Darkest Dungeon is from a small developer called Red Hook and is a hard game to quantify; it is an RPG and a Dungeon Crawl; it is a Rogue-like and a psyche simulator; it is a also a revolutionary title that has to be played to truly understand how cool it can be. Red Hook has worked diligently on this title since 2012 with a small but dedicated team; a successful Kickstarter in 2014 helped fuel development and a strong launch in Steam Early Access gave them the audience and funds they need to continue. That is a very good thing because the game is compelling, addictive, and has a depth that makes coming back to this fun yet brutal game nearly compulsive.
Darkest Dungeon at it’s heart is an RPG sim that has you recruiting an ever growing roster of adventurers as they clear out dungeons, coves, and warrens in an effort to clear an ancestral home from darkness. The hook (pun intended) to the game system is that stress and anxiety pay a major role in the psyche of each of your adventurers. Your four person squad will head into a dungeon and as they explore they are afflicted with psyche hits and stress depending on what happens. Your torch is running out? Then your adventurers will suffer stress at walking through danger in darkness. Hit with a particularly strong attack? you will suffer major stress and possible chronic damage like bleeding or disease. Hit points down to zero or stress level is overly high? you just may suffer a heart attack that cause you to be at Deaths Door. There are also some positive quirks that hit your party randomly, but adventuring is a stressful business so don’t count on those.
The afflictions go on and on and in many cases a high level of stress also gives the character a lingering condition like faint hearted or arrogant which affects how they react to the arduous situations. These afflictions will negatively affect your party as they are attacked or surprised in the form of comments from the afflicted member. As your party is dealing with all this stress you are also trying to clear dungeons, disarm traps, and collect treasure. Gaining treasure and clearing dungeons is very important as this gives you not only increased levels and power, but also heirlooms and money. The heirlooms are used to improve facilities in town and money is used for many things like curing afflictions, diseases, stress relief and upgrades to weapons/armour.
All of this makes the game seem ridiculously complicated, but it is anything but thanks to the brilliant design and presentation mechanics. As you play through a dungeon it is very easy to see how your party is doing and if they are close to the edge. Battles play out in a turn based format with each adventurer attacking in sequence according to their speed. Actions are specific to each character type (and there are over 12 of them) and vary from type to type. Some are healers, some are close combat, and other are support types or mixed variations. All of the character types are interesting with great designs that reflect the archetype in a really effective way.
Facilities back in town like the tavern or abbey are used to provide stress relief through paid activities like praying or gambling. There is also a sanitarium to cure illnesses and negative quirks as well as blacksmith and guild to improve your characters stats. New characters can be recruited often from the stagecoach which is great because this game is brutally hard; expect to lose one or even your whole party while out on missions. The game stacks on stress, afflictions, and regular combat damage as you explore which wears your party down before you know it.
With all of these obstacles, mechanics, and just plain hardships invoked while playing this game, why is it so fun and addictive? That is a hard answer to pinpoint, but Darkest Dungeon is easy to play with quick and simple commands to execute pretty much everything. The graphics, while not ground-breaking, are perfect for the dark tone of this game and actually help to immerse you in the world being presented by this game. The progression mechanics are also very addictive, manage to keep your party alive and they gain perks, quirks, and afflictions that can be cured or cultivated in town. You can also upgrade their skills, weapons, and armour which make you have a deep connection to each character. A lot of this attachment reminds me of XCOM, when I lost a long standing member in each game I was devastated and in Darkest Dungeon the game auto-saves all the time and if you fail there is no going back.
This immersion with the ‘realities’ of stress, illness and injury of an adventuring party is a fantastic hook, which coupled with great gameplay mechanics, make a terrific game that is hard to stop playing. It is hard to describe without actually trying it, so feel free to watch this Let’s Play video I recorded while working through a new save in the game. This title is still in Steam Early Access but the game is already stuffed full of character types, a Campaign mode and tons of great gameplay features, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.