The scariest part of this game is the RNG.
Darkest Dungeon is the first game developed and published by the small, indie Red Hook Studios. It’s a rogue-like dungeon crawler with turn based party combat currently available only through Steam’s Early Access program, though Red Hook has recently announced a final release date of January 2016, which includes Mac, Linux, PS4, and PS Vita platforms. I usually stay away from Early Access because I’ve been burned before (I’m looking at you Spacebase DF-9). In this case though, Red Hook has shown how Early Access is meant to work. They came to Steam in February 2015 and have since delivered constant updates, adding large sections to the game and tweaking mechanics based on player feedback. Actually having a clear release date is a real achievement for an Early Access game, and for that alone, I could commend the developers to end.
Darkest Dungeon‘s premise is straighforward: you have inherited an old Gothic/Victorian manor from your uncle, who, of course, has been dabbling in the dark arts. And by dabbling, I mean he hired a bunch of people to start excavating old tunnels and catacombs under his house until he found a portal to Hell and opened it. You know. Like people do. Anyway, before he too is killed by the evil forces that now pervade the manor and the area around it, your uncle writes a letter and sends it to you, asking you to hurry home and cleanse the beloved family estate of the evil that dwells within.
Since your very own “House on Haunted Hill” is filled with monsters and demons and thieves (oh my!), you don’t actually get to enter your ancestral home right up front. Instead, you arrive in the run-down hamlet just at the edge of the manor grounds. Your job is to recruit heroes, send them into the dungeon, battle with monsters, and then (hopefully) bring them back out with gold and other goodies. You use the gold to upgrade the different buildings in the hamlet, which in turn allows you rest and heal heroes or upgrade them for later runs in the dungeons below. These heroes are expendable (i.e. they’re going to die or go crazy almost every time, especially early in the game), so don’t get attached. This is the Gothic version of XCOM—your people are going to die constantly, and there isn’t a whole lot you can do about it. Prepare to rage.
Right now, DD has four playable areas: the Cove, the Ruins, the Warrens, and the Weald. There is talk, however, that at official release in January, there will be a Darkest Dungeon location which will hold a serious end game boss. Each area has its own enemies and its own particular dangers, like higher rates of disease or poisoning. These inherent dangers, in turn, require you to prepare your party in certain key ways. For areas that have a higher chance of causing bleeding, you will need to take more bandages with your party when you deploy. For areas with poison, you need more antidotes, etc. These features, along with each zone’s indigenous enemies, keep the different areas feeling interesting in terms of both aesthetics and strategy, which is major plus. The game’s locations don’t just feel different; they require significantly altered approaches if you want to succeed.
While the title isn’t particularly inventive (“Darkest Dungeon” seems like the creative equivalent of “Scariest Forest” or “Moldiest Basement”), one of DD‘s biggest selling points is its atmosphere. Harsh, Gothic, evil—none of these even begin to describe the feeling of dread I had wandering the forgotten halls and passageways of the old family manor. In terms of ambiance, I can only compare it to my first experience playing FromSoftware’s Dark Souls (a comparison I will come back to later, but in less glowing terms). In this vein, much of the game’s design is clearly an homage to H.P. Lovecraft, both in style and content. Heck, one of the stronger monsters you run into while adventuring is called an Eldritch (from Lovecraft’s Eldritch tales). I haven’t personally read enough Lovecraft to know how deep the allusions go, but it’s clear the American horror writer’s work is a founding principle for this game. Score! I love it when literature and video games come together.
However, the oppressive atmosphere isn’t merely about aesthetic design. The dark, sinister quality of the world also impacts gameplay. One of the game’s core mechanics is darkness and managing how much light you have at any given time. When you are prepping your heroes for their journey, you must decide how much gear to take with them. Each piece of gear costs money, and your supply of such is harshly limited by the game’s design. As such, when you are deciding how many torches to take on your excursion, you have to choose wisely. As your heroes journey through the dungeons, the torches burn lower with every step. If the light runs out, enemies grow stronger, you are less likely to see traps set out for them on the floor, and their stress levels will rise. The trade-off is that complete darkness brings out better loot, so it’s your choice on how dark you want the world to be. Add in a camping mechanic, where longer journeys are broken up by overnight camps, during which you heal and rest your heroes before setting back out, and Darkest Dungeon is a game with onion-like layers of strategic depth.
