Darkest Dungeon – What We Think:
Darkest Dungeon hasn’t changed much since we reviewed it in Early Access. Red Hook Studios‘ stylized, Lovecraftian take on turn-based, procedurally generated dungeon crawling was already super compelling, not to mention gorgeous. Now? Well, now it’s near perfect.
Landlord of Darkness
There’s been little change to the game’s overall concept.
You’re still a “manager” of sorts, to a revolving stable of adventurers, slowly grinding away at the physical and spiritual corruption that has overtaken your ancestral estate. No thanks to your recently deceased relative, whose greedy search for treasure led him to places mankind shouldn’t venture and unleashed a bunch of gross monsters and weird cultists to terrorize the countryside and depreciate your property values.
You’ll be putting together parties of adventurers to explore the various dungeons of the property through turn-based combat. Fights are generally in the JRPG mold, with lots of special abilities to trigger, but there are some fairly unique factors to keep things interesting.
For one thing, combat takes place in a 2D plane, but positioning is incredibly important. Melee characters need to be in front, ranged attackers in the back, and even within the same character class, certain abilities can only be used from certain spots in the line-up. The Vestal – a sort of female paladin or warrior nun – can move up front and club at her opponents, or hang out in the back and function as a healer, depending on the make-up of the rest of your party.
Then, there are corpses. Kill an enemy, and there’s a corpse left behind. This can get awkward. If your party is focused on close combat and you’re up against an enemy with ranged attacks, you’re going to have to clear those corpses out of the way to get your target.
This entire mechanic is a bit controversial, and not entirely realistic, but it fits with the stylized nature of the game itself and adds to the sense of claustrophobia. (The corpse option can be disabled in the options menu, but that would be a shame; it really does make for a unique, more interesting approach to party positioning in combat.)
Similarly stylized is the game’s stress mechanic. An over-the-top version of the Sanity statistic in the Call of Cthulhu tabletop game, stress builds up in your characters as they face the various horrors inherent to the dungeon-crawling profession. The higher their stress goes, the more likely they are to develop various Quirks, like kleptomania or fear of the dark.
Let the stress get high enough, and they’ll keel over dead from a heart attack – another controversial mechanic that once again adds to the game’s uniqueness.
It should of course be noted that, as in the real world, post-traumatic stress and its associated symptoms can be reliably reduced via drinking, gambling and prostitution. Religious characters can also visit the Abbey for prayers, meditation and acts of contrition…though that’s a bit less fun.
Deeper, Darker, Better, More
If you haven’t visited the dungeon since Early Access, you’ll be pleased to know that there’s some new content!
For starters, there’s a new character class to add to your stable of dungeon-delving malcontents. Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for…The Abomination! Somewhere between a werewolf and a demon, this tortured soul can metamorphose into a raging devil-beast! That’s great and all, but terrifying enough to witness that your other party members will automatically take a stress penalty. And religious characters will refuse to be around The Abomination at all.
There’s also a new area to explore: the Cove. Suffice it to say that if the allusions to tentacled, other-dimensional monstrosities, depraved subhuman cultists and haunted, crumbling architecture weren’t enough to convey Darkest Dungeon’s obvious Lovecraft influences, a visit to the Cove will surely end any remaining doubts. Its primary inhabitants are hideous human/fish hybrids straight out of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”
Then there’s the endgame: the titular Darkest Dungeon beneath the manor itself. The less said about the gibbering, blasphemous horrors haunting that damnable portal of antediluvian evil the better…but be warned, it’s not going to be easy getting there. If you make it that far, you’ll be worried less about your sanity than simply staying alive…
Three Cheers for Death and Madness
In its finished state, Darkest Dungeon is a success on every level. Viewing it purely as a game, it’s a fascinating exploration of simplified Roguelike tropes, accessible enough to easily jump into but challenging enough to require constant forethought, careful strategy and a not a little luck.
Then there’s the art: grim and foreboding, with thick black lines and sharp angles that recall Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, it’s a perfect accompaniment to the exaggerated themes of physical and psychological horror. And those themes, that writing! It’s over the top in the way of the best Lovecraft pastiches – it takes guts to throw a word like “tenebrous” into the intro cinematic – but stops just short of actual camp.
It’s impressive and a bit rare to see a game commit so wholeheartedly to its aesthetic and atmosphere the way Red Hook Studios have done with Darkest Dungeon. It’s rarer and more impressive still that the game itself is so compelling.
Darkest Dungeon is available via Steam.
Watch the trailer for Darkest Dungeon below: