- A difficult, challenging game;
- Dark, gothic atmosphere;
- Complex gameplay;
- Stressful, and not only for the heroes;
- Interesting design;
- A tad too much randomness.
After a couple of hours spent playing the Early Access version of Darkest Dungeon by Red Hook Studios, I had an impression of dealing with a title strongly reminiscent of so-called gamebooks, in which you must delve into catacombs, defeat lurking monsters, and collect precious loot. Something along the lines of a dark journey into the depths of dungeons inhabited by unspeakable evil. With the complex mechanics of a card came and the eerie atmosphere of a Lovecraftian horror added to the mix, you get the picture. Simply put, we are about to get a new dungeon crawler which, while trying to pass off as an old-school production, will try to sell us content interesting mainly to modern gamers.
The story is not very complex, but it doesn’t really have to be. Somewhere under an old manor, runs a network of tunnels, inhabited by abominable monstrosities and bandits. As a result of the actions of the manor’s last owner, this underground filth threatens to emerge on the surface and endanger the whole world. Only valiant heroes can stop this from happening. Therefore, a nearby ruined town becomes the destination of adventurous tomb raiders from the four corners of the world. Knights, mages, thieves, barbarians and other colorful characters are lured by this place in search of fame and fortune. The player has to form a party, descend into the dungeons, and once he or she completes a victorious raid in the dark corridors and chambers, safely reappear on the surface. This is, of course, the entire story told in a nutshell, as this simple pattern actually covers really complex mechanics, which you have no choice but to familiarize yourself with as you make progress in the game.
Although the team consists of only four characters, you may recruit up to nine heroes. As a result of their progress in ransacking the dungeons they gain new experience levels, thus improving their effectiveness. Your companions can also have extra features useful in combat, such as quick draw which increases the number of speed points, or greater resistance to stress. At the same time, they may be less responsive to positive group effects, averse to a certain mission or develop a phobia that comes out in critical situations. Moreover, your companions are described by numerous statistics, including health points, speed, damage, evasion, chance of dealing critical hits, ability to detect and disarm traps, and resistance to stun or bleeding effects. Heroes have two types of skills. Some are useful in combat, others during camping. As some raids are longer than others, it’s the game that decides whether you can rest in a given mission.
The movement in the dungeons may seem a little awkward to some players, but the system used by the developers works just fine. All four characters move simultaneously in real time. They move from the left side towards the right in 2D perspective, and encounter various surprises along the way, such as mysterious chests and pouches, alchemy tables, or torches. Note that the latter are an essential part of your equipment. While shining bright, a torch sheds light at your surroundings, keeps your heroes sane, and weakens your enemies. When its light dims or goes out, your team gets more stressed; monsters can become stronger, but at the same time they drop more valuable loot when defeated. On your journey and in turn-based combat you can switch formation of you characters, which gives some tactical options.
Stress is a key factor in Darkest Dungeon. Each character becomes stressed along the way – both while exploring the dungeons and in combat upon receiving damage. Once the stress level reaches its peak, a hero may go rogue and stop listening to your orders. Even if they manage to get out of the dungeons alive, they will need to recuperate in the town, which means they will be unavailable in the next raid. I must add here that the death of a character is permanent. Even a well-trained hero is lost for good when killed. Although there is plenty of volunteers for your party in the town, training them takes time, money and gear. Instead of looking for a matching allegory, let me compare this situation with Cannon Fodder. Similarly to that classic title by Sensible Software Studio, you may see a cemetery full of fallen heroes.
As I have already mentioned, combat is turn-based. The order of attacks depends on speed. Not every formation allows a hero to use a certain combat skill; you have to remember that to be successful, the formation should be chosen with regard to character skills. To me, this system resembles a complex card game, in which building a good deck before the proper game is essential for victory. You may, of course, simply count on your luck, but lack of planning and checking your cards regularly is bound to come back at you. This is especially true since there are so many skills that even characters of the same class may initially have completely different specializations. Good planning is a must.
While taking a break between raids, your heroes stay in the ruined town nearby, which offers many activities. The temple and the inn can mend their mental health. They can pray, mortify, rest, or gamble – effectiveness of these activities is often based on a given character’s strengths and weaknesses, as described above. In the forge you can improve your weapons, whereas the guild teach your heroes new skills. Each of these institutions can be expanded to increase their effectiveness in improving your party’s status. This, of course, requires resources, which you have to personally drag out of the tunnels.
It’s extremely easy to get hooked on Darkest Dungeon from the get-go. The game’s dark atmosphere is truly captivating, despite being occasionally counterbalanced by amusing and colorful design of dungeon dwellers. For now, the game is still in beta phase, so it may wear you out with only two music tracks being repeated over and over again. High difficulty is also a little frustrating, as after just a couple of missions it is difficult to find at least four characters who haven’t gone insane. The game developers are probably still working on the proper balance of gameplay – at least I hope they are. The thing I didn’t like is purchasing equipment before every mission. Each item has its price and you have no idea what is actually going to be useful next. Initially, I would buy a shovel each time I went underground, so as to be ready to dig out treasures. For several missions, though, it proved useless, as I wouldn’t find any place to use it. Of course, in the next mission, when the shovel was needed, I didn’t have it. This wouldn’t be a problem, had the once bought equipment stayed in a chest or some other place. The developers, however, decided that all items are lost once we leave a dungeon. Thus, each shopping session is a hit-or-miss. The only thing you know for sure is that you are going to need torches and food rations. How many of them, though? You can only guess. On the other hand, this solution seems kind of realistic, as you never know how deep a dungeon really is before actually entering its depths.
To sum up, Darkest Dungeon is definitely worth our attention; you have to remember, however, that it is still in development, and much time will pass before it gets a final polish. Nevertheless, this intriguing roguelike is already pretty impressive in its current form, which is a rare thing for an Early Access game.