New developer Red Hook Studios brings us Darkest Dungeon as the latest title in an increasingly rich, modern revitalization genre of games called “roguelite.” Roguelites are games based on the classic roguelike genre, but that take a more modern, mainstream approach than a roguelike–one that isn’t as punishing. Instead of featuring game mechanics like permanent death and randomized rooms, roguelites opt for predestined paths and death penalties, but keep most of the other characteristics of roguelikes.
Don’t worry though, Darkest Dungeon leaves little room for error. It often leans more toward the original roguelike genre than its modern successor. This game will have you on your knees, begging for mercy, within just the first couple levels. As made popular by these genres, death is not just a consequence of error; death is compulsory. Death is a key part of these types of games. You will die, whether you like it or not. This means that if you don’t like dying constantly in your games, you will want to steer clear of this polarizing experience.
Darkest Dungeon is a Steam Early Access game, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t polished. What I favored most about this game was the dark fantasy art style. Every single frame emits a gloomy, mysterious feeling, as you prep your gang of heroes for their inevitable glory and/or death. The two-dimensional sketch graphics fit the game perfectly, as you feel like you’re playing through a comic book come to life. Every hero, enemy, and environment looks like they belong, creating an intriguing world that makes you want to dig deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole.
The main gameplay consists of two ventures: exploring and combat. As you enter each dungeon, you are shown its layout and tasked with exploring and conquering it in any way you can. You have to be careful of certain routes, as traps and groups of enemies can appear from anywhere. On the other hand, treasures also lurk in the dungeons, so there are rewards for your risk-taking.
The turn-based combat is where things get interesting and frustrating. Your heroes start off as complete zeroes. Most of your attacks will initially do anywhere from 1-7 damage at random. A lot of the time, my attacks only did 1-3 damage or were dodged completely, which was incredibly frustrating, especially when the enemy attacks ranged from 5-7 damage.
I get that you are supposed to upgrade your heroes, but that’s incredibly difficult when they are dying all the time. In all honesty, I didn’t even want to upgrade my hero when there was such a high chance of losing them completely.
There are healing tools available, but I found them to be completely useless. Food, powers, and rest all provide healing, but only at a mere 1-3 health points per time, discouraging any real incentive to use healing in the first place. When you do explore a whole dungeon and defeat all its critters, it’s quite an excellent feeling; so it isn’t all doom and gloom, even if a few of your characters get lost along the way.
Despite my complaints about Darkest Dungeon, it is by far one of the most ambitious indie titles I’ve ever played. Red Hook Studios didn’t just settle for making a basic roguelite game. Behind the main gameplay, there are elements from other genres present as well, such as simulation, RPG, and action adventure. For example, to lessen the occurrence of the awful but necessary perishing, you will need to use all the available resources in the game to your advantage. Just about half of the game is comprised of actual dungeon crawling. The other half is in your preparation, through upgrading, buying and selling, and other game mechanics available in the “Estate” setting.
There is the Stage Coach, where you recruit new heroes (which you will be doing a lot of); the Tavern, where you try to handle your heroes’ stress levels; the Guild, where you upgrade your Heroes; and the Blacksmith, where you upgrade your heroes’ weapons. Those are just the default buildings, though, and you unlock even more as you progress past different dungeons and the increasing “Weeks,” which is another part of the progression system. There is a backstory provided as well, which describes a curse being set upon your family, and your having to set foot into the dungeons to get rid of it.
Throughout the game, you will have to keep track of your heroes individually as well. This is where the Simulation gameplay appears. Each hero has their own Stress and Hunger levels, which play a major part in their overall performance. Let your hero starve and they will start to fail you. Ignore the sanity of your hero and they will go insane, triggering one of their out-of-control characteristics (such as acting for themselves and not letting you decide what they should do). During a raid of any dungeon, you can also set up camp and rest your heroes at a bonfire, similar to a certain Dark Souls mechanic. Not only does this help manage your heroes’ stress levels, but it can also have healing effects on them. All these ambitious mechanics are nice to see, but, overall, they feel completely overwhelming and unnecessary. For example, I remember hitting a single trap, and all but one of my heroes were affected by it.
I had many problems with Darkest Dungeon–difficulty, balance, direction, being overwhelmed, pacing, UI, and just an overall sense of not having fun. Heroes speak randomly, depending on their stats, which I found annoying because they only have a limited number of responses. The game seems to have a rather unpleasant life of its own, with all the triggering and simulation mechanics behind the user gameplay.
In short, I will have to see a lot of refining before I’m willing to step foot in this dungeon again.
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