So here we are – the highly acclaimed, then much derided, then highly acclaimed again, newly-released Early Access title. It is rather hard to balance this review between explaining the basics to newcomers and merely documenting changes from the Early Access version. However, in the spirit of the game, I am resolved to taking on such ominous adversity and again in the spirit of the game such a task is likely to be extremely frustrating, and almost certainly a failure but engaging and enjoyable nonetheless.
A simple introduction then. Darkest Dungeon is a roguelike dungeon crawler with base management elements. The player controls an army of heroes based in a small hamlet, tasked with defeating some ancient and unknowable evil that has entrenched itself in the land. So far so generic fantasy game. However, Darkest Dungeon has many unique qualities which differentiate it from other titles. First off, its design and aesthetic is delightfully ghoulish and insipidly Lovecraftian. Secondly, the game does a fantastic job of exploring the psychological toll that constantly fighting against unknowable terrors in stressful dungeon environments would take. Heroes that suffer too much trauma fighting monstrosities can find themselves beset with psychological afflictions. These afflictions can be cured at the home base but doing so puts the hero out of commission for a while and the act of balancing the mental wellbeing of your best troops is at times both addictively engaging and wall-punchingly frustrating.
its design and aesthetic is delightfully ghoulish and insipidly lovecraftian
On top of this, the game is absolutely merciless. Like X-COM, hero deaths are permanent — but unlike X-COM there’s no save scumming, so do-overs and second chances are non-existent. The game has utterly unforgiving combat mechanics and the slightest mistake can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Coupled with the stress mechanic this makes the game extremely challenging and while this makes every victory feel great it’s also where problems creep in.
My view on Darkest Dungeon changes from elated to exasperated from one minute to the next. Catharsis at a satisfying victory will be replaced with outrage as the game suddenly pulls a move that cripples my heroes in a way that I have no control over. It is true (fellow Early Access survivors will be glad to hear) that the mechanics that made the game near unplayable late last year have been heavily nerfed. Yet, whilst the full release has made some great new additions, the game still has a plethora of issues. Some of the mechanics, such as the dodge and turn order, are complicated to the point of seeming totally randomised and trying to overcome these mechanics requires mining through a nightmare of stat screens and items with totally arbitrary effects.
Additionally, success is hardly rewarded at all; in fact, it’s almost actively punished. Heroes that level up cannot be taken on lower level quests, but said heroes often do not have the skills required to take on harder quests. So the player becomes trapped grinding away at low level quests to raise the momentum necessary for harder quests, only to all too often see that effort come to nothing. To make this worse the game increases difficulty in a way that just doesn’t work. Not only does it buff the stats of enemies it also stacks the more arbitrary mechanics heavily against the player. All semblance of strategy dissolves into farce as the game becomes dominated by unkind chance determined to punish a successful player.
If you’re a fan of challenge and all things dark fantasy and horror than this is definitely the game for you. Let it not be said that this review condemns the game out of hand. The game is wonderfully designed and much has been improved on in the full release but at the end of the day it can often be too much. Yes the stress mechanics are unique and interesting, yes beating hard quests feels great, but there is still too much grind and too much punishment for this to be a totally praising review.