Video Game Logic: First impressions of Darkest Dungeon

Danielle George / The Runner

Genre: Turn based dungeon crawler

Release: February 2015 (Early Access)

Platforms: Windows, PS4 (on completion)

Writer’s note: Darkest Dungeon is an early access title and as such its content is continually being tweaked, fixed and expanded upon. What follows are my thoughts on the game in its current state as of March 4, 2015 and shouldn’t be taken as a formal review. Details mentioned may change by press time.

“The body may heal but the mind is not always so resilient”–That’s a quote from 2011’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution, but it seems to better sum up the essence of Darkest Dungeon. Currently in development from Vancouver-based indie developer Red Hook Studios, Darkest Dungeon is definitely one of the more playable early access games on the Steam storefront. It’s a game all about the frailty of the human mind when confronted with unimaginable horror. What’s been presented so far is an addictive and clever new spin on turn-based combat with a delightfully grim Lovecraftian horror aesthetic.

Darkest Dungeon is a dungeon crawler with roguelike elements. Your family manor has been decimated and overrun with otherworldly monstrosities in the aftermath of an obsessed family member’s experiments. Now you must lead teams of hired adventurers through the various randomly generated dungeons beneath your home to purge the evil and reclaim your birthright.

Characters currently come in 10 classes (more to come), each with their own set of moves, although not every character within a particular class will have the same move set. Combat is your standard turn-based fare with two distinct twists: First, in addition to a health bar, characters have a stress meter—when stressful things happen to a character (both in and out of combat) the stress level rises. When things become too much to handle, the character is likely to go batshit bonkers, making the character unpredictable and unreliable. The mental scars of combat will also manifest themselves in the form of “quirks” which will stay with the character and affect the way they behave. The second major twist is that the game adds an element of character positioning to the mix, making for more strategic and dynamic combat. Between expeditions, adventurers can be upgraded, participate in various activities to relieve stress or be locked away in the sanitarium to remove negative quirks.

Darkest Dungeon really nails the atmosphere of Lovecraft-style horror. The artwork is beautifully detailed in its hand-drawn gothic style. Character designs for both adventurers and enemies are distinctive, varied and interesting. The throaty, baritone narration sets the tone for the game with its grim explanations for each action the player takes, as well as the general goings-on in the game world. However, some more voiceover would be a nice addition as currently the player is apt to hear the same comments over and over. Animation is left very basic and while it works with the hand-drawn art style one can’t help but think some more detail in that department would make the game look much more alive.

One thing that’s great about Darkest Dungeon is the way the game encourages the player to be a little bit of a bastard. When characters die, they die permanently—but that’s okay because the stagecoach is constantly bringing a supply of new ones. Evidently, adventurers-for-hire have a terrible union. This allows the player to send their team deeper into the dungeon for greater rewards, even when it means some of them likely won’t make it back. This is also something to keep in mind once the mental scars start piling up and that loyal soldier is no longer useful. Why waste resources on rehabilitation when you can just kick that burned-out, shell-of-a-man out the door and hire a fresh-faced new recruit? Admittedly this becomes less true once you’ve invested time and money into upgrading your characters, but at that point it becomes a matter of weighing risk and reward.

Darkest Dungeon can seem daunting at first, with somewhat complex systems and a strong element of chance, but the game is very well balanced and the mechanics don’t take too long to learn. The game relies heavily on internal dice rolls, but this can be managed by the player by weighing the risk and reward for potential actions. Death is permanent, which adds weight to the player’s decisions and makes for some very tense moments. Fortunately, the penalty for abandoning an expedition is minimal so the player usually has the option to save that ace character when things go south.

It’s always a gamble to buy an early access game, often one that’s not worth it compared to just buying a completed game. Even in its partially completed state, however, Darkest Dungeon has some very strong content and is definitely worth a look.

Looked at on PC using a Steam key provided by the developer.

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