“Slowly, gently,” intones the noble bass of Darkest Dungeon’s narrator as a foe bleeds out and slumps to the ground. “This is how a life is taken.”
Except it is sometimes anything but. During one quest I stumbled across an altar and, despite specific warnings, offered flame and summoned some Eldritch terror from the void. My party was terrified by the sight – then, as the first member was cut down, they were driven mad.
I hammered the retreat button as another hero fell, and the final two escaped alive. Back in the waking world, brains spinning at what had just occurred, one had a heart attack and died on the spot. The last survivor looked at the corpse, clutched their own chest and fell. Everyone dead, quest over, all loot and treasure gone, all investment in those heroes lost. Sacrificed on the altar of curiosity, for a cosmic kick in the teeth.
Darkest Dungeon is a turn-based battler with an overarching structure, and one idea that lifts it way above the ordinary. This is stress, the idea that people subjected to the kind of horrors that dungeon explorers go through might crack under the pressure. Each hero has their own stress meter, which is regularly added to by everything from it being too dark to the presence of a killer god, and when a tipping point is reached their mental fortitude is tested. In some cases they’ll respond favourably and inspire their compatriots but, far more often, the mind breaks.
The effects are enervating. Heroes can become abusive, hurling insults at their comrades. Often they’re fearful or selfish, desperate to save their own skin. Sometimes they even reveal a masochistic streak by “marking” themselves for enemies, screaming for death, and refusing heals. All of these activities impact your control over battles and constantly increase the stress of the other three heroes. When one loses their grip, the others will rarely be far behind.
Such a slippery slope means that Darkest Dungeon will brutally punish the foolhardy. Even when you successfully complete quests, characters may be permanently marked – a new phobia, perhaps, or some persistent sickness. At the bottom of the stress system is endurance. It’s not about if your characters will go mad, so much as if you can finish the quest before they do – and how far you’ll push them when the prize is in sight. The turn-based battling, similarly, is impossible to sustain indefinitely – each fight will leave your party a little weaker, a little more wounded, and more anxious to reach the quest’s end.
Battling is the focus over exploration, with navigation left to a top-down map and short 2D corridors – which can contain curios, enemies, and traps, but are a simple business that is always traversed left-to-right. This, in itself, is fine but the layouts often involve dead ends that must be explored and then re-traversed, which can occasionally result in an extra battle, though it’s more often than not just dull backtracking.
You fight with four heroes, of various classes, in a horizontal formation where using abilities depends on position. An Arbalest, for example, is a stout crossbow-user that can rain down fire or snipe enemies from the back, but has nothing to offer at the front. A Crusader, on the other hand, is an armoured knight that needs to be up there to hit anything. Then there are all sorts of edge cases – and unique classes such as the Jester – who can move up and down the line with big flourishes, dropping high-damage attacks and retreating to wait out the debuffs.
There are a dozen classes in all, too many to detail except to say there is little crossover and the ability to “train” skills makes all the difference. Each class has a set of possible skills, four of which can be active at any one time, and so with a little gold you can build a given hero exactly the way you like. Such investments are perilous, however. Any hero that dies is gone forever, along with their equipment and upgrades, so picking favourites can prove a costly business.
The threat of permadeath and the ever-encroaching possibility of madness mean that no fight in Darkest Dungeon is a cakewalk. Every enemy has something nasty going for it, and, over the fights, heroes gradually lose HP and become more stressed – the healing classes can’t quite keep up with the damage taken. And if one of your heroes is weak you’d better believe that the enemy will recognise and target them – any amount of damage that would reduce a character’s HP to 0 or below leaves them at “death’s door”, where one damage will kill but they have an increased dodge chance. These are thrilling turnarounds, when they work out, but a huge stress to your party and, needless to say, often the beginning of the end.
Battles come down to knowing your enemy, judicious target choice, knowing when to bunker down and when to let loose. The numbers game and the mental layer are represented by large, gorgeous sprites, their attack animations stylised into freeze-frame camera zooms and moments of crisis foregrounded in detailed portraits. Over time, certain of these heroes – bent under the mental baggage of countless successful quests, and adorned in the finest gear – almost acquire a personality, such is the dynamic build-up of characteristics. Though your heart hardens over time to the inevitability of it all, the first time you lose a seasoned campaigner is a blow.
Their death will be marked, indeed almost celebrated, by the doom-laden baritone of Darkest Dungeon’s omnipresent narrator. “More dust.” The game is split between adventuring and time spent in the hamlet, bridged by this ancestor’s delivery of story nuggets or, far more often, an indulgence in his extensive vocabulary and lust for death. The style is curious, like a script written as flavour text, but thematically it holds disparate parts together with macabre atmosphere. Amoral, prideful, knowledgeable, cynical and all-too-conscious of man’s frailty in the face of horrors, actor Wayne June is devilishly good.
The hamlet is where, between quests, you raise and train a small army of dedicated heroes to die in service. A caravan brings new heroes every week, there are methods to relieve stress and other ailments, and ways to armour and improve heroes – all through spending the loot you earn on adventures. The way the hamlet scales with your success is pleasing, but it’s an area where Darkest Dungeon also falls down – checking through your party and equipping / training / curing them is a needlessly fussy back-and-forth business.
A larger problem is that the game is built around clever re-use of environments and mission scaling – but also has at its core permadeath. This means that a few bad runs can set you back a long way. After losing two high-level teams, for example, I had to spend a good hour just training up a batch of level 0 recruits to replace them. Permadeath should mean consequences, but making the player repeat early challenges feels like salt in the wound. Such late-game grind only dulls the shine of the rest, and that’s a pity.
Darkest Dungeon is something fresh in one of gaming’s most overdone genres, and the stress system is a winner – a particular delight being how a long-lived character will accumulate various mental scars. The game builds slowly, as you learn to juggle this new ruleset, with patient steps and careful victories. You’re in control. Then it slips so fast when a team goes too far – and their tiny minds, one-by-one, crack like eggs. Gambling against death is at the heart of Darkest Dungeon, because every time something glitters the truly crazy decision would be to walk away.
Red Hook Studios; Linux/Mac/PC/PS4/PS Vita
This article was written by Rich Stanton, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 27th January 2016 07.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010