In Time, You Will Know the Tragic Extent of My Failings...
The Darkest Dungeon by Red Hook Studios is a side-scrolling, dungeon-crawling RPG that has me absolutely encapsulated at the moment. Though I've only spent about eleven hours adventuring, the impression it's left on me has been significant enough that I am abandoning protocol and writing about a non-Blizzard game in this space for the first time since this blog's inception five years ago.
This isn't your typical dungeon crawler, though it has many of the standard elements: terrifying foes to battle against, a variety of items and trinkets to use on your characters, currency used to upgrade/augment characters, and a progression system. However, this isn't a hack-and-slash game; combat is turn-based, and feels surprisingly fluid---well, as fluid as turn-based combat can be. I think this is due to the variety of classes in the game in addition to the gritty-cartoony art style.
The core element of the game involves building a party of four characters and sending them into various dungeons in search of gold and family heirlooms---the former used to purchase mission supplies and rest your characters, the latter used to upgrade various buildings/areas around the Hamlet, your base of operations when not in a dungeon. The game informs you right off that your outlook is bleak, which sets a curiously dark and humorous tone. Many of your characters will most definitely perish, you're told, and death is permanent. But, like in Warcraft, it's only a setback.
Experiencing the Characters
What really made the experience feel unique was the Darkest Dungeon's approach to characters. Characters are recruited without cost at the Stagecoach, which is one of several areas/buildings in the Hamlet. There are fifteen different classes who can show up at the Stagecoach, with new characters arriving each week (note: weeks in game are measured by mission; i.e. once you embark on a mission, on your return the game will denote a week has passed). I haven't been able to get a full reading on class types, but it seems standard RPG fare: there are tanks, damage-dealers, support/buff classes and healers, though there's quite a bit of nuance given there's 15 classes spanning the four categories I've listed.
Each character, in addition to their base stats and abilities, has the chance to carry unique "Quirks," which are essentially attributes that can have either positive or negative effects. For instance, a character could feature a 15% damage increase to human enemies as a positive quirk; a negative quirk might see a character's attack speed diminished for the first round of combat. There looks to be over 100 different Quirks, so the possibility for combinations is numerous. Over time, the characters will acquire additional positive and negative Quirks (or replace ones they previously had) based on how well or poorly they perform in dungeons.
Another character element I found interesting has to do with one of the game's mechanics: Stress Level. In addition to managing your characters' health, you must also manage your character's stress levels. A character's stress is affected by all sorts of things: the simple fact of being in a dungeon, the amount of light in a dungeon, stepping on a trap, interacting improperly with "Curios" (special items) in the dungeon, taking a critical hit, and so on.
The stress bar starts at 0 and goes up to 200. If a character's stress bar reaches 100, their resolve is tested and they will either gain an affliction (debuff) or become virtuous (buff). Afflictions are interesting as they can cause your character to harm themselves, eschew heals from other party members, or outright refuse your orders. This, as you can imagine, can be detrimental to the party's success. I found myself cursing certain characters when they let stress get the best of them---even if partly my fault---and cheering those who persevered and became virtuous in the face of strong adversity.
What happens when a character's stress level maxes out? We'll find out.
Each character class also has a distinct personality which reveals itself through fully voiced chat when traversing the dungeon. It is pretty hilarious listening to your characters having a complete meltdown in the middle of a dungeon run.
All that said, the characters really bring this game to life: not only are you fighting against the monsters in the dungeons, you're also fighting against the sanity of your own characters. They end up feeling more real. This opens up an avenue for complex decision-making, and as a result there is a feeling of loss when a character dies---even if it's promised to be a relatively regular occurrence. We're so used to playing RPG's where the character's own thoughts, feelings, and motivations are assumed to be unflawed. The Darkest Dungeon turns that idea on its head, and as a result brings a peculiar amount of humanity to its characters.
Once Again, You Will Die
Part of me scoffed a bit when the gamed warned me at the outset that I should expect to lose characters. I thought to myself, yeah, the game is probably tuned to be challenging but if I play ultra-conservatively I should be able to make it through unscathed.
Nope. It's probably a challenge every player issues themselves at the onset, and I'm not saying it's impossible, but it's highly improbable you will finish this game without experiencing loss.
Screw it, it's impossible.
