Darkest Dungeon was a game that I really wanted to like. Ever since its successful Kickstarter campaign and Early Access launch, the title had me sold me on its creepy art style, intense soundtrack, unique gameplay, and eerie narrator. While I could’ve easily jumped on the Early Access bandwagon months ago, I wanted to be patient with this title and savior the full release before I was giving a proper review.
Now fully released on PC, PlayStation 4 and PS Vita, I am at long last able to jump into Darkest Dungeon in all its Lovecraftian glory. From what I could gather from early impressions, I knew right off that the game was hard, and at times, considered to be a bit of a grind in regards to progression. While these impressions were indeed accurate, what was unexpected was the level of unfairness that this game had stored inside it.
There are few times in my life where I feel compelled in complaining about a game being too unfair for myself. Usually, I like to take my time with titles like this to rule out this notion, and determine whether if it was this factor, or myself simply just being too unfamiliar with how this title is meant to be played. However, in the weeks that I've toiled into Darkest Dungeon, and the long hours I've placed into grinding up my characters, I can say for certain that this is by far one of the most punishing games that I've played all year. So much so, that I’m finding it rather difficult for myself to even recommend it.
Developed by Red Hook Studios, Darkest Dungeon is a roguelike dungeon crawling RPG. As explained in the opening prologue, the story opens up with players inheriting an estate from a long distance relative. Long ago, this relative went on a huge excavating tour throughout the numerous dungeons and catacombs that lay underneath his estate. Throughout this journey, this relative of yours accidentally opened up several dark portals, which ended up releasing a large number of evil monsters onto this world. With the manor now in ruins, the family name tainted, and your relative now dead, it’s up to you as the sole heir to recruit a number of brave adventurers to cleanse the estate of these foul creatures and restore your family name.
In Darkest Dungeon, you don’t necessarily play as any particular group of characters. Instead, you manage several parties of up to four heroes to help you on your expedition in eliminating the corruption. There are around five different areas in which players must clear out before they can access the Darkest Dungeon. Within these areas, players will battle a variety of different enemies and bosses and will be encouraged to alter their gameplay tactics accordingly. Throughout Darkest Dungeon, players will have around fifteen different character classes to choose from, all of which vary in play style and can be upgraded over time.
Party arrangement plays a huge role when it comes to combat. Depending on your classes, some characters are more useful in certain positions than most. For instance, heroes like the Leper, Bounty Hunter, and Man-At-Arms are more useful at the front as their attacks are close range, while others such as the Arbalest are more suited for the back given they have a crossbow. Others such as the Houndmaster can be used in any position, but their layout depends on who else you have within your party. Logically, this system makes sense and does add an extra sense of strategy when it comes to planning ahead in your battles. It even adds an extra sense of tension when you have enemies that switch around your party formation.
At the start of every mission, players must go through a list of items they may need throughout their journey and purchase them through a vendor. Items such as food, torches, firewood and antidotes play a vital role throughout Darkest Dungeon, and players must be smart with their purchases to ensure they are well prepared for the grueling challenges that lay wait. Even something as simple as preparing for missions is met with its own faults. If you accidentally purchase one too many items or have leftovers in your collection, those items are simply tossed away. As a newcomer, I found this system to be incredibly frustrating. It's never really made clear as to what is the right amount of gear to have prepared for the journey, as most of the time you're just guessing.
As well as managing your health, what defines Darkest Dungeon is its sanity system. Throughout the game, stress plays a huge role in managing your character’s mental health. When a stress bar reaches its peak, party members will respond by developing negative traits which will affect either their combat abilities, health and/or ability to work with others. Characters do have the chance of developing virtuous traits, which can either reduce stress levels of party members or boost certain stats. However, these outcomes are pretty rare.
In the same vein of games like XCOM and Fire Emblem, if a hero is killed while exploring, that hero is lost forever. If you’re familiar with either title, you can probably understand the level of frustration that is to be expected in losing party members for good. Though unlike either title, Darkest Dungeon relies heavily on an autosave feature, effectively eliminating cheaters like me from exploiting saves to save my party members. If you’re the kind of guy who finds themselves emotionally invested in certain party members and has a terrible habit in loading save files just to save them, then Darkest Dungeon is probably not the game for you.
Visually, this game is astounding. Characters, level design, monsters, and bosses are illustrated in such detailed perfection. With a style that looks like a children's storybook mixed with H.P. Lovecraft, it really captures the horrific and atmospheric world of Darkest Dungeon. As for the soundtrack, you know when a developer has outdone themselves when I’ve even purchased the soundtrack as background noise for when I work. Music is tense, and perfectly encapsulates the dark fantasy atmosphere that the game is known for. But really when it comes down to it, both the music and graphics are not only the biggest highlights of this game, one of the key things that define Darkest Dungeon.
Now with all that said, let’s discuss the issues that I have with Darkest Dungeon as a whole. By this point, you probably know that I’ve had a difficult time playing this game and hopefully with my explanation about mechanics does paint a picture as to how it’s meant to be played. My problems with Darkest Dungeon is not that it’s simply too hard, or that it is simply frustrating. My problem is that I feel that the game is just simply too unbalanced.
When it comes to the enemy encounters, it is so easy to find yourself prevailing numerous dungeons at ease, only to then land on death's door moments later. Combine that with a steep difficulty curb, and you have yourself a game that is continuously kicking you in the spine without even giving you a moment to breathe. Another issue I have with the game is the financial management of it all. After each mission, you’re usually given a large sum of gold coins, which is usually spent on treating your character’s stress levels, upgrading equipment, and preparing items for the next mission. My gripe is that there never seems to be enough coins to cover most the necessities that this game appears to throw at me. As a result, most of these aspects such as the negative ailments go untreated. This in turn eventually racks up the cost of treating them.
Darkest Dungeon is hard. Very, very hard. As someone who rarely plays dungeon crawling games, it was quite difficult for myself to find enjoyment out of this. While there is a great deal of satisfaction in defeating some of the more grueling boss fights, the amount of frustration had in its grueling difficulty spikes and random encounters make it a rather difficult title to recommend.
Darkest Dungeon was reviewed on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita using a copy provided by the developer. It is also available on PC, Mac, and Linux via Steam and DRM-Free via GOG (Affiliate). Jason English also writes for Digital Fox.
Darkest Dungeon is hard. Very, very hard. As someone who rarely plays dungeon crawling games, it was quite difficult for myself to find enjoyment out of this. While there is a great deal of satisfaction to be had in defeating some of the more grueling battles, the amount of frustration had in its grueling difficulty spikes and random encounters does make it a difficult title to recommend.
- Beautiful Illustrations
- Awesome Soundtrack
- Satisfyingly Grueling Bosses
- Unfair Difficulty Spikes
- Pointless Grinding