Darkest Dungeon: The Roguelike Dungeon Crawler of your Nightmares

Darkest Dungeon is a turn based RPG that requires strategic planning during battle… or suffer the consequences. You play the heir to a family estate that has fallen to ruin. Upon discovering dungeons teeming with riches beneath the beloved family manor, your forefathers set to exploring it post haste. Unbeknownst to them these weren’t just any conveniently placed spooky treasure troves… morbid creatures and unspeakable horrors lurked ‘neath your hallowed halls and soon drove your pop and company quite mad. Countless family heirlooms and loot were lost in the ensuing insanity. The darkness once kept at bay had been unleashed on your family. It is your duty to recover the family treasures and beat back the monstrosities that now run rampant on the grounds.

Before each foray into the estate grounds, the player starts in the hamlet where they have the option to recruit heroes, buy trinkets, and spend money on leveling skills. Characters accumulate stress, disease, and various other afflictions each adventure and can be sent to different buildings to cure their respective ailments. The game is challenging is so it is important to prepare carefully. If a hero dies, then they are gone for good.

So tough a disclaimer is needed.

Good

There are several really great, unique mechanics that come together to make DD a wonderfully complex game. One unique feature that I really enjoyed was the party member placement mechanic. Characters can occupy any of four positions within the party while traversing the dungeons. Each class does best when placed in a certain spot. For example, the archer has the most actions available to her in the back where she can used her ranged attack to hit enemies further away. Your tank will be upfront to slice and dice enemies up close. Most attacks can only hit a few monsters depending on their placement so enemy formation is important to consider as well. Some attacks may be mutually exclusive with others, forcing you to pick which one is most needed for the situation at hand. There are 15 different classes to choose from, so there is a multitude of possible formations.

With few ranged attacks available, these heroes struggled to attack the boss in the back of the enemies’ party.

Another interesting mechanic is the torch and light level. As you progress through the dungeons, the light level gets lower and lower as your torch burns down. As surroundings grow darker, your chance to surprise monsters lowers, heroes’ stress increases, your damage and dodge skills decrease, and enemies’ skills increase, but the chance to find rare and valuable loot increases. The game becomes harder as the light lowers, but you are more handsomely compensated for your efforts. The term “high risk, high reward” literally true in this case. Thankfully, you can relight your torch at any time – provided you have the supplies to do so.

Are you afraid of the dark?

In previous critiques I have espoused games that make you play outside of your comfort zone through different constraints. Characters can only do a few adventures before needing to rest in the hamlet and restore sanity. Additionally, characters level up but only to level six – and you can’t send veterans on missions meant for newbies. This prevents players from just brute smashing their way through the dungeons and ensures there is always a challenge.

The 2D graphics and minimal animation are very well done. The game very much lives up to its name. The color palette is overwhelmingly dark. I really like the illustrative quality. The art style is very cohesive and has a gritty, noir comic book look to it. With turn based strategy, the main focus should be the mechanics, so the lack of bells and whistles graphically doesn’t detract from the game at all. For added atmosphere, cozy up with a blanket and play this on a rainy day.

Moody an morbid might best describe the art style.

Also of note, the voice acting is outstanding. Wayne June voices the solemn narrator, an ancestor of yours, who explains your mission in the opening scene. Throughout the game he comments on your progress, commenting on critical hits or unexpected events. Such quips as “In time, you will know the tragic extent of my failings” really help set the tone for game.

Bad

While I found the game to be quite addicting, if you are someone who needs five different miniquests to stay entertained this might not be the game for you. Trudge through derelict hallways and swamps, battle monsters, collect loot, rinse and repeat. The entire game is grinding for levels.

My biggest complaint with Darkest Dungeon is it’s impossible to know how to set up your party for a boss without looking up strategies online. My favorite part of playing games is figuring out how the game works on my own. I don’t like relying too much on outside resources. In most games, when you fight a boss and lose you simply regroup and try again. Whenever a hero dies in Darkest Dungeon, they are permanently dead. This makes approaching a boss fight unprepared incredibly risky as you stand to lose hours and hours of leveling with your characters. The easiest and least time consuming way to play is to look up strategies beforehand and proceed accordingly. I wish there was lore within the game itself to give more information to the player.

