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.