Meh, I’ve seen darker.
The early access version of Darkest Dungeon isn’t subtle. From the very start, it covers the screen with shadows, decaying mass, and long gravely speeches about horror and madness. Underneath the squalor is a team management rogue-like with mechanics to match its flair. While it still has a few rough edges to work out, Darkest Dungeon is solid fun that is absolutely worth its 20 dollar asking price.
The gameplay is a delightful mix of rogue-like, RPG, and squad based management elements. The player controls a group of mercenaries tasked with exploring the corrupted grounds of his ancestral home. Mercenaries come from a wide variety of classes with an interesting array of abilities. Once the team is set and provisioned, it’s time to explore a dungeon. Dungeons are randomly generated maps with monsters, loot, and traps populating rooms and hallways. While this is all standard for the genre, Darkest Dungeons differs substantially when it comes to the fights and party management. During fights, the two sides are lined up in single file. Attacks are restricted based on where in the line a character and their opponent is. A skeleton archer can fire devastating arrows from the back to positions, but must use far weaker attacks in the front two. This opens up considerable strategic gameplay as the player must manage both the position of their characters and their opponents. The difference between an overwhelming victory and total defeat often hinge on position management.
The other major combat mechanic is stress. Darkest Dungeon is a frightening place and the mercenaries feel it. Each has a stress meter that reflects their mental state. Should the stress meter reach 100, the mercenary has a psychotic break and engages in self-destructive behavior. Stress can be managed on the battlefield, but the only way to truly address it is in town. This creates a tension between continuing on to the next fight and pulling an otherwise healthy party before they go crazy. Fortunately, the starting hamlet that acts as a home base and has plenty of ways to address the mental decline of its denizens. Mercenaries can engage in gambling, prayer, and flagellation to heal their minds…and empty the player’s coffers. Money is tight in Darkest Dungeon, as are other resources. Heirlooms found in the dungeons are used to upgrade facilities such as a blacksmith to improve weaponry or a wagon to improve recruits. The constant tension between available resources and need make for tough decisions during the game.
Beyond the gameplay, Darkest Dungeon invests heavily in a Lovecratian mood. The opening cinematic sets up a story of greed, ambition, and eldritch horror. The player takes the reins of the last scion of a once noble family line who has been summoned to his ancestral manner to rid it of the corruption that has taken hold. And the corruption is quite evident. The home base, a hamlet outside of your dungeons, is a collapsing ruin covered in darkness, even during the day. The town is populated by dark manifestations of traditional townsfolk including a maddened caretaker who indulges his vices in hopes of dealing with his suffering. When dungeon crawling, the setting is similarly decrepit with rot infused into every wall and tree. Enemies are gruesome manifestations of popular tropes. They don’t often show creativity in their design, but the rotting skeleton and bloodthirsty demon fit right in among the horror themed setting. The game drops in periodic bits of story about how the player’s family corrupted the land, but it isn’t the focus. Darkest Dungeon cares more about its aesthetics and creating a feeling of decay and dread than it does setting out a complex narrative.
Sadly, the atmosphere the game works so hard to inspire is undermined by the very nature of the genre. Rogue-likes encourage repeated death which numbs the player to its existence. The lovingly crafted dungeons become less horrific with each passing and the brief mercenary monologues express anguish or hope quickly become frustrating delays in gameplay. Between mercenaries missing attacks and cries of fear, Darkest Dungeon can prevent the player from effecting the gamestate for tens of seconds. It’s frustrating to watch the game play without the player’s input, particularly during a tough battle. There are a few other issues, such as an unwieldy mercenary menu and difficulty spikes, but they are forgivable.
Darkest Dungeon delivers on its promise. From the tense battles to the moody setting, this is a balanced rogue-like with tons of fun to be had. There are certainly some areas to improve, but this early access title is a worthy purchase now. Go get it.