Darkest Dungeon Impressions – Worried Mother Simulator

Difficulty in video games recently has been often (and almost exclusively) attributed to the Souls games. In a time when health-packs have nearly disappeared and ducking behind cover to lick your wounds is the new norm, games that are punishing tend to stand out. With the recent release of Darkest Dungeon on PC, we might just have a new face for difficulty.

Darkest Dungeon is a true dungeon crawler/roguelike game brought to life by the indie developer Red Hook Studios.  The game features a very Lovecraftian narrative, in which an unnamed narrator introduces the player early on (in a letter to an unspecified recipient) to the past of his once great and honourable house that has now “fallen to ruin.” The man, whom I mistook for an Alexander of Brennenburg (the antagonist of Amnesia: The Dark Descent) clone, lived a life of extravagance but had recently become obsessed with a power rumoured to be below the mansion he resided in.

He spent the remainder of his wealth on his newfound obsession, and he was not prepared for what he would uncover. The workers he had hired discovered an ancient gate to a very hellish place, a dungeon with horrors that would slaughter and ruin all who entered, leaving only the man himself. His last wish, before taking his own life, is for someone to finish his work, to claim his “birthright” and to find this power amongst the terrible walls of the (wait for it) Darkest Dungeon.

Although the recipient of the letter is never specified, looters and adventurers from all over respond in an effort to find glory and wealth. The player, taking form as what I like to pretend is a very worried mother, creates a party of flawed adventurers to traverse the treacherous halls below the ground.  From this, you are given a checklist of “kill this, level up character to X,” and the story seems to fall into the fray from there. The game focuses more on character building and decision making, this manifests into making every character in your roster (the upgradable pool of adventurers) truly human, each bundled with their own traits, quirks and flaws that flesh out what would normally be just run of the mill husks. That said, they do also make great effort to avoid the classic “thief, archer, warrior, mage” build.

My first two adventurers, Reynauld and Dismas. I truly believed they'd be hacking it up for hours. They lasted 10 minutes :( .

My first two adventurers, Reynauld and Dismas. I truly believed they’d be hacking it up for hours. They lasted 10 minutes 🙁 .

The effort you put into keeping your characters battle-ready can even seem to outweigh the dungeon crawling in this dungeon crawler, as the game is made up almost exclusively of micromanagement. The gameplay is split up between two main components. The town, where you upgrade, treat and reduce the accumulated stress of your adventurers through conventional and unconventional means and the dungeon, where the roguelike elements shine through and you must crawl and cut your way through enemies and obstacles alike. Together, these aspects create both one of my favorite and one of my most hated gameplay experiences.

Here lies the Estate Map, where you decide where you're going to begin hating yourself.

Here lies the Estate Map, where you decide where you’re going to begin hating yourself.

For some context, you need to understand what kind of gamer I am. I don’t play BioWare games because I can’t stand my decisions carrying a great amount of weight. When I tried to power through Mass Effect, I ended up responsible for someone who wasn’t even in my party shooting themselves in the head and I proceeded to put down my controller, walk outside and just stare at the ground. Essentially, making decisions that can result in loss doesn’t sit well with me. This is where the “most hated” comes out thanks to Darkest Dungeon.

Every decision you make in this game, from how many torches you provision to whether or not you investigate that shady looking meat cart all effect your adventurers “stress.” The stress bar, holding a numerical value of 100, increases depending on how dark the dungeon currently is alongside what actions you take and which enemies you fight.  In addition to the stress you must watch out for, you must also be aware that if any of your party members die, they stay dead and the game auto-saves so often that you can never exploit your way out of a finality.

Anyway, as the stress bar caps out thanks to whatever unfortunate reason, your adventurers will either receive a positive blessing or a negative affliction. If you, for instance, are fortunate enough to have a character become “ferocious” they will reduce the stress of other party members while gaining a small amount of health for themselves and will receive a bonus to their stats. Alternatively, if your adventurer becomes “abusive” they will constantly demean their fellow party members, quickly driving the rest of them insane. This system, unfortunately, is where I started to find problems with this game.

Throwing back to the Souls games, their difficulty is grueling but fair. Every time you die, you can easily understand that the death was preventable and that you can do something next time to avoid it. Darkest Dungeon on the other hand suffers from a condition called “artificial difficulty.” Essentially, the game seems unfairly stacked against the player as it has random and unpreventable challenges that the player could almost never prepare for. This “artificial difficulty” can end up leading to the extent of pen snapping, mouse chucking frustration.

For some more context, let me introduce you to my greatest enemy: RNGesus, the almighty power of random number generators. You see, most of the times when stress is applied to your characters, it is applied based on random chance and consistent intervals. Your torch within the dungeons depletes quickly so you are constantly subject to two to four point hits of stress every few seconds of walking, and on top of that, you also are faced with attacks from enemies that if not dodged will strike a whopping 15+ stress per hit. There are also critical hits, traps, books and assorted other things that will increase your stress, subsequently stacking the odds of any dungeon against your constantly degrading heroes.

After a seemingly safe run, I had returned to town with a load of corpses and disappointment.

After a seemingly safe run, I had returned to town with a load of corpses and disappointment.

In a game where you are not only constantly watching the things you have nurtured and loved die or go insane, but also listen to the same 5 quips from the narrator and endure the rather obnoxious dialogue pop-ups that both add personality and pause any actions, you may find it hard to understand why I think this game is excellent.

Behind it’s rather unique art style, the game functions really well. As a hater of turn-based combat (after many bad experiences) I have been turned full circle and find myself gleefully setting up combo’s and begging RNGesus for critical strikes. The grim setting and overall ominous feel of the game are a wonderful touch, and I’m sure as the rest of the dungeon wings are unlocked as the game leaves early access, the problems that I have will hopefully have been solved.

As much as I’d like to hate this game (simply to save myself from losing any more of my beloved little adventurers) I can’t. I do hope that the issue of artificial difficulty, alongside some of the other problems the game has are fixed as this game leaves early access, but that is entirely up to how the developer reacts to player feedback. All of that said, whether you are searching for a new game to play or are a hard core gamer looking for another skull to crack, I recommend you at least let your heartstrings get torn like mine were in the depths of the Darkest Dungeon.