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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.