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Have you ever had a relative who made a really big mistake? I’m talking about the kind of thing that’s mentioned in hushed tones at every subsequent family gathering since; spoken to young’uns as a cautionary tale of familial faux pas. Maybe Uncle Joe got drunk and knocked over the coffin at great-grandma Betsy’s funeral, sending her spilling head over heels into the church aisle and traumatizing little cousin Billy, or maybe Ann-Marie accidentally baked her Thanksgiving chocolate cake with chocolate laxatives in an infamous event forever remembered as “Turdkey Day ’09.”
Whatever your relatives did, they probably didn’t waste the entire family’s fortune digging beneath their house in search of occult enlightenment, accidentally spring open a vault of impossible eldritch horrors, kill themselves, and then leave the responsibility of cleaning up their heinous blunder entirely in your hands. That’s the starting point for Red Hook’s roguelike turn-based dungeon-crawling human misery simulator Darkest Dungeon, which is finally out of early access to inflict gibbering madness upon the world at large.
With a colorful, shadow-heavy aesthetic that feels straight from the pages of Hellboy, or any other Mike Mignola comic, Darkest Dungeon tells the story of, well, you, and how you’re trying to cleanse your family estate from evil by managing a bunch of adventurers. They come to your town looking for fame and fortune, and you send them into battle and indirectly make them go insane, assuming they don’t die first.
That’s the thing about Darkest Dungeon, and really what it sells itself on- this is a game where your characters will die. Or go insane. Or both. The main concept, according to the game’s developers, is inspired by films like Aliens or Band of Brothers, where heroes are inevitably traumatized by the horrors of combat. Put this in a shaker with a heavy Lovecraftian element, and you’ve got a recipe for something that’s as close to a true “Lovecraft experience” as you’re likely to get, minus the racism of course.
The game takes place in two main areas: the Hamlet, where you manage your heroes, and the dungeons themselves. You’ve got the traditional Ruins, the forested Weald, the plague-infested Warrens, the aquatic Cove, and of course, the eldritch Darkest Dungeon. This is where the combat takes place, and where your heroes either go home in moderate glory, in a straitjacket, or in a body bag.
Darkest Dungeon operates on traditional turn-based skill mechanics. There’s resistances, status ailments, buffs, targeting, and all that kind of stuff with a couple important twists. First of all is the positioning system, which although isn’t necessarily unique to Darkest Dungeon, provides a major element of strategy in planning your excursion into whatever dark hell you’re entering for the game week. Certain attacks can only be used from this-or-that position and can only hit enemies in such-and-such position, so place your heroes carefully. Of course, there’s also attacks that force position switches and blow the whole thing out the window.
Second, and most important, is the stress system in Darkest Dungeon. In true eldritch fashion, your four heroes accumulate stress from a wide variety of sources- getting hit by a critical attack, stepping into a trap, reading a forbidden passage, watching their comrade transform into a demon, etc. All this stress accumulates after a while, and although you can stave it off, it’s a foregone conclusion that bad things are gonna happen in this game.
Once a character hits 100 stress, or when their resolve is tested for whatever reason, they get a temporary trait, or quirk, or whatever you want to call it. Some characters, when pushed to this kind of limit, will steel their resolve and develop a trait that helps them survive a little longer. This is what’s known as a “good thing.” They don’t happen very often. Most heroes go off the edge and manifest severe paranoia or selfishness or some other such trauma that can’t be soothed until you return to the Hamlet by completing your objective or abandoning the quest. At 200 stress, your hero has a heart attack and drops dead. The end. See you in the graveyard, along with everyone else.
The stress system is a great mechanic that makes for a genuinely harrowing experience, among the various other ways for things to go south in Darkest Dungeon. Almost every move you make is a choice that can ultimately decide which of your heroes make it back to the Hamlet alive- for example, will you spend money on torches to light the way, or will you risk darkness and stronger enemies for greater rewards? Will you spend the resources to remove a character’s stress levels, or are you willing to let the points accumulate and face the outcome?
The choices remind me a bit of the 2012 XCOM, another turn-based game where every strategic move has overbearing consequences, even the ones outside combat. In Darkest Dungeon, the Hamlet is everything in keeping your characters functioning. You can relieve stress at the Tavern or Abbey, remove or reinforce personality traits at the Sanitarium, buy equipment, upgrade skills, and of course, visit the graves of every adventurer you’ve lead to their deaths.
Thankfully, the game isn’t totally unforgiving- a Stagecoach keeps a steady supply of fresh meat for you to throw through the grinder. At the end of every quest attempt (an in-game “week”), there’s a whole new slew of heroes to add to your roster and fill the ranks of the fallen. After the first couple inevitably disastrous runs, Darkest Dungeon gets a little easier once you’ve fallen into the rhythm. Of course, with all the characters coming in, it gets a lot easier to let your heroes die too. Sure, you’ll have favorites like the nymphomaniac plague doctor or the gambling leper, but after so many adventures, they’ll accumulate a laundry list of paranoias and phobias that can endanger themselves and the team- how will you deal with it?
Ultimately, Darkest Dungeon is a fantastic blend of roguelike and turn-based elements that’s difficult to say anything truly bad about. By providing a quest system, it eliminates the sense of motonomy sometimes associated with roguelike “runs.” The gameplay is easy to learn, and the art style is almost certainly one of my favorites. Sure, the game is difficult, but that’s one of its main draws, and it never feels unfair. Death never totally resets your progress, and with so many heroes flowing in, you’re never completely set back.
I’m a little sad I never played Darkest Dungeon during it’s almost year-long early access period, because I would’ve loved to see where this game started and how it transformed. I guess all I can do is be thankful I played it when I did, because this is one I’d be sad to miss. If you think you’ll enjoy this game, you probably will. If you aren’t already sold on grim, masochistic games, it’s unlikely Darkest Dungeon will change your mind; but it might! The turn-based mechanics are a breeze to get used to, and as mentioned, the game isn’t as unforgiving as some of its peers. I even sat down and played it for another five hours straight this morning. Am I addicted? Maybe. Or maybe I just like the pain. Hurt me more, Darkest Dungeon. Hurt me more.