Darkest Dungeon's vampiric DLC is brutal and needs balancing, but it's still fun

I've restarted Darkest Dungeon twice in a huff since The Crimson Court was released this week. On its own, perhaps this is unsurprising, given that I've started the game a dozen times or more since its release. But there's a huge difference between those restarts and these: my problem with my campaigns hasn't been that I got bored with the grind, it's that not knowing how the new Crimson Court mechanics work has ruined my games. This is different from how Darkest Dungeon used to be—so different, in fact, that it's fair to say that Crimson Court has made a massive change to the core philosophy of Darkest Dungeon as a game.

If blood is necessary for survival, and blood is a totally random drop, there's no way for players to plan around it.

Here's what I mean by that. Darkest Dungeon is structurally similar to other tactics games like XCOM or Massive Chalice: the core of the experience is a difficult, complex tactical mode (in DD's case, a dungeon, in XCOM's case, a level) with a supplemental strategic layer that allows for character and equipment improvements. 

What separated Darkest Dungeon from these other games, particularly the strategically intense XCOM 2, was that there was no significantly strategic pressure on the player. With the exception of a late-game event, nothing would make you lose the game based on your decisions in the Hamlet. Every setback tactically could be dealt with knowing that if need be, you could train and equip a new set of heroes to head back in. This allowed the dungeons to be harder, and be played with permadeath, because the core tension was never "I'm not getting better fast enough" but rather "should I take this risk in my adventures?"

This has changed dramatically with The Crimson Court expansion. Thematically, the new DLC is centered on blood and vampirism. A new class, the Flagellant, inflicts and heals from bleeding attacks; a new set of enemies are built around a vampiric/mosquito look that's significantly more creative than I might have expected from just hearing that there are vampires now.

But the core of The Crimson Court is the Crimson Curse, a form of vampirism that can afflict your party members and which is acquired from the enemies in the new Courtyard zone. When they catch the Curse, characters get a slight debuff that grows worse over time, eventually leading to them wasting away and dying should they not acquire blood, a new, randomly dropping resource. What's more, characters who are assigned to the same in-town tasks like, say, reducing stress in the Tavern, have the chance to transfer the Curse to one another. This means that it is entirely possible for your entire crew to become Cursed and slowly waste away and die, either in town or even during a dungeon expedition. Hence the core philosophical change, and hence my need to restart, twice.

Now we've got bad blood

There's been a notable backlash to The Crimson Court due to the especially stingy drop rates on blood—in two days, not one but two patches increased those rates. While that aspect of the game can certainly stand improvement, even if it gets better there are still major issues with the decision, even beyond the conceptual change I described above. First, if blood is necessary for survival, and blood is a totally random drop, there's no way for players to plan around it. They just have to fight and hope and occasionally decide which of their favorite characters gets to live or die—unless the drop rate is increased to the point where it doesn't matter, in which case, it doesn't matter.

The last of the three insect sources is placed behind a fairly difficult boss monster.

But the bigger issue is how the new content for The Crimson Court is introduced, which is antithetical to what Darkest Dungeon does, and also bad for players who want to see the new stuff. A few weeks into a new campaign, players will get a notification saying that strange bugs are bothering the town, that their stress-relieving skills are slightly less effective, and they'll get a quest to go the Courtyard to fix it.

The quest itself seems simple—find and destroy three sources of the insects, which makes it look like one of the random and usually easy quests that players will have seen across the rest of the game. Bizarrely, however, the first Courtyard quest is neither random nor easy. First of all, it takes place in a fairly long, pre-set dungeon. Second, the last of the three insect sources is placed behind a fairly difficult boss monster—I tried and failed to defeat it multiple times, in the same increasingly boring dungeon, every time. And oh, since the monsters in the Courtyard are the primary sources of the Crimson Curse, every single one of those failures applied more and more strategic pressure.

There's also no indicator that there is a mandatory boss creature in that first Courtyard quest, either. In every other aspect of Darkest Dungeon, the game goes out of its way to make sure that you know you're getting into some deep doo-doo when you prepare to take out the Necromancer's Apprentice or the Swine Prince. But the Courtyard? It encourages you go there immediately, then punishes you, permanently, for making that mistake.

Thus my advice to new players, and my strategy for my current, third game is this: deal with the inefficient stress relief until you can get a party of well-equipped level two adventurers, then try to tackle the Courtyard. While this is working for me, I also realize that what I'm saying here is "in order to play the new expansion for this wonderful game, go out of your way to avoid playing the new stuff in the expansion for as long as possible" which, uh, seems like something isn't working right.

It's unfortunate because all the pieces of The Crimson Court are fun. I like the new class, the the new enemies, and the addition of any new dungeon space helps the game feel varied. Even the philosophical change engendered by the Crimson Curse isn't necessarily bad, as long as it gets balanced right. 

But right now, these different aspects don't come together as a coherent package, especially at first glance. Darkest Dungeon is one of Steam Early Access' biggest success stories; both fans and developers Red Hook would probably be well-served to treat its new expansion like it's in Early Access for a few weeks as well.