi­culty wall be­fore per­madeath forces you back to the main menu. The Guild and Black­smith be­come yet an­other drain on your funds, al­low­ing you to upgrade skills and gear for an ex­tra edge.

The dif­fer­ent sys­tems within Dark­est Dun­geon are so densely coiled that it be­comes im­pos­si­ble to see where one ends and the next takes over. This is an hon­est, hardcore dun­geon crawler propped up by nested math­e­mat­ics and – nat­u­rally – dice rolls, but their in­ter­ac­tions are so oc­cult that there’s no gam­ing the sys­tem, no snappy cal­cu­la­tion you can per­form to ar­rive at the best course of ac­tion. You’re left to rely on gut feel­ing and a gag­gle of have-a-go he­roes who are haem­or­rhag­ing their mar­bles – the har­row­ing, cap­ti­vat­ing re­al­ity of ad­ven­ture.

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