Darkest Dungeon is a side-scrolling, fantasy rogue-lite RPG by Red Hook Studios that asks an interesting question. What would dungeon crawling really do to a person? Could you really hold onto your sanity in the face of the horrors that await you deep beneath the ground? You play as a group of adventurers, out to reclaim your ancestors homestead from the eldritch creatures which now infest it.
Darkest Dungeon was clearly inspired by the various works of cosmic horror and absolutely nails its Lovecraftian aesthetic. The hamlet in which you find yourself is dark, decayed and brooding. The enemies you encounter range from bloodthirsty man-fish hybrids to shambling Cthuloid monstrosities. Even the people of the hamlet have an unsettling, deranged look about them. All of this is realized in a wonderful, graphic novel style. The game has some of the strongest art direction I have ever seen. And to top it all off is the narrator. As you progress through the various dungeons his grim, ruthless comments only add to the dark, stressful atmosphere. Wayne June must be commended for his performance.
But what about the gameplay? The games basic loop is a fairly familiar one. You spend your time in the hamlet upgrading your adventures and the hamlet itself, taking on new recruits and trying to manage stress and disease. When you are ready you select a party of four, buy provisions and then set off to either the Ruins, Cove, Weald or Warrens in search of gold and heirlooms with which you can continue to upgrade. Each of the four areas has its own set of traps, enemies and curios (interactive objects in the dungeon). Combat is turn based and at first appears fairly conventional. However you soon realize that positioning and careful strategy are all important. Certain classes can only perform many of their abilities from specific positions from within your party (the Plague Doctor for example may only throw his plague grenade from one of the back two positions). You also have to take into account that not every ability can reach every enemy position. A swing with an axe simply can’t hit the healer stood at the back of the enemy party. There are several abilities (for you and your enemies) that can compensate for this. Pulling or pushing your foe out of position can make all the difference. This adds fantastic depth to an already enjoyable combat experience, full of varied abilities, enemies and tactics, elevating the gameplay above many other similar titles.
But what truly makes the game special is the stress system. Your heroes are only human and so can only take so much before madness begins to set in. Traps, wounds and numerous other obstacles will all raise the stress level of your hero. After a certain point is reached their resolve will be tested and they will acquire either a powerful virtue or a debilitating affliction. If the hero becomes even more stressed they will suffer a heart attack and die. Managing stress almost becomes a game within itself. Success in both quests and combat will help but to truly manage stress, camping is vital. You can camp in the longer dungeons, giving you an opportunity to rest, and to use camp-specific abilities which can reduce stress or heal a party member. Stress can also be treated in town at either the abbey or the tavern (for a price). The stress system forces you to think in a whole new way. Can your Healer face the rest of the dungeon without succumbing to madness? Should I bring my tank into the next dungeon, or leave him to recover in the tavern? Health refills after every run but stress does not reset, its ever-present nature has a huge impact on how you play the game, offering something new and unique.
Criticisms are few. The UI is perfectly functional on PC but suffers greatly on Ps4. The interface was clearly built with a mouse in mind and few changes have been made for console. But this small complaint does nothing to diminish the appeal of what is an assured, expertly designed and highly enjoyable experience. The difficulty may be a little much for some to stomach but with a fantastic official wiki should mostly compensate for this. It’s the small details that really turn Darkest Dungeon from a great game into an outstanding game. The animations in combat, the voice acting, the enemy designs. Love and effort clearly went into this game and it shows. Darkest Dungeon has a clear vision for what it wants to be and executes on it perfectly.