Into the Darkness
The sound of howling beasts and moaning abominations grow louder and louder and the room grows darker as your final torch fizzles out. The pitch black darkness of the corridor accelerates your party’s stress, especially your Masochistic Highwayman who then suffers a heart attack and dies. The worst part of it, aside from the permadeath your best Highwayman just succumbed to, is that all of this happened a few paces away from the dungeon’s boss. That’s the first few hours of Darkest Dungeon in a nutshell.
Much like Dark Souls, which is heading to Nintendo Switch later this year, Darkest Dungeon is brutal at the start before becoming incredibly satisfying after you’ve gotten a hang of the game’s deep mechanics. Darkest Dungeon‘s basic loop — essentially just dungeon crawling with a couple different parties while others rest — goes from a daunting task to one that had me saying “just one more dungeon” on countless occasions.
Setting the Mood
Darkest Dungeon is a game about the stresses and horrors of dungeon crawling. The characters that make up your parties (you’ll put together at least three different parties eventually) will gain stress points as they explore dungeons, all of which have long corridors and a terrifying aesthetic. Not having enough light will increase stress, fighting horrific-looking enemies will increase stress, and being the victim of a critical hit will increase stress. A character’s resolve will be tested once they reach 100 stress points, and they’ll either receive a positive or negative personality quirk; however, more often than not it ends up being a negative one like Masochism, which causes the character to make pointed comments while exploring or in battle that cause the rest of the party’s stress to increase.
There are a myriad of negative personality quirks, and each and every one of your characters will have a handful of them. It’s important to remove the most damaging personality quirks through the treatment center as well as sending your high-stress characters on stress-relieving activities because they’ll suffer a heart attack and die if their stress reaches 200. You’ll have to complete another quest for the treatment or stress-relief to take effect, though, which is why it’s important to put together a second, third, or even fourth party to pick up the slack. Medical treatment, stress relief, party management, and more are all done through a hub world that plays more like a management game.
Characters may contract diseases in addition to negative quirks if they’re exposed to certain conditions; the most frequent cause of disease for my characters were when one had the Dark Temptation negative quirk, making them loot every grave and tomb the party came across. It turns out that grave digging isn’t very healthy. Diseases, like negative quirks, can be treated in the hub.
All quirks aren’t negative, though. Characters may be rewarded with positive quirks upon the successful completion of quests. These types of quirks may increase their speed, give them more attack damage in a certain dungeon, or increase their resistance to disease, to name a few. Positive quirks can be made permanent through medical treatment, otherwise they may be removed at random when another positive quirk is gained.
The point of putting all these characters through horrors that will make them Abusive or give them The Runs is to reclaim precious heirlooms from an estate lost to unsettling creatures. There are several different parts of the estate to explore: The Warrens, The Weald, The Cove, The Ruins, and lastly, The Darkest Dungeon. Each of these locations will have multiple quests at any given time, varying from exploring 90% of its rooms, defeating all the enemies, purifying corrupted altars, or defeating a boss. The quests will give you a randomly-generated dungeon to explore room-by-room in a sidescrolling fashion.
Rooms are split up by hallways that contain hazards, loot, and enemy encounters. Some dungeons are tiny while others are vast, sprawling mazes so it’s important to stock up on the right kind of provisions before diving in. The two most important provisions are food and torches; the former prevents starvation, which in turn causes characters to lose health and gain stress, while the latter illuminates hallways and rooms, giving your characters an increased dodge chance and less stress while exploring. You might not want to use torches for shorter runs, though, because the chance to get better loot increases as the torch gets fainter — the trade-off is that enemies get more powerful and your characters will accrue more stress.
Loot in the form of heirlooms will allow you to upgrade services available in the hub world, including being able to recruit more characters, increase weapon and armor strength, increase skill proficiency, and hold more characters for stress relief and medical treatment. Increasing a character’s weapons, armor, and skills is essential to surviving Darkest Dungeon, and there’s a bit of grinding required since a character can’t unlock level two skills or armor until that facility has been upgraded by trading in the required number of heirlooms. It’s definitely intimidating at first, but the grind becomes really fun once you get a handle on everything. Putting together a good party helps a lot.
The makeup of your party is more important in Darkest Dungeon than in any other turn-based RPG I’ve played. I didn’t have much success in Darkest Dungeon until I put together a good party, from left to right: Vestal (healing), Highwayman (DPS), Bounty Hunter (Tank), Leper (Tank). I’ve also swapped out the Highwayman for a Plague Doctor for certain high-level dungeons. The position that each party member takes in battle also matters, because certain characters, like the Leper, can only attack from the front two positions. The Highwayman, on the other hand, is most effective in the spot second to the back. Positioning matters for enemies, too, as the Leper can attack the front two enemy positions but not the back two. To make matters more complicated, enemies will often turn into a corpse that still occupies that position after they’ve been killed, so you’ll have to clear out the corpse for the rest of the enemies to move up. This turns even the simplest of encounters into a high-stakes chess match because, remember, characters are gone for good if they die in battle. It also makes each victory incredibly satisfying.
Boss battles require even more careful strategizing in order to come out victorious. One boss was simply three crossbow-wielding enemies, an enemy with a big long stick, and a cannon. The crossbow enemies fired on my party for low damage while the one with the stick ignited the cannon, which fired a shot to my entire party that would have killed everyone if it was able to fire again. Luckily, I figured that the cannon couldn’t fire without the stick-carrying enemy that activated it, so I took that one out first and dealt with the rest. Another more challenging boss had a pot in front of her that took up two spaces while she stood behind it, so I wasn’t able to attack with my high-damage Leper. I had to used weak range attacks while the boss plucked my party members and tossed them into the pot. I barely came out of that boss alive.
There are a myriad of systems to Darkest Dungeon‘s combat and class system, but don’t let that intimidate you. Although characters may be gone forever when they die, you can always recruit new ones to take their place. This lets you experiment and get the hang of things early on, before you put together killer A and B teams to take on The Darkest Dungeon.
As an aside, the Nintendo Switch version features full touch screen support — you could play the entire game without the use of buttons if you wanted to. There is also a Bastion-like narrator that comments on your adventure and provides some backstory, but I found that it often broke the mood of the game. Luckily, you can turn the narrator off in the options.
System reviewed on: Nintendo Switch.
Disclaimer: The reviewer purchased a copy of Darkest Dungeon for this review.