Darkest Dungeon is a gothic horror roguelike sporting archetypal ‘heroes’ from a Lovecraftian world with an ambiance similar to the original Diablo game. It seems, at the surface, to be a very simple and easy to grasp game, and in theory, it is, but the way that these things have been nuanced gives that “Just can’t stop playing” feel to the game. Unlike some recent roguelikes I’ve played, Darkest Dungeon will kill you, repeatedly and horridly, and expect you to pick yourself back up from the ordeal and keep trudging on. Saving money up for a new upgrade becomes a herculean effort when you have an entire roster of heroes, each one debilitated by myriad quirks that need resolving, after all.
The game starts you off with the beginnings of a party of generic ‘treasure hunters’ to take into the dungeon, because you the player/main character don’t actually take part in combat, despite the narrative bringing you there in the first place. There are presently 14 different classes, although not all of them are available from the start, and they are varied and specialized, each one rather abysmal at anything that it isn’t specialised in.
They are Abomination, Arbalest, Bounty Hunter, Crusader, Grave Robber, Hellion, Highwayman, Hound Master, Jester, Leper, Man-at-Arms, Occultist, Plague Doctor, and Vestal. Some, like the Crusader, Occultist, or Arbalest, are fairly obvious in their use from the name alone, while others, such as the Vestal (Battle Priest) or Leper (High-Damage tanks) require a closer look to truly grasp. The Leper summarizes this game quite nicely, in a microcosm, actually. This is a tank class that has a lot of health, but low defense (mostly just cloth bandages) and a very big sword. You have a lot of health, but you also take a lot of damage, your sword is huge, dealing proportional damage, but also slow making accuracy a bit of an issue.
You can also further lower your defense using skills to sharply increase your damage output and accuracy, making the character already riskier but potentially fearsome and game-winning. Everything in this game is a trade-off, where you balance benefit with loss/risk. Some classes do more damage when they have lower health, there’s a ‘stress’ resource that you can reduce/manage/spend resources to deal with, and it persists between incursions, but there’s a 20% chance every time you crack from the pressure to get a party-wide stress reduction, immunity to stress for the remainder of the incursion, and a sharp increase in stats.
That sort of tradeoff, that feeling that the better you’re doing, the easier it will be to fall, it permeates the whole game and jives quite nicely with the gothic horror feel of it all. The art style is rougher and angular in a way that makes the heroes look rougher, almost impure, further lending to the corrupted jive. Combat is turn-based, and often the camera pans and zooms in on acts that require a bit more ‘oomph’, almost like how you would focus with your eyes if you were watching the events unfold in front of you.
This is a roguelike style game, so you can expect to lose characters or even whole teams of characters, but you can always recruit new characters to your cause. This would, of course, start them back down at level 1 and make you feel like you’re losing ground instead of progressing, but it also gives you reasons to have to go back to areas that you have already cleared. You can ‘usually’ avoid losing your entire roster, though, by escaping the dungeon (there’s an escape button, which hits morale pretty hard, and has a chance of failure, but also spares you having to backtrack through the dungeon to escape. You will, of course, forfeit the mission rewards, as well as the provisions you’ve allocated to the expedition, but you at least keep your characters!
Provisions are another face that make this game feel brutal. There are rations and torches, which keep your heroes fed and torches increase the light level, but there’s also things like keys, holy water, antidotes, shovels and more that will let you interact with the area and possibly even changing the result given by an interactable object. A confessional booth has a 50% chance of giving +20 stress, a 25% chance of giving you some treasure, and a 25% chance of removing a negative quirk from your character, but if you use holy water on it, it heals 30 stress, instead. Provisions cost you gold in town and are lost whether you finish or abandon the dungeon, so they are a definite gold sink used to help you survive the dangers of the dungeon.
Classes are varied and while they all seem rather weak or outside of your traditional trifecta or quadrafecta of class archetypes, this game is all about doing the best with the hand you get dealt. The tanks take less damage, but there’s no way to make them take all of the hits. Your healers will almost always heal for less damage than an enemy deals, and in some cases, can even fail to heal them at all, while still placing a bleed debuff on them as a trade-off. Each class has seven skills, of which you select four to use, giving you options to craft combat vestals, debuffing occultists and even buffing/curing plague doctors. There are four positions in combat, one per character, and many skills have restrictions on which positions they can be utilised from. The frontmost position gets attacked for the more powerful heavy-hitting melee hits, but the back positions are at greater risk from enemy artillery and casters. You can use hooks on a bounty hunter to pull the enemy casters into melee range, or tentacles from the occultist to knock their meat-wall to the back row, negating its effectiveness until it can shamble back to the front once more.
All in all, this is a highly complex game that appears quite simple at first glance, and while most games would fall to the number of mutations and growths of additional systems and complexities heaped upon it in layer after layer, Darkest Dungeon embraces the darkness within itself and truly thrives with this many moving parts, much like the finely calibrated inner workings of a watch.
If you’re just looking for advice on whether to buy this game or not? Buy it. Buy two, in fact, and share the other with a friend. Maybe you’ll get some tips on how to survive this brutal game. But all in all, if you enjoy Roguelike RPG Dungeon-crawly gothic horror-y games, you will feel right at home in the Darkest Dungeon.
Red Hook Studios
Red Hook Studios
Article by Marc