A werewolf, a paladin, a bandit, and a cleric walk into the abyss. The werewolf’s transformations startle and stress the psyche of the party. The paladin’s heart gives out. Our thief begins behaving irrationally. He compulsively opens suspicious chests and rifles through dead bodies. He falls gravely ill. Our cleric, pushed to the brink, finds resolve in faith. She fights back wave after wave of evil abominations far longer than she should. In time, she finds herself overwhelmed. Knowing that his friends broke down and died because of his monstrosity, the werewolf heads back into town, distraught, to self-flagellate and exchange his grief for blood.
That’s the kind of moribund humor Darkest Dungeon works with. Everything here is a little weird, and it’d be easy to pass it off as yet another game inspired by Lovecraftian horror, but Darkest Dungeon’s gameplay makes it so much more.
Darkest Dungeon sits in the roguelike genre–a game type often associated with randomly arranged rooms, permanent death, and the fear of what mysterious challenges lie ahead. Darkest Dungeon breaks from that tradition in that it lets you stock an entire roster of heroes, only a handful of which will be at risk on any given mission. Your goal is as much about managing all the resources at your disposal as it is protecting a given warrior from death or disease.
Each week (in the game) you send your quartet of champions out to one of four main areas in order to gather coin, accouterments, and experience required to tackle the eponymous Darkest Dungeon. These areas all have different enemy types and challenges that require specific strategies. Some need big, heavy-hitting brutes, while others require poison to get the job done, and the trick is to balance your adventuring party’s classes and tactics appropriately. That, however, is complicated by the fact that with each subsequent adventure, your soldiers inch closer to stress-induced heart attacks or debilitating diseases, to name a few possible downfalls.
While the death of one of your party members seems bad enough, it gets worse. Darkest Dungeon’s combat revolves around careful formations. Certain character classes are only useful in one or two of the four possible positions. Heavily armed warriors sit up front to protect the assortment of healers, occultists, and archers you can employ. As battles progress, however, your teams can be shuffled, and if anyone dies–on your side or your enemies’–you’ll have to form new strategies on the fly to keep up an effective force. It’s an excellent system that keeps players from ever settling in or feeling completely comfortable. It’s a complex system that gives you room to figure out your own ideal methods, but also forces you to manage your estate and the sanity of your band of mercenaries.
Stress too, takes its toll on everyone, and there are numerous events that can trigger it, including darkness, the untimely death of a comrade, or an unknowable eldritch horror.
After each adventure your troupe will return to your burgeoning hamlet. There, you can recruit, equip, and ease your legions of dungeon divers. Equipped with medical facilities, an abbey, a tavern, guilds, a blacksmith, and a stagecoach which constantly supplies you with new recruits, the hamlet serves as your headquarters in the war with the demons and devils found in the wilds. Here, you can upgrade your mercenaries’ weapons and train them in new abilities that can dramatically affect their usefulness in future expeditions. You also need to take great care to keep their minds intact as the game wears on.
Your team’s humanity becomes a persistent and pernicious obstacle of its own. Looting corpses can net an unwary adventurer a case of rabies. Stress too, takes its toll on everyone, and there are numerous events that can trigger it, including darkness, the untimely death of a comrade, or an unknowable horror. Successive expeditions are as sure to kill your favorite mercenary as anything else. So you have to commit them to a night of drinking or meditation to keep their mind and body in fighting condition. Diseases too can afflict your warriors, and you have to treat them at the sanitarium or deal with a hefty stat penalty.
But, these things take time. And while your cleric is relaxing in the brothel, she obviously can’t journey to ancient ruins and fell skeletal armies. Keeping solid party composition by matching classes, skills, specialties, and respective levels of experience is vital, but it’s complicated by the fact that everyone needs a break to heal mind and body. Brutal though that penance may seem, fool-hardy strategists quickly learn their lesson. Darkest Dungeon teaches its audience how to navigate unforgiving challenges, but the result is an immensely rewarding journey.
In building itself around the struggle of your hamlet and its people against the evil of the wilderness, Darkest Dungeon shifts its focus towards a set of tools for telling your own stories. It’s about more than your favorite squad and their journey, but about the people who had their own share of successful runs before quietly falling in an abandoned tomb. There is no one hero here: instead you find a sea of stories crafted jointly by you and the game.
Every mistake, every death, is on you. You didn’t prepare well enough, you pushed someone too hard, or you didn’t train them. Every mercenary who dies on your watch was your responsibility.
Darkest Dungeon is held together by a brilliant web of causality. Small pieces, like whether a sword lands a critical hit, are random, but all the choices that led you to that point are not. In some ways Darkest Dungeon plays a lot like poker: countless parts are random on their own, but when guided by the skillful handle of a master, are anything but. This game is hard, but not unfairly so. Every mistake, every death, is on you. You didn’t prepare well enough, you pushed someone too hard, or you didn’t train them. Every mercenary who dies on your watch was your responsibility.
With all this darkness, all this death, all this despair, it might sound strange to say that Darkest Dungeon is also hopeful. Like other games in its genre, successes are hard-fought, and while they might be scarce, they assure you that while the odds against you are staggering, they aren’t insurmountable. Where this game shines is in creating a world that is at once ominous and encouraging. At every step, the visual design and atmospheric soundtrack, as well as an apprehensive narrator, push you to victory against the evils that surround you.
For every party wipe you encounter a moment of wondrous luck, and this becomes part of Darkest Dungeon’s cycle. As you trek you learn and grow. You adapt new tactics as you discover the faults in older ones. Comparisons to Dark Souls these days are so common that they’re almost cliché, but Darkest Dungeon is one that genuinely deserves the nod. Dark Souls’ brilliance comes not from its extreme difficulty nor in its obtuse and horrific enemies. Similarly, Darkest Dungeon may be hard, but its gameplay isn’t really about difficulty.
The struggle serves as a test of your strategies, your team and base management. If you’re not up to snuff, then your parties will die, and you’ll have to rebuild. You almost never find yourself starting over truly from square one, however. The upgrades to your town are permanent, as are some of the trinkets and gold you find. So even the total loss of your roster isn’t the death knell for your hamlet. And that too, sets the game apart from other roguelikes, for instance, where each new game is a new attempt at a distant goal.
In this world, you’re more a middle manager or a high-level accountant than, than anything else. Darkest Dungeon has you weighing probabilities and costs and sorting out which resources you can afford to toss at which runs. In the move to the PS4 and Vita, that process has become a tough more tedious. You can imagine, after all, that it’d be a bit more obnoxious to maneuver an excel spreadsheet with a controller than the precision of a mouse. It’s not too troubling, but it does delay things somewhat, especially when you’re in town, sending your troops to get their various psychiatric treatments. At times, you’ll need to use the shoulder buttons to sift through menus, and that’s a bit counter-intuitive (why can’t I use the control stick or D-pad?). All of the information you need is, mercifully, still quite accessible, but sorting your mercenaries into their various bins is more tedious (if only slightly).
Darkest Dungeon plays the long game. It builds you up for a grand bout that will test everything you’ve learned, as well as your ability to plan several in-game weeks out. The pay-off for this constant offensive comes in short bursts–just enough to keep you going, just enough to keep you hopeful for the next excursion. It’s an extraordinary cycle that bears a special teacher–rewarding your cleverness and punishing your foolishness. It transfixes and binds you to this grand journey, dotted with failures and successes. And because you endured, because you thought your way through it, the final victory against the unimaginable evil you face at the bottom of the Darkest Dungeon is personally valuable.