Receiving an achievement for my first party wipe was of little consolation.

Improvements & Additions

I do find the trope of “intensely difficult, dark and morbid” game too be a bit overdone at this point. Dark Souls is notorious for this style of game play. Indie darlings The Binding of Isaac and Amnesia also come to mind. I would love to see an insanely hard and frustrating game but with unicorns and sprinkles. This isn’t so much a critique of Darkest Dungeon, but more of something I’d like to see in the gaming market. Darkest Dungeon fits its niche extremely well, but where’s an epic, mind binding, strategy RPG that centers on saving the candy kingdom? Instead of dark and grizzly how about pastels and sparkly? I would love to see a game with all the seriousness of Darkest Dungeon, but instead of fighting as hardened heroes users set off into battle as squishy teddy bears. Bring on the stuffed animals!

TL;DR

Strategically pick your way through the dark depths of your ancestors’ estate in this challenging dungeon crawler. Who will go insane first, you or your party?

If you enjoy…

Dark Souls, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, House of Leaves

…try Darkest Dungeon.

The Curious Expedition: A curiously overlooked indie gem

I first picked up The Curious Expedition in a Steam sale. I was immediately grabbed by the retro pixel graphics and intrigued by the concept of leading 19th century exploration expeditions. Within an hour of gameplay I was hooked. The turn based gameplay combined with the hex tile map makes it feel like a familiar board game while the roguelike elements kept me coming back for more. The only thing curious about this game is how it’s remained under the radar for so long.

Like with many games, TCE starts with picking your character. A myriad of famous explorers and pioneers from different fields throughout history are available to represent the player, with more unlocked after achieving certain feats. Every explorer is best suited to a certain style of gameplay, encouraging players to try out different approaches with every new expedition. The player competes against four AI controlled adventurers and ultimately wins the game by scoring the highest. Points are accrued across a series of six expeditions by completing mini-quests, donating found ancient artifacts, and beating the other explorers to a mysteriously located golden pyramid.

The character select screen. Wonder who some modern explorers would be… Bill Gates? Malala Yousafzai?

The objective of each expedition is to find the golden pyramid on the map while keeping your party sane (literally). Sanity is represented by a meter at the top of the screen and is primarily spent by moving throughout the world. Different areas costs more sanity depending on how difficult it is to navigate – this can be offset by buying specialized tools designed for each terrain. When sanity gets too low, the party can face everything from dropping supplies, dissension in the ranks, to cannibalism. Sanity can be recovered by resting at certain waypoints, eating food, or drinking alcohol (just like real life!). Besides searching for the golden pyramid and managing sanity, your party can face a slew of different obstacles such as animal attacks, mummies coming to life, and angry local natives. There are plenty of fun supernatural occurrences and random events that will keep you on your toes.

The sanity meter. Might be time to bust out some self-care techniques.

The Good

As long as a game has solid, balanced mechanics you don’t need uncanny valley realism to make a great game. TCE has beautifully rendered scenes reminiscent of your favorite 64 bit retro game. The limitations of pixel art (square grid, often a smaller color palette) can be hard to work with. I really appreciate the time and energy TCE artists spent crafting the look of the game.

 Stunning.

Perhaps hardest to put into words without writing a novel on it is just how beautifully balanced TCE is. The player must consider how every action affects not only their current expedition but their standing against other the other explorers… all while maintaining sanity and threats against their party. Every decision made has a consequence, every reward has a risk. Do you have enough sanity to mitigate the effects of stealing artifacts from an ancient temple? Do you rest to regain composure or press your luck trying to reach the golden pyramid first? Do you donate your artifacts to gain fame or sell them to have a comfier start to your next expedition? Every action feels incredibly nuanced. The play between the immediate game (merely surviving and making it to end of the expedition) and end game (your overall score) is incredibly engaging.

The Bad

The six expeditions can feel a little long, especially if a run of bad luck (or poor planning) leaves you starting each one more and more ill-prepared. One bad expedition can easily snowball and result in desperate sprints to the golden pyramid with little hope of completing all six expeditions, let alone winning. Some may enjoy the thrill of trying to survive and pulling off risky maneuvers while others will just rage quit restart once things get too bleak.