The first character I lost was a ranged damage-dealer. She took a couple of nasty crits which not only left her health at dangerously low levels, but it sent her stress over 100. Her resolve failed and she gained the Masochistic affliction, causing her to chip away at her own health points in addition to a handful of other actions that put the party in jeopardy. She soon found herself on Death's Door, which is the game state where the character is essentially one more hit away from death. Due to the turn-based nature of combat I was unable to toss her a heal before she was targeted by the enemy, and she fell.
Thankfully, the other three party members survived and were able to abandon the quest and flee the dungeon without further loss.
The next time I lost a character, the impact was much greater. With a group of my four most seasoned adventurers, I stumbled upon a certain monster that will wreak havoc on your party if you're unprepared---though I didn't know this at the time. I watched in absolute horror as my party became overwhelmed. Hit points dwindled and stress levels shot through the roof.
Suddenly, one of my characters died...from a heart attack. The sheer terror of the encounter maxed their stress level and their body couldn't take it anymore. They keeled right over. A bit amused at what just went down, I nonetheless thought it a good time to make a retreat, which is a command available to players engaged in battle.
Except, sometimes in the Darkest Dungeon as in life, retreating doesn't work. Instead of watching my characters flee to safety, I watched helplessly as the retreat failed and two more party members succumbed to heart attacks, while the third was finished off by the monster's attacks.
The entire party of my most seasoned adventurers was dead. And with them all of the gold and items they looted, all of the trinkets I'd equipped them with before sending them into battle, were lost.
Two Sides to the Coin - The Hamlet
Dungeoneering is really half the game---well, more than half, as you'll spend a majority of time in dungeons, but a key component to being successful in said dungeons is the prep phase. The entirety of the prep phase takes place in the Hamlet before a mission.
The Hamlet features a variety of buildings/areas that serve to help you on your quest to finish the game. The Stagecoach, which I mentioned above, serves as the place where you recruit new characters, increase your overall roster size, and increase the base level of recruited characters (as they initially start at level 0). Both the Abbey and the Tavern are buildings where you can send your characters to relieve stress and be cured of Afflictions they may have acquired during a mission.
But true to the game's nature, even these simple activities don't always go as planned. For instance, several times after sending a character to the Tavern for a night of drinking they decided to tie one on and refused to leave the bar. Meaning they were unavailable for the next mission.
In another hilarious turn of events, I sent a character to the Tavern for a visit to the brothel where he contracted syphilis, which ended up giving him a negative Quirk that adversely affected combat prowess.
The Sanitarium is where you can remove negative Quirks or lock in positive Quirks; however, this costs a significant amount of gold, and seems like an element that's best left alone until the later stages of the game where you're being more strategic about party composition and engaging in more difficult dungeon runs.
There are also a couple of buildings where you can upgrade your various characters' skills, as well as upgrade their armor and weapons.
This game is designed to be a slog. It is supposed to take you a while to master. After the 11 hours I've spent, I have yet to embark on a 2nd-tier mission, opting instead to play it safe by leveling up characters on 1st-tier missions.
As mentioned above, characters start at level zero and can reach up to Level 6. I'm assuming you'll need a full party of Level 6 characters in order to tackle the game's most difficult challenges. I decided to level up a core set of characters to 3, then send them in to obliterate the 1st-tier missions in an effort to stock up on heirlooms and gold. Problem was, when it was time to embark, all of my Level 3 characters refused the order.
I scoffed once again. Apparently, the low-level quests were beneath their experience. My own characters weren't listening to me. In truth, it's a neat mechanic that prevents a player from essentially gaming the system. Without it, one could simply re-run early missions until they had max-level characters, and then smash through the rest of the game with relative ease.
Based on my experience thus far, I can only imagine the completion of this game will take several dozens of hours. And I'm cool with that.
The Darkest Dungeon on its surface may look like your typical turn-based dungeon crawler, but I'd argue it's the development of the characters and the randomness within that set this game apart. Fortune and Despair can strike at a moment's notice and without warning, just like in life. It laughs at the notion that "heroes always win." Heroes don't always win, and there often needs to be sacrifice before triumph. The Darkest Dungeon brings that home, and then some.
If you hate turn-based combat, you're probably not going to like the Darkest Dungeon. I'm lukewarm on turn-based games, and while things definitely do get repetitive and can seem slow at times, the unpredictability in how the characters might react to any given situation breathes life into this game. I won't say this is a must-have, though you'll probably enjoy it if turn-based is your thing. At minimum, I'd toss it onto your Steam wishlist and wait for that $25 price tag to drop. Definitely worth the $10 I paid for it.