Darkest Dungeon impressions: a maddening game to love

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Heroes of dungeon crawling games put up with some abhorrent working conditions. Diving into a pit full of angry zombies and creeping netherhings is not, in reality, something that a sane person does for a few gold coins. If they do, they certainly don’t come out the other side without a full-blown case of PTSD.

Kickstarter-funded Darkest Dungeon, now on Steam Early Access, turns this idea into a Lovecraftian roguelike. The patriarch of a venerable family has been excavating the sub-sub-sub basements of his family’s estate, and he’s delved too greedily and too deep and awakened something in the darkness. Now the pits are open and a frontier town of brothels and blacksmiths has sprung up to outfit adventurers depraved enough to make a go of it.

The writing and art are fantastic. The voice acting is also great, packing just enough bravado to stick the landing on lines bogged down with improbable eldritch imagery. The character and background art is delightfully macabre, like a colorized Edward Gorey expedition through hell.

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From your growing roster of characters back in town, you select any combination of four to journey forth.This is the first strategic decision: Do you roll with four heavy bruisers? Do you bring a medic, an archer, a thief? Different types of characters complement others, depending on skills. The four party members explore randomly generated dungeons, digging up loot and fighting in turn-based combat rounds familiar to anyone who has played a JRPG. I found it intensely addictive. There’s a wonderful risk/reward analysis going on as the party gets deeper and deeper into a dungeon. Every fight comes with a chance for disaster, but the quest has to be finished to make all the suffering worthwhile. At every step, I had to decide if I wanted to push down the next ancient hallway or retreat back to the surface.

Basically, my job is to bring these characters back healthy and sane, and managing the latter is the harder end of it. Each unworldly tentacle, each friend cut in half makes the adventurers stress out, an effect that can be (expensively and slowly) counteracted back in town with a judicious application of booze, sex, and manic prayer.

Balancing act

While in the pits, explorers keep torches lit, pack food, disarm traps, grab loot, camp, fight, cast healing spells, sing songs, bandage bleeding wounds, pacify poisons, and dispel curses. There’s so much mechanically going on that it’s incredible the game functions at all. That it functions so well is really impressive.

While many Early Access games have their work cut out trying to add features, developer Red Hook’s task will be balancing all the features it already has. An example: There is no way to heal a party outside of combat. I recognize this was done to keep players from healing to full strength after every scrap. In practice, though, my very capable battle mage will heal her friends while a maggot the size of a dog tries to chew her leg off, but when the dust settles she’ll hike for ten minutes on the precipice of death without applying a band-aid—because healing outside of battle isn’t allowed, I guess?

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When that same battle mage died, I felt real pain for that loss. She was gone forever, my entire camp of random recruits was without a healer, and any future parties I sent delving with no healing powers would never make it back. More than one character in a roster of eleven should be able to heal—and if not, I should be able to buy medicine to support a healer-less party. I’m not arguing that the game should be made easier, but I do think more tools are needed to manage the difficulty.

The effects of stress and insanity are also a little too prolific. After five trips into the dungeons, my most decorated adventurer is a nervous, alcoholic Satanophobe with claustrophobia, kleptomania, a guilty conscience, and devout faith. Oh, and he’s got stomach cramps and a torn rotator cuff. I understand that dungeon diving is rough business, but come on. Anyone who makes a career of it should do so without sounding like they fell down the Quirks chapter of the D&D book and hit every paragraph on the way down. Sending this character to the sanitarium to sort himself out would take seven in-game weeks and more gold than I’ve ever earned—another great feature that’s not quite in balance with the game around it.

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Overused though they may be, the insanities are also brilliant. After one too many brushes with death, a rookie bounty hunter’s mind snapped and he became abusive, haranguing the other party members and nitpicking their performance in combat. The more of a dick he was, the more it stressed out the other party members. When my plague doctor became irrational, he spouted apocalyptic nonsense and disobeyed orders, refusing to attack when told and switching order with the other party members, becoming a massive liability.

I’m just a dozen hours into Darkest Dungeon, but I’m already in love with it. Even at this stage of Steam Early Access, it’s kicking ass on just about every level. Darkest Dungeon is a great example of what modern roguelikes, and community-funded PC gaming, can be.