Darkest Dungeon is a gothic roguelike RPG dungeon crawler about the psychological stresses of adventuring. You will lead a band of four heroes on a perilous side-scrolling descent, dealing with a prodigious number of threats to their bodily health, and worse, a relentless assault on their mental fortitude! Five hundred feet below the earth you will not only fight unimaginable foes, but famine, disease, and the stress of the ever-encroaching dark. Darkest Dungeon focuses on the humanity and psychological vulnerability of the heroes and asks: What emotional toll does a life of adventure take? [Red Hook Studios]
Single-Player, RPG and tactical gameplay
January 18, 2018
PS4, PS Vita, Switch, PC
Developer: Red Hook Studios
Publisher: Red Hook Studios
Rating: M for Mature
Masochists rejoice! Darkest Dungeon’s long-awaited release on the Nintendo Switch has arrived as it was previously an Early Access game on PC, and a year ago found its way on PS4 and PS Vita. Created by developer Red Hook Studios, Darkest Dungeon is a gripping tour de force that provides a completely individualistic experience and might be one of the best turn-based RPGs ever created.
Spiritual content: The world of Darkest Dungeon is teeming with dark magic, occultic worship, and mysticism of all kinds. It’s unknown what religions encompass the mythos of Darkest Dungeon’s world, but most of it derives from unequivocal sacrifice and hurting any of those who oppose your belief. When venturing into a dungeon, there are effigies, idols, and sacrificial/worship tables you can search for items or blessings/curses.
Violence: Darkest Dungeon is a chalk full of violence and this ranges from from stabbing, slicing, hitting, shooting, biting and impaling, to casting dark magic’s that drain health, cause bleeding, poison effects, or hinder character movement. Blood and gore are displayed with each cutting and shooting attack, and corpses litter the ground after enemies are defeated. Certain characters can cauterize or stitch wounded areas; in this case, nothing is shown other than the icon for the action performed.
The world and dungeons you venture into feature death and famine everywhere, and the enemies are particularly grisly. The Lovecraftian aesthetic features some truly disturbing sights of enemies missing limbs, covered in blood, or disfigured.
Language/crude humor: D*** and h*** are used by a few of the characters. Also, the game is pretty much telling you to “go to hell” in the promotional material.
Sexual content: There is a brothel you can have a character use in order to decrease sanity. Nothing is shown, but states it’s just for the client to “enjoy.”
Darkest Dungeon is a turn-based dungeon crawler with a new twist on status effects in the form of stress and psychological traits that carry over between excursions that can only be relieved by various activities to allow a character to recoup. The story revolves around the player taking control of a gothic mansion while the previous owner narrates his quest for power and fame by escalating the dungeons and catacombs beneath his very own home. This unleashes otherworldly horrors throughout the land, and these Lovecraftian enemies are certainly the things of nightmares with their grotesque appearances and occult-rich vices.
You are tasked with recruiting various class-based heroes all of which have their own unique abilities, traits, and equippable items in order to defeat what lurks in the darkest dungeon and the four surrounding areas. Each area features different hazards, enemy types, and other monstrosities lurking around every corner. The somewhat permanent psychological traits build up for each hero to flesh out that character in a deep algorithm of randomness. This in turn makes each character memorable, but all the more terrible if and when they die.
At the beginning of Darkest Dungeon, you are told to embrace death, and this could not be more true as you will have numerous heroes die throughout your playthrough. Personally, I probably lost sixty heroes in just under fifty hours of play time. Forcing you to try and stay detached, while constantly adapting to new teams is Darkest Dungeon’s bread and butter, and you should never grow too attached to those in your party.
After succeeding or failing at a mission, your heroes will be returned to their home town of Hamlet. This is an upgradeable home base that allows for improving weapons or armor, relieving stress, improving abilities, recruiting new heroes, and more. The town itself can experience its own randomness in town events that may help or hinder you in a variety of different ways. When a team is ready to embark, you’ll have a set task to achieve, whether it be defeating unique bosses or just exploring every room.
While crawling through a randomized dungeon layout, the team will have to battle numerous monstrosities in a single file line while taking turns attacking or performing abilities and skills. This is where tactical positioning comes in. Certain classes are more suited for certain positions based on their abilities and the same goes for enemies; for example: healers in the back, brawlers in the front, and alchemists or buff specialists in the middle.
