Update: Darkest Dungeon has been nominated for IGN's 2016 Game of the Year.
Like most fiendish things, Darkest Dungeon appears much simpler and more benign than it is. Its grim but expressive hand-drawn art style, combined with how you only ever see your party of four mismatched adventurers trudge from left to right as the backgrounds scroll by like a demented Hannah Barbera cartoon, might give you the idea there’s not much to it. But once you’ve explored a few of these randomized dungeons and almost certainly seen several of your fragile characters brutally killed or driven insane, it’s revealed as an intimidatingly deep, tense, and intentionally opaque turn-based tactical game that’s dripping with character.
What strikes me most is how the rampant and merciless randomness always keeps me off balance, struggling to stay alive. It comes in both the usual accuracy percentages for various attacks and dodges, but also unexpected and unusual places - even the turn order is mixed up by behind-the-scenes dice rolls. So you’re never quite sure, for example, if your Vestal healer will be able to patch up your Crusader tank before the enemy can deal a killing blow, permanently removing that character and all his progress from your roster. By robbing you of the certainty and predictability you usually see in a turn-based tactics game of this nature, Darkest Dungeon creates tense and terrifying battles where you’re never sure what’ll happen next.
An Atmosphere of Doom
It’s all fantastically grim and delivered with great gravitas.
The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat are intensified by outstanding narration that frequently interjects with grim warnings and exclamations in response to events like critical hits or discovering potentially dangerous loot. The deep-voiced speaker, who portrays an ancestor of yours who first unearthed the dungeons before recognizing his folly, also doles out bits of loose, Lovecraftian story more as flavor than a meaningful plot. Mostly when beginning boss-level dungeons, he’ll give some background on how each unholy horror came to be and what role they played in his own mad quest, and it’s all fantastically grim and delivered with great gravitas.
Battles are great to watch, too. Using just a few frames of animation and some parallax movement, Darkest Dungeon conveys action and excitement, and the monster designs are varied and often creative. Battle is fought against a wide variety of bandits, skeleton warriors, fish men, filthy pig monsters, Eldritch horrors, and all manner of creatively designed monstrosities in between. The grotesque bosses are especially noteworthy for their unique and powerful abilities, which include a transforming lump of flesh and a Siren that temporarily seduces one of your party to her side.
Knowing when to fold a bad hand and retreat is as important as knowing how to play a good one.
It might feel unfair at times - because it is - but that’s where the tension comes from. It would be unforgivable for a game to put us in no-win situations with catastrophic consequences that can wipe away hours of progress, but Darkest Dungeon sidesteps that problem by giving us an eject button that allows you to bail out of a run that’s going south at nearly any time (it does have a chance to fail, like everything else), even in combat, and save your surviving characters at the cost of forfeiting your mission rewards. Like in poker, knowing when to fold a bad hand and retreat is as important as knowing how to play a good one.
A Deep Hole of Complexity
So it’s all about maximizing your odds of survival in these unforgiving places, though that’s easier said than done. It’s impressive how many different factors you have to consider when putting together a four-member team from the 14 distinctly different classes that not only has complementary abilities, but also taking care that no member is affected by weaknesses that might make them vulnerable to the perils of a particular dungeon run.
The first complex thing you have to consider is that each character has seven skills, such as the Highwayman’s bleed-inflicting Open Vein or the Grave Robber’s blight-loaded Poison Dart. You can only have four equipped at a time, and unlocking and upgrading each skill individually represents a considerable investment of resources. This forces you to specialize characters for specific roles, such as front-line melee or back-row support, or to spread your abilities thinly across the positional slots. Each class’s ability set is flexible enough that most characters can serve multiple roles, which adds a lot of diversity to possible builds.
Above: gameplay in the Weald dungeon.
But wait, there’s more: each character’s placement in the four-character lineup affects which skills can be used. For instance, Poison Dart can only be used if the Grave Robber is in slots three or four, Open Vein can only be used from slots one, two or three, but only against enemies in slots one or two. That not only necessitates careful arrangement of your party, but it means that an enemy can cast an ability that can knock you out of position and disable some of your most potent abilities, forcing you to spend turns shuffling back where you need to be. And of course, you can do the same to them, which can define entire strategies against certain enemies.
Certain items can definitely inspire me to rebuild a character around a certain skill.
On top of that you have to worry about equipping loot to boost character stats. It’s a little bland, in that items are rarely potent enough to grant new spins on existing abilities, but certain items can definitely inspire me to rebuild a character around a certain skill, such as a shield that granted my normally forward-facing Man-at-Arms major defensive bonuses, but only if he sat in position four, where he couldn’t use any of his offensive skills but could buff his teammates considerably, and even take hits for them.
Keeping track of all your characters is a big task.
Then there are quirks, which can positively or negatively impact a hero’s effectiveness in certain dungeons, or against certain enemies, or cause them to independently perform actions, including stealing any money you see in the case of Kleptomania, and each hero can have up to five positive and five negative traits. Keeping track of them all – your stable can hold up to 25 of them at once – is a big task.