Darkest Dungeon by Red Hook Studios is not a friendly RPG, with a Gothic depressing aesthetic bleeding into every crevice of the game's many dark pits. This is not a game that someone who prefers that as long as they are playing everything will always goes well, or for people who want to rush through smashing attack to clear out any wave of enemies. It is a slow grinding crawl through unsafe grounds that requires preparation and a bit of luck to make it through unscathed.
That is a good thing. Darkest Dungeon keeps to this atmospheric attention to detail in every way, from the art style of the characters, to the objects in your way, to the unforgiving deaths when you make even the tiniest of mistakes. Darkest Dungeon begins the game by informing you that people will die, or become effectively useless. This is a game about making the best of a bad situation, not turning it into a good situation.
The actual game play of Darkest Dungeon is split into two parts, the adventure missions and the rebuilding of the Estate. They work together in unison quite well, as you continue to grind out the missions for the parts to rebuild the Estate to allow your heroes to become stronger and go out to do more missions. Nothing in either part feels tacked on for a feature that is unnecessary to the game, giving a sense that everything is useful in some way, which most games do not have these days.
Missions begin by preparing your party of 4 with equipment for the adventure ahead, needing to pack rations, torches, shovels, holy water, and other equipment that may reduce the damage from the variety of traps and other nasty issues you'll find. The adventure map is a variety of 'rooms' that act as hubs of danger, each with a hallway that often times has smaller pieces of loot and traps. Borrowing from Roguelikes and older computer RPGs, time does not move unless you do. As you move, your party can grow hungry, the lights grow dimmer, and they can become stressed.
Stress and lighting are the two unique features to Darkest Dungeon, bringing the constant sense of dread as you move. Lighting is simple, the darker it is the harder the enemy hits but increases the amount of loot you get when you win. Stress builds up from hitting traps, walking in the dark, or in battle there are several moves that affect stress instead of HP. It can also build up when you are hit by a critical and only really goes down when you critical them or certain abilities by a small amount. By the end of an adventure, stress tends to build up.
What happens when you hit 100 stress? You can go insane. To be fair, you can also become extremely heroic and get a large buff to showcase the courage of your hero. That is uncommon, as it is more likely that you go insane. Your heroes can become paranoid, irrational, fearful, abusive, their minds begin to crack causing everyone to go downhill. You may lose a turn, refuse healing, actively hurt yourself. It can end a mission right there, making some fights go from easy to a nightmare.
You can combat this on medium or long missions by camping and using camp-skills to lower stress, buff your characters, or fix wounds. Only available in the larger adventures, this brief respite is the only thing preventing your heroes from running into unmanageable stress. Darkest Dungeon is still a cruel unforgiving place, giving a chance for an ambush when you camp, and many camp skills having a chance of failure or negative effects.
After each adventure, the party returns with a new trait and/or flaw. This begins to make each hero feel like a character as they begin to pile on. The bounty hunter who is a bulimic with a lazy eye but is the slayer of men, Eldritich, and deadly says quite a bit about her.
Your health restores to full after an adventure, your stress does not. The only way to decrease stress after the adventure is over is to put them into a bar or a church to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh, or the serenity of god. It takes another adventure mission for that to end, forcing you to have multiple teams of heroes continually cycling who is going and who is staying.
This balance of fighting and stress relief is where the main meat of Darkest Dungeon's mechanics comes in. The essence of Darkest Dungeon, is that it is a game of resource management with dwindling resources that are constantly needing to be received by different groups. After 15 hours of play, the resources are still dwindling. I have never had a surplus, even after many good missions where the team didn't need to have any stress removal. The game revels in the trying to use your resources as wisely as possible.
Which brings it to the part where Darkest Dungeon becomes the darkest, when everything can still go wrong. This game has a chance of simply wanting to destroy you. Death is permanent for a hero, where a strong critical can bring even the hardest tank to 0 in a hit. To prevent it from becoming an exercise in futility, it has 'death's door' mechanic--when you are hit to 0 you are not dead, but can be killed by any damage afterwards. Normally you can heal someone to keep them outside of that continually, but sometimes the game simply decides someone has to die.
If someone hits 100 stress for example, they can become paranoid. The healing can be refused, and the character can be killed easily. This happened to my original crusader, who I had spent 10,000 gold on upgrading and many hours leveling. Or you can be hit by a high amount of damage that causes bleeding, or blight, and the instant their turn comes they die to the damage over time. This happened to my Hellion, who I spent 15,000 gold on. After a death, it becomes hard to continue a mission and often times requires it to be abandoned. All the resources purchased for that mission are wasted.
This also is one of the best examples of what makes Darkest Dungeon so engaging. Darkest Dungeon creates stories that you want to tell your friends afterwards. Even if it is that you have a nympho priestess who turns out has deviant tastes and got banned from the brothel, or the time that your bounty hunter stayed at 0 stress as the rest of his team went insane. It creates scenarios that are simply interesting and unique from player to player.
Darkest Dungeon can spiral to have several missions where you don't have the money to remove stress and you barely have enough money for the resources. The game has no way to truly lose, but it can get to the point where it is frustratingly difficult to crawl out of. Normally I would call these instant deaths in a game bad game design, but this game's aesthetic from it's artwork to it's music, to the very game play, keep a melancholy tone, making frustrating instant death in Darkest Dungeon simply feel normal.
Darkest Dungeon currently only has three maps out of the five it intends to have on launch, and while it already has a large selection of different monster types and hero classes, it is lacking a variety of monster types and hero classes that are promised for the full release. At the moment the game still has a great deal of content, after 15 hours of play I've barely scratched the half way point. Currently there are also a handful of minor bugs, a crash when you try to click on the caravan a second time, traits when being removed have an underscore instead of a space, relatively minor bugs.
If you are curious to try Darkest Dungeon in early access, I would never suggest this game to someone who gets angry at games when someone dies or when things go very wrong. For anyone who wants a challenging game that has a lot of content already in the game, it's a wonderful engaging experience of depression and frustration. If you want to be able to actually beat the game, and not get sucked into the bleak everlasting darkness now, wait the 6 months for the game release.
Early access was purchased by the previewer on Steam, you can purchase it here in early access.