Even if you’ve “done everything right” the most strategic player can have their game thrown by an unlucky encounter. There is a lot that can go wrong and not a whole lot that can go right. Oftentimes the game can feel more like managing reactions to bad events (cannibalism, desertion, internal sabotage, paranoia) with very little happening in terms of fortuitous events. TCE has improved a lot since early versions which could feel like a brutal slog from one terrible encounter to the next. Now with more events that can turn the tide in favor of the player, the game feels a little less ruthless. The fact still remains, this is not an easy game. Some players will be put off by the unforgiving nature of the game, however those that enjoy punishing gameplay will have a good time.

Anyone who’s worked on a group project can relate.

Improvements & Additions

I originally wanted to suggest multiplayer as an improvement, as TCE feels MADE for multiplayer. I honestly would not be surprised if the devs set out with multiplayer in mind but lacked the infrastructure to implement it. So I was not at all surprised to read that they released a multiplayer version called Curious Expedition RIVALS and best of all it’s free to play.

TCE feels very complete. The balance between sanity management and amassing fame and wealth is so well done I find it hard to suggest anything that wouldn’t change the game fundamentally. That in mind, I think it would be cool to see a sea-faring component added… Exploring oceans instead of land. I envision this as a different mode of playing, instead of playing within the current game. Friendly islands could serve as places to regain sanity or trade. Sea monsters could attack the ship (sharks, sirens, giant squids, the kraken). There could be merpeople both savage and friendly, and how about an atlantis trading post or miniquest? Shipwrecks or pirates (that must first be defeated) could provide opportunity to plunder resources. Now that TCE seems to be wrapping up its development, this could be its first DLC.

TL;DR

The Curious Expedition is a challenging, turn based strategy game. Peppered with occult references and dark humor this game might best be described as “delightfully frustrating.”

If you enjoy…

Dark Souls, The Binding of Isaac, H. P. Lovecraft, The Oregon Trail, The Darkest Dungeon

…try The Curious Expedition.

Steam PageMaschinen Mensch

RimWorld: Wild west meets the final frontier

As of October 17th, after spending five and a half years in development, RimWorld version 1.0 is finally live. RimWorld is one of the rare cases of Early Access being utilized to its full potential. Unlike many Early Access games that take your money and grind to a mediocre, half-baked halt, Tynan, the game’s developer, really listened and worked with the community to improve the game throughout it’s beta. Rimworld is a true diamond in the rough.

It’s hailed as “sci-fi colony sim driven by an intelligent AI storyteller… [who] generates stories by simulating psychology, ecology, gunplay, melee combat, climate, biomes, diplomacy, interpersonal relationships, art, medicine, trade, and more.” Whew. Basically you take a group of colonists and try to survive on an alien planet by constructing and defending a home base. The game’s AI throws different challenges at you like pirate raids, natural disasters, rabid wild animals, toxic fallout, and roving mechanoid gangs to name just a few.

The game has several different starting scenarios, all of which involve picking through randomly generated characters to start off your colony. Each colonist has a background story that fleshes out their skills and passions in addition up to three personality traits that affect how they interact with their environment. Don’t be fooled by the simplistic 2D graphics, this game has a lot of depth. You will certainly form attachments to a few of your favorite pawns. I cannot count how many times I’ve reloaded a game because my favorite colonist died. I find the random characters help balance the game, as you learn to play with their weaknesses. Instead of creating perfectly crafted super-colonists you really learn to make your characters work as a team. Although you can keep rerolling traits and skills until you get an approximation of your ideal colonist, I find it far more fun to play with slightly flawed individuals as it forces you to play differently.  

RW_gourmand_cannibal
For some reason none of the other colonists wanted Brie to cook for them…

Besides fending off your hostile neighbors and various calamities, you spend most of your time trying to keep your colonists alive and sane. Colonists get certain mood boosts and debuffs from nearly everything in the game. Being nuzzled by an animal, sleeping in a comfortable bed, witnessing a rivals death are some examples of mood enhancers. Having an awful bedroom, encountering romantic rejection, or eating without a table (a debuff that has become an iconic meme within the community) can send your colonists into a downwards spiral. If conditions become too bad, colonists become uncontrollable. Tantrums, drug binges, and even fits of murderous rage can all plague your colony if things get too desolate. The mood system provides lot of motivation to establish something beyond basic shelter. Navigating survival and happiness is the funnest part of early game – when things are especially rough and berserk rages are most likely to happen.

