Mark Tilly gives an upfront and raw look at 2016’s relentless, Gothic dungeon crawler RPG.
In the vast catacombs of the tomb-like ruins, Perci is past the breaking point. Once a stalwart man-at-arms, Perci has become a quivering mess of disease and psychosis. The deaths of his fellow companions at the hands of the unspeakable horrors he has been sent to destroy has sent him reeling into madness. But salvation is just one mace blow away, he valiantly swings it at the gurgling, pus-covered nightmare only for it to hit-nothing. And in the next instant, Perci is gone, so too is my patience and at that point I rage quit.
Like the countless heroes I send off to their doom I feel a sense of dread when I load up rogue-like dungeon crawler Darkest Dungeon. Where once I was filled with excitement and confidence, now I feel battered and almost defeated by its punishing difficulty and the overwhelming immensity of the task ahead of me. At first I grew to love my little band of adventurers, now I treat them as meat for the grinder. This is by no means a criticism.
Wonderfully dark in every sense of the word, Darkest Dungeon charges you with restoring your family name. After a distant and decadent relative, bored with the mundanity of his wealth, digs up an ancient portal underneath his manor, unleashing basically Cthulhu & friends onto the world and then proceeds to kills himself – great guy. Then it’s up to you to purge the manor and the surrounding estate of the ungodly infestation your ancestor couldn’t.
To that end, the real heroes of Darkest Dungeon arrive, the plucky rogues gallery of adventurers, occultists and abominations, seeking riches and glory. From the rundown hamlet on the estate grounds, you team up four of your heroes, pack them some supplies, and send them off to one of the five locations around the estate to battle against evil, and there’s a pretty strong chance you’ll never see them again. That being said, planning in this game is everything, to the point where a shovel can make or break an expedition’s success. Each hero has their own strengths and weakness’s and each expedition has a different goal, from collecting food and medicine, activating holy shrines, to basically killing everything in sight, or at least trying to.
Indeed discretion is the better part of valour in Darkest Dungeon. Each location is randomly generated, and if a hero dies on a quest, they’re dead for good. It’s a relief then that you always have the option of abandoning the expedition and live to fight another day. However it is not only their physical health you have to worry about, but their mental health as well. Each character has a stress meter that increases the longer they’re out on an adventure. To make matters worse, specific monsters that your heroes will come up against specialise in attacks designed to stress out your heroes. Once the meter is maxed, your adventurer may grit their teeth and in a truly heroic moment, steel themselves against the darkness, but usually they’ll become hopeless, paranoid or abusive, stressing out your other heroes in the process.
While simple in design, it’s a clever and somewhat realistic depiction of what is basically PTSD in that heroes will carry over the stress from previous adventures with them. And so in the haven of the hamlet, you can send your heroes off to pray, gamble or drink their sorrows away. While this removes the stress, the long term quirks that have built up from facing the horrors can lead them to become a pale, quivering, dysfunctional shadow of their former selves. You can either sink money into getting these quirks and disease cured, but that’ll cost you, a lot, and in some cases it’s easier to dismiss lower level heroes who couldn’t quite handle it.
This process take its toll. I learnt very early on that there’s no point forming attachments to your heroes because that will probably be the time when they’ll get wiped out by a bandit’s cleaver or stressed out so much they will have a literal heart attack and drop dead. Grind is the name of the game, and as the graveyard in the estate becomes bigger and bigger, your resolve will become lower and lower.
This is the point where many players I think will get turned off by Darkest Dungeon, while its punishment is fair, it’s also brutal and uncompromising. Even the most well planned, well supplied forays into the abyss can go horribly wrong at almost any time.
But like a whipped dog, I always come back for more. Its addictive turn-based combat is engaging and exciting, its Gothic art style oozes with character. Throw in a fantastic voice over by Wayne June who brings gravitas and heightened drama to your descent into madness, and you’ve got a game that you really do love to hate. It is the epitome of a game that is easy to learn, and really, really, really hard to master.
As a result, Darkest Dungeon has my glowing recommendation. It is a fantastically bleak and depressing game that wraps its Lovecraftian tentacles around you and refuses to let go. I shall be returning to do battle with the creatures of the void, and although the task is terrible, I will relish every moment of it.