Disclaimer: this review was performed using a Steam-bought version, paid for by the reviewer, and is a review of Darkest Dungeon up to June 1st, 2015.
There’s many theories as to what H. P. Lovecraft would do if he were alive today. Some argue that he’d venture into the film business. Some would think he’d be in prison for murdering an entire train of ethnicities. One thing I’d like to believe is that if he were here, he’d be quite impressed with Darkest Dungeons.
Part “The Call of Cthulhu”, part The Bastion, part turn-based RPG, and part rogue-like, Darkest Dungeon sews together different pieces of game genres like a human centipede, but with much more pleasing results, even when I used the identical twins down the road. Main “story” exposition is, ironically, light for a Lovecraftian-inspired piece; the only major piece exposition is found in the beginning cinematic and in the loading screens before a boss dungeon.
From the intro cinematic, we discover that we have inherited some relative’s household on account of him killing himself. He does this because of the monstrosities and portals into other dimensions that he has unleashed on the world due to his curiosity and boredom. So it’s up to you to pick up the slack and “deliver our family from the ravenous clutching shadows of the Darkest Dungeon.” As well, the start of a boss dungeon will talk of that boss’s origins or past that connects them to the house, but integrates them into the story as well as jabbing a fork in between your ribs counts as adding a third arm. Coming back from a dungeon will also have some minor piece of information randomly narrated, which tend to repeat a fair bit.
The narrator’s voice is definitely more on-spot with the atmosphere than most narrator-based games. When I played through The Bastion, I felt like the narrator’s voice was good for a Western sheriff that has a solid one-liner to say before riding off into the sunset and being ravaged by Native Americans. Instead, he was reading through an entire novel, and no Native American came to my ears’ rescue to beat him until he looked like a bit of marmite that was squirted out of a sandwich. The voice got older than Duke Nukem Forever’s development time. Darkest Dungeon’s narrator has the voice of a man that’s seen too much and knows even more, adding his narration to the dreary and depressing atmosphere the game creates.
The main selling point of Darkest Dungeon after the narration is the visuals. Just as games like Apotheon and The Banner Saga aimed their art style at a specific genre, Darkest Dungeon sets out a Gothic feel to its art style. Characters look like they were drawn with a heavy calligraphy pen, and the dark and drab colors add a weight to the entire game. Without this sort of art style, the game would fall flatter and quicker than most of my heroes in the game do.
Your objective is to make it to this darkest dungeon your relative has discovered and rid the world of the terror he released. With this information, you set off to the small town just outside the perimeter of the house. The town acts as a hub for recruiting heroes, upgrading their abilities and weapons, and relieving their stress levels, which I’ll get to a bit later. From the town, you gather up teams of four heroes to brave the dungeons of your family’s land, hacking and slashing and shooting your way to the darkest dungeon, or watch as they all die cold, alone, and afraid. Dungeons are randomly generated and organized by short, medium, and long expeditions.
Upon entering a dungeon, your group of heroes has a torch to either light the way or whither into nothing. Having a well-lit torch means better chances at scouting ahead, as well as decreased chances of being surprised by enemies. A more dark or unlit torch increases the enemy’s damage, but increases your hero’s crit chance and loot pillaged. While not wonderfully balanced, it does add an edge of adrenalin when trying to balance the right lighting with how your heroes are performing.
Along with health, the heroes have a stress bar. When their stress reaches 100, their “resolve is tested” and either gain a positive or, most likely, a negative trait for the rest of the dungeon. Positive traits can help lower the team’s stress or give them improved stats temporarily, such as increased accuracy or dodge. Negative traits do the opposite, and even cause the hero to become temperamental. They disobey orders and complain more than a teenage girl at a Starbucks. As well, when their stress level reaches 200, they promptly have a heart attack and die, which would be a great attribute for myself during finals week. With the game automatically saving at every turn, there’s no way to save-scam your way out of a hero dying. It’s ironman mode all the time.
This is where the game creates a sort of infinity loop that can become quite annoying. Hero A becomes stressed with something, which causes him to start talking more shit than John Romero, which then causes hero B to become stressed, which causes them to start interacting and stressing the rest of the team out. As well, there’s no way for the player to quicken up the dialogue or intervene, leaving you to watch as generic one-liners are distributed, and your team crumbles before your eyes. Maybe that lack of control is the point. To show the player how some situations are so helpless that not even you can do anything about it. But it doesn’t take away that it becomes annoying to watch a two-minute dialogue session of generic quips before watching everyone die from a heart attack.
As well, heroes accrue permanent traits that affect their stats or the way they react to the world around them. Some offer increased damage to certain types of enemies, like a beast specialist. Others like rabies and syphilis, can lower the accuracy of a hero, which is weird because I’m still a pretty good shot. The traits can also cause certain heroes to act outside of the player’s control, like a curious trait that causes them to want to read every bookcase you pass by. These traits can be removed by spending money that is normally used on supplies and having the hero wait a week in a sanitorium. It creates an ebb and flow system with maintaining hero stress levels, eliminating the worst of the permanent traits, and actually sending them through the dungeons. The rest of the game’s mechanics, like the trinkets, positioning of heroes in a dungeon party, combat, and classes, are very functional for this sort of game and don’t really add or subtract too much from Darkest Dungeon’s experience.
Surprisingly, Darkest Dungeon is quite stable for an Early Access game. Very rarely the game will stop working and close out, but when I open up Darkest Dungeon again, I’m right where I left off. While I normally wouldn’t think to do a review on an Early Access game, I feel like Darkest Dungeon already has enough content, stability, and uniqueness to be seen as a full game. As well, Red Hook Studios just gave Darkest Dungeon a huge update that adds three bosses and two new character classes. I felt that now was a good time to look back at the countless hours I spent rummaging around those dingy dungeons, play a few more, and look back at them with a grim disparity, a sweat on my brow, and blood on my hands. Maybe it reminded me of the times I was left on the side of the East River with a rope, a garbage bag full of body parts, and a cinder block.