RW_beserk_rage
Fair enough, Isaac… fair enough.

The Good

One of RimWorld’s best qualities is you can literally play the game any way you like. You can create a hipster utopia selling craft beer and alpaca wool sweaters or play as a cannibalistic, organ harvesting slaver colony. Maybe you’re a team of zoologists looking to start a trade in exotic animals. Or a lone explorer trying to hack it on your own on an alien planet. The game lets you pick from three different AI “storytellers” (nice and easy, progressively harder, or completely random) and you can further customize gameplay by choosing a difficulty level (ranging from Peaceful to Savage). It’s completely possible to play it as an zen sci-fi Harvest Moon farming sim if that’s what you’re into. This kind of versatility not only makes it appealing to a broad audience but every game you play can be entirely different… which means the replay value is insane.

One of my favorite aspects of the game is the ridiculous randomness of events and interactions. Having a gang of murderous Yorkshire terriers run amok of your base is equal parts frustrating and hilarious. Watching your colonist snap and go on a food binge because they spent the last 19 hours in a cold, dark room making leather pants does have some underlying comedic qualities. I mean… who hasn’t been there? The sheer volume of random events kept me surprised for months into playing. It is quite easy to become invested in your colony and its development. I am guilty of rage quitting after a few devastating events, but there is always an underlying sense of amusement.

RW_insects_vs_robots
A few events coincided to give us this beautiful insect versus mechanoid battle royale… all while toxic fallout rains down from the sky.

The Bad

Like with many sandbox games, RimWorld is best suited for creative types who enjoy setting and accomplishing their own goals. There is a quest to escape the planet by building your own spaceship by collecting and building various components that does provide an overall end goal, which can be completely ignored if you so choose. Since many user goals revolve around establishing a stable colony – once this is accomplished, the gameplay can be a little lacking. After all one can only amass so many megascreen televisions and engineer so many bionic super soldiers before getting a little bored, right?

Although the game is incredibly customizable this does create a steeper learning curve. And even after learning the ropes it’s very easy to get bogged down in technical details. Between customizing different orders, setting up stockpiles just so, and creating policies and restrictions for your colonists and animals there’s a lot of micro managing that can feel like a bit of a chore. Too much depth and customization is a double edged sword, usually good but potentially overwhelming.

Improvements & Additions

I would love to see a family building mechanic added. Right now colonists can fall in love and get married but a little baby in a bassinet isn’t in the cards for any of your space-faring adventurers. I think running a nursery on an alien planet would be a fun challenge. Baby’s would be a resource drain for the first years of their life but could eventually help out with more menial tasks such as cleaning and hauling before becoming a fully functioning member of your (small) society. The payoff could be choosing or influencing your child’s passions and a permanent mood boost for starting a family.

I have a feeling this hasn’t officially been implemented yet as there are a lot of dark elements (organ harvesting, torture, enslavement) that would make for a very morally disastrous game if children were involved. Not to mention how would unwanted pregnancies or miscarriages (which are already in the game for animals) be handled? After all is said and done it sounds like a can of worms best left undisturbed.

However, I did like one forum user’s solution of having colonists grown in vats. This would bypass the ethical dilemmas posed and still provide an interesting resource sink/reward element… a mechanic that would be especially welcome to help spice up the sparseness of RimWorld’s late game.  

(Of course, if you absolutely can’t live without your colonists procreating you can bet there’s already multiple mods out there making it possible.)

TL;DR

RimWorld is well-balanced game with a surprising amount of depth and absurdity. It remains one of my all time favorite games that is definitely worth a try… just try not to be too frustrated when your colony is wiped out by a roving pack of rabid cats.

If you enjoy…
Firefly, Dwarf Fortress, Prison Architect, Lost in Space, Isaac Asimov, Terraria, Minecraft
…try RimWorld.

Steam Page • Ludeon Studios • Tynan’s Twitter