Darkest Dungeon

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You remember our venerable house? Opulent and imperial…

Darkest Dungeon is an example of how early access works when done correctly. I feel like I’ve been playing the game for a lot longer than its actually been out: I purchased it as a recommendation ages ago when it was an early access title. I loved it then, and I love how the final title has developed in response to the early access feedback.

The game itself takes place in a dystopian dark fantasy village at the foot of a house you inherit from one of your ancestors. As the opening sequence explains, your ancestor tired of “conventional extravagance” and took to spending the family fortune chasing legends of things buried beneath the house. In true Lovecraftian style, however, he delved too deep and was not prepared for what he found…

As the new master of the house, your charge is to repair and upgrade the village by completing expeditions into the surrounding corrupted countryside to recover treasure and heirlooms of your house. As you do, the roster of adventurers you have will expand and increase in experience, allowing you to take on more challenging expeditions, with the ultimate aim being to rid your house of the evil which has claimed it.

The village itself comprises several locations, such as the blacksmith, church, inn and sanatorium. Each of these allows you to provide respite to your heroes, recruit new adventurers and upgrade their equipment.

Rest and respite are key in this game: your heroes will suffer psychological damage as they wander the corrupted ruins and countryside. This will increase their stress levels and high levels of stress will cause all manner of unusual reactions. For example, a character under extreme stress that takes a particularly heavy hit from an enemy may develop masochistic tendencies, resulting in them stepping in to take hits meant for other characters. They may also refuse healing from support characters, and have verbal outbursts that increase the stress of other characters.

Not all stress conditions are negative, however: sometimes a character may rally when their resolve is tested by stress, causing them to become heroic. Heroic characters will have a variety of stat boosts and have a positive effect on other characters in the party.

Party selection in this game is key, too. Before each expedition you choose which characters you want to take on the mission. Each character will have a preferred position in the party rank depending on their abilities. Healers and support characters will prefer to be at the back of the ranks, while crusaders and fighters will prefer to be at the front. This preference isn’t just arbitrary either: some abilities can’t be used if the character is at the front or back, which makes ordering your party just as much of a key strategy as working out which combination of character classes work well together.

Exploration takes the form of side-scrolling corridors which link various rooms.

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Corridors can be empty, or can contain battles, curious items, traps, obstacles and other secrets. Rooms have similar properties, and proper provision is required to get past them. True, you can move all those rotten corpses out of the way with your bare hands, but the chances of disease and psychological damage increase if you do this.

Key to exploration is your light. Your party carries torches which help keep the darkness at bay: the higher the light level, the less powerful the monsters you’ll encounter are, but the darker things get, the better the loot you’ll find. Lower light levels also reduce your chances of spotting traps, and increases the stress on your characters, so finding a good balance is key.

Battles against monsters are turn-based, with faster characters getting to act first. Sufficiently fast characters may get multiple actions per turn.

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As monsters fall, the order of their ranks will change, altering abilities they can use, meaning that you’ll have shift your own tactics as the battle develops. Some monsters have abilities which can affect the order of your squad, too, meaning you’ll have to spend valuable turns repositioning your characters – assuming your characters will let you! Additionally, some monsters are so horrific, or have special abilities that directly attack the mind, increasing the stress on your party.

Things like this are why I hold this game up as early access done right. In early builds of the game, dead monsters simply vanished. Then they left behind corpses, which could restrict your front-rank’s access to attack monsters in the back ranks. Some felt that this made the game more challenging, others said it made the game too hard, particularly on higher level quests. So what did Red Hook do? They configured an option: corpses can be turned on or off if you like – this way both sets of people can play the game the way they like.

They also re-worked the way stress worked. In early builds, high stress just meant your characters were more likely to develop personality quirks and do strange things, but otherwise had little effect. Now the stress meter will fill twice: once with a hollow bar, as in the screenshot above, and again with a solid bar. When the solid bar fills, your character will have a stress-related heart seizure and will likely die. This means that managing the stress levels of your squad is key to getting anywhere in this game.

Stress can be reduced in town by drinking, gambling, praying, visiting brothels or flagellating… Some characters will develop personality quirks that mean they will only relieve stress in one way, and may become addicted to that stress relief, further pushing them into the realms of madness.

Personality quirks and diseases can be removed by visits to the sanatorium, but this itself can increase stress. More “exotic” conditions and diseases can cost a lot more and take a lot longer to cure, meaning that managing your cash flow and your hero roster is also key. Sometimes you’ll find you’ll just have to leave some heroes back in town and cure them later.

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There will inevitably be times when quests fail: you’ll have to taste the bitterness of defeat and retreat. This will also affect the mental state of your heroes: retreat too many times and you’ll find that adventurers will develop cowardly traits, making it still harder to accomplish goals.

The way the game makes you feel invested in the party you send into the unknown is very skilfully accomplished. By means of giving the characters some power, you feel as though you want them to survive, and the atmosphere of their journey through the dungeons is further enhanced by one of the best narrator voices I have ever heard. Strike a critical hit and you’ll be told something along the lines of: “Morale surges as the enemy crumbles!” but similarly, defeat carries commentary too…

This is one of the game’s best accomplishments, even when you realise what’s going on. You are sat in your house, sending gangs of adventurers and swarthy workmen to do your dirty work for you… You have no avatar in the dungeon yourself, and you don’t lose even if all the party dies. True, its a setback to your plans, but there are always more adventure seekers ready to pit their mettle against the horrors and corruption of the pit… This makes having another go an easy thing to do, and as each dungeon is generated randomly in a Rogue-like manner, no play through will ever be exactly the same. Further adding to the differences in play-throughs that are possible is the different character classes: experimenting with how they work together can give some powerful results, but on the flip-side, not all squads will work effectively together.

You are also prevented from power-levelling your favourite heroes by sending them through lower-level quests repeatedly. Try to drag a level 3 hero into a squad on a level 1 mission and they’ll refuse to go: how can they get better if they’re not tested? Similarly, try sending a level 1 hero on level 6 quest, and they’ll chicken out, stating flat-out that such an attempt would be suicide… They’re not wrong!

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Fortunately, defeating all the monsters isn’t necessarily a condition of completing a quest. Some will have you defeat a certain enemy, others explore a certain amount of rooms, while others require you to clear all rooms of enemies. Longer quests will require you to manage your squad’s supplies of firewood for camping and food for staving away hunger. If you don’t bring enough, stress and hunger will hamper and cripple your efforts…

The sound effects are excellent, from the insane gibbering of mad cultists to the sounds of eldritch horrors, a lot of effort has been put into making them as absorbing and as atmospheric as possible, and the same goes for the music. The sounds also subtly change as conditions alter: if your heroes are near-death, you’ll be able to hear their hearts beating; low light amplifies the sounds of monsters, and that narrator!

The graphics are slick and crisp, and the art style is reminiscent of a graphic novel. Attack and defend animations are simple two-frame snap animations, but it all fits in with the graphic novel aesthetic I mentioned earlier, and gives the game’s combat sequences a rapid-fire feel that can be missing from some squad-based, turn-based games.

The Bottom Line: All of the game’s components combine to make a game that is easy to play yet difficult and challenging in extremes in places. The depth that you’re required to think to in managing your hero roster and your town’s upgrades make this a refreshing change from a lot of Rogue-likes out there, and adds an extra layer of challenge that just makes you keep coming back for more. The simplicity of obtaining and performing quests, and of dusting yourself off in the event of a wipe and getting back into the thick of things makes this a very addictive title indeed.

You remember our venerable house? Opulent and imperial…

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