My heavily armoured Crusader swings his blade at the yellowing skeleton warrior, an attack that must surely be the crushing final blow. The skeleton dodges and the next round of combat begins. The light in the dungeon dims and my Crusader’s stress level reaches critical, triggering a testing of his resolve. He fails the test and becomes Fearful. The next few rounds consist of him skipping his turn, moving to a position further away from the action and generally upsetting his adventuring companions by being pessimistic. This sends the Hellion and Vestal over the edge too, each picking up their own Afflictions as their stress levels max out. They are all slain in short order by the remaining enemies. This is Red Hook Studios’ Darkest Dungeon, a turn-based procedural RPG roguelike that focuses on the mental aspects of adventuring as much as the physical. Even if your heroes survive the dungeon in body, their minds will almost certainly be shot to pieces.
From the opening introduction to the in-game voice-over and design, Darkest Dungeon drips with a Lovecraftian flavour that teases the tongue before burning the throat. By this, I mean the crowquill art style, moody music and game systems all hide a brutal game. The player takes control of an old ancestral estate and must recruit heroes to help purge it and the area around it of bandits, monsters and other abominations. Dungeon delving rewards the party with gold, heirlooms and other useful items, at a cost. If your party dies, you get nothing, and it’s permadeath folks! Even if your party survives, they will more than likely come back emotionally crippled and physically diseased.
This can be fixed to a degree, if you have the gold or other assets needed. The buildings on the estate are dilapidated and verging on ineffective. Each can be upgraded to be more useful or cheaper to utilise, but this can cost you the heirlooms you’ve found. Buildings include things like the Tavern and Abbey, each useful in reducing the stress of quest-worn adventurers. Some heroes might have issues with where they are sent however. I had a Vestal (think healer) who had a quirk that meant she would only use the Brothel for stress relief so couldn’t be sent elsewhere. I also had a Crusader that would only pray in the Abbey and would not entertain anything else. There are other buildings/locations too, each with their own store or talent upgrade possibilities.
The dungeon crawling itself is a pacy affair. You choose a party of four heroes, choose a dungeon, buy them provisions and off you go. Once inside, you’ll notice the representation of a burning torch at the top of your screen. Light dims very quickly so you must equip your party with extra torches that can boost light levels. Too much darkness causes your group’s fear to grow far too quickly. There are various objects encountered along the way, backpacks, cabinets and confessional booths. They may contain treasure, or they may be trapped. Reading books from a bookcase seems to be the quickest way for a hero to develop negative quirks.
Quirks and Afflictions are one of the most interesting aspects of the game. Both can be positive or negative and will affect some aspect of your character at varying times. I won’t list them as seeing something new pop up while playing is part of the fun, when you’ve stopped swearing at least. Negative quirks can be removed at the Sanitarium, for a fee. Afflictions and Virtues trigger depending on your characters stress levels. As in my example at the start of this review, when stress levels are maxed, the character’s resolve is tested. It will either go well and they will become stronger, or it will go badly and they will become a sniveling wreck.
Combat is a combination of every system in the game conspiring to test your mettle. Your party members can occupy one of four positions, each location affecting abilities and combat targets e.g a melee character prefers to be near the action. The enemy lines up in a similar way. Both sides usually have abilities to push or pull enemies into uncomfortable positions. Combat is turn-based and features the usual kinds of abilities: stuns, heals, slashes, ranged magic and projectiles. Any Quirks or Afflictions/Virtues also come into play, along with health levels and stress. In the early game at least, combat is brutal. Until you have some idea about what each class brings to proceedings, you will find the early game grueling. This is where some critics have criticized the game. Not for the difficulty, but for how you can get around it a little.
You can recruit heroes at your estate. It is easy to recruit low-level heroes, crawl a dungeon and quit the dungeon before they die so as to hold onto any loot. The heroes take a stress penalty for not finishing their quest but you can just dismiss them and recruit fresher heroes instead, depending on who is waiting at your estate and on the number of roster slots available. Some have said that the disposable nature of the heroes makes it easy to sidestep the game but I don’t think so, for two reasons. Firstly, my first few dungeon runs after the tutorial failed and I barely had enough money to do anything. At this point it would have been tempting to start a new game. Using low-level heroes (which is all that was available) and dismissing them was the only way to carry on. Secondly, once your heroes begin to level up, you don’t want to dismiss them. You also find ones with a better mix of abilities that you find really useful (or cool) and don’t want to part with them. In this way, the game does have an inbuilt system for getting you into the game. I think these two points make the issue moot. I’m all for hard games but there are limits.
Darkest Dungeon is in the Steam Early Access section. As a consequence, it’s still at an early stage of development. This can mean that games are unoptimized or buggy but I am happy to say that Darkest Dungeon, besides one crash at a dungeon loading screen, ran flawlessly for me. As it journeys through development, it’s set to receive more hero classes and areas, and no doubt, more balancing, tweaks and polishing. The FAQ in the Steam forum predicts it being released in full around the second half of 2015.
I’ve really enjoyed my time spent with Darkest Dungeon. The early screenshots caught my interest and the revelation of the Affliction system just sealed the deal. If you like games that don’t coddle you or where, even with the best of equipment, powers and abilities, you can still fail due to an unseen dice-roll, you will feel right at home with Darkest Dungeon. If you are the opposite, you may find it a tempting diversion but give yourself some time to get to grips with it. The early game seems the hardest but once you’re over an initial difficulty bump, you will soon know if you want to carry on. Since my early attempts at dungeon mastery, it’s rare for me to lose an entire party in one dungeon run, and I am knowledgeable enough to push my chances and come out ahead, more often than not. This is very satisfying.
Darkest Dungeon is available to buy from Steam for PC and Mac and currently costs £14.99.
GS Reviewer: Casey Douglass