Quests can vary in length and range from short, medium, and long. The medium and long length quests will require the team to bring firewood in order to set-up a campsite in the middle of a journey to recoup some strength and sanity. Camping makes the adventure feel tangible, as if everyone would really get tired and hungry while exploring a downtrodden maze. Each class brings another set of abilities to camping as well with some being able to tend wounds, serenade the party with music, pray, and much more. This extra level of planning while inside a dungeon is a nice touch.
Almost after fifty hours of playtime, I feel like I’ve barely made a dent in completing Darkest Dungeon, and by no means is this a bad thing. The highest level you can upgrade a character is six and the higher their level, the less likely the are to fall prey to certain psychological effects. Heroes at level six are theoretically ready to tackle the actual darkest dungeon, but I still struggled with level five in the harder standard quests. The good part is that with the more dungeons you enter, the more loot you gain to level up your party’s starting level, taking away the grind of leveling up someone again from a lower level.
While the classes are very diversified in their expertise’s, I felt like the healing aspect of some of your characters doesn’t feel right. There are only two classes that do any type of party healing and other characters having various abilities that just heal themselves or only a smaller percentage of another heroes HP. Since your available pool of heroes is random, sometimes you may not even have a good healer to take on a quest. You might think this can be mitigated by healing items, but unfortunately there are none. You can bring food on each quest for when the heroes get hungry or for use during camping and this restores HP, but very little and it almost worthless outside its normal purpose.
When a hero’s HP hits zero, they enter a phase known as Death’s Door in which any subsequent hit has a 33% chance of killing them off for good. Should you happen to heal that character past the point of death, they now have a permanent debuff for the remainder of the quest. This almost feels too punishing, but I appreciated having a second or even third chance to save a hero knocking on Death’s Door. Also, if a hero’s sanity level reaches 100%, they will have a heart attack and be knocked down to zero HP. Even with a dedicated healer, it can be difficult to come back from zero HP.
The struggle is part of what makes Darkest Dungeon so intriguing and there are almost no boons in the players favor outside of the chance of gaining Virtue: a positive effect of stress that can add buffs to a character. While the difficulty could be a major turn-off for most, there is something ultimately gratifying and compelling to go exploring again in a new dungeon and seeing what new surprises await.
My only complaints involve the UI and how the menus work. Firstly, text while playing on the big screen is fine, but when in handheld mode it can appear too small at times. Secondly, I found navigating the menus and just searching for simple commands unintuitive and it becomes too easy to press the wrong thing or forget how to access a certain part of the menu. There is a help guide by pressing the Minus button, but it still seems like the controls could have been laid out better.
Even with a few nitpicks, the nature of Darkest Dungeon and the constantly compounding gameplay systems driven by dice rolls was always exciting to me. Even minor quests may quickly become an unmitigated disaster and that dance with death never grew old. You’ll quickly learn the ins and outs of each dungeon and see the same environments and enemies, but somehow Red Hook Studios managed to get a ton of mileage out of the limited resources they had. One or two classes may be essentially worthless, but the every ability of your team and hero pool are really cool to experiment with.
Finally, the visuals in Darkest Dungeon are about as perfect as a gothic rogue-like RPG can be. It is ambitious, especially with the design of the creatures, but smartly knows that it should not aim for heights beyond their scope. The small range of dungeons allows for each to be elaborately designed and memorable. Also, the soundtrack, composed by Stuart Chatwood, further enhances the dark atmosphere created by the story and graphical design.
Overall, Darkest Dungeon manages to pack a lot content in a small package and for the most part it’s amazingly presented and thought out. It asks a lot of the player with managing numerous systems, but the simple task of completing a quest or just narrowly escaping a bad situation keeps the experience fresh and exciting. There is very little to criticize about Darkest Dungeon and it is one experience I would recommend taking a trip into the abyss for.
+ Stunning art style
+ Great RPG mechanics
+ Intriguing story and lore to get lost in
+ Plenty of variety in gameplay and exploration
- Menu navigation can be clunky
- Some of the character classes are underutilized