This leads me to note one of the more original elements of the game’s design: stress. That’s right, unlike most dungeon crawler games, your heroes in this game are quite human. When they are struck by enemies, they gain stress. When the torches go out, they gain stress. When pretty much anything terrifying happens, they gain stress. The stress meters function on a 200 point scale. At 100 points, your heroes develop either a malady or a virtue, meaning they gain a quality that makes them raise or lower the stress of their companions. Some of the maladies can even cause your heroes to act for themselves, rather than listen to your commands, or skip their own turns altogether. And, in a game with difficulty as punishing as this one, a turn skip at the wrong time could lead to a squad wipe. At 200 points of stress, your hero will have a heart attack and die. A heart attack! Since your heroes are constantly gaining stress with every battle, sometimes with every step, the gameplay effect of this mechanic is much like that of a timer. If you stay too long, your heroes will gain attributes that will be expensive to heal when you are back in town. It’s an original an ingenious system that adds another layer of tactical complexity to the game.
As should be apparent by now, this is not a game to blindly dive into and wander around through some dungeons, just to see what happens. If your squad dies while in the dungeon, you get nothing. If you quit the dungeon early, before you have completed your quest, you get whatever loot they have gathered, but all of your heroes gain a large amount of stress, which will need to be healed in town. All of this costs, you guessed it, the precious gold, of which you have very little. This, in turn, leads you to cycle through heroes quickly at the game’s outset. Good thing there’s a stage coach that brings new heroes in every week (i.e. every time you enter and exit a dungeon)! In the early game, get ready for your team to be a revolving door of heroes. In fact, here’s a pro-tip: at the start of the game, don’t spend money upgrading your heroes. Let them die or leave, and keep coming in with fresh heroes. If you want to avoid hours of frustration, upgrade your town as soon as possible. Otherwise, you will do some serious rage quitting.
And, unfortunately, rage quitting is a lot of what you will be doing with this game, regardless of how you prepare. A lot. As a rogue like, Darkest Dungeon‘s combat is based upon a RNG (random number generator), where every action you take has a percentage chance of either succeeding or failing. In this game, the RNG gods are harsh taskmasters. Your characters will miss often, and your enemies will land critical hits equally as often as you do. I wouldn’t normally consider this a problem, but when you add in the AI’s suicide strategy (where they are usually only trying to raise your stress, with no regard for their own survival), DD‘s randomness is more frustrating than challenging. After all, how much can you really prepare for a roll of the dice?
This RNG nature, however, is not limited merely to the combat. It extends into the town as well, into elements that have no percentage of success or failure displayed. Want to send one of your characters to the tavern to heal his stress? Well, there’s a chance he’ll like drinking so much that he stays for a few weeks. Even if he’s your best character, you simply can’t get him back. And the game gives you no warning this could happen. Heroes will often lose some of your gold in town, or even a key item you worked hard to find in the dungeons. It’s moments like these that make Darkest Dungeon borderline infuriating and remove the fun that a game as lovingly crafted as this should produce.
On top of this issue with random events, you’ll find while playing this game that the difficulty curve is the opposite of what you might expect. It is brutally difficult up front, but it gets easier later on down the line. All games naturally become easier once players learn the game’s mechanics and its rules more fully. In this case, however, it’s not about learning mechanics; it’s about understanding a very specific way the developers want you to play it. You can’t come into this game and chart your own path through the difficulty curve. There is one way to do it, and you either figure that method out and start enjoying yourself, or you don’t, and you put the game down never to return. It’s an odd design choice, especially for a game that has such deep strategic systems, where the developers clearly wanted you to think deeply about the consequences of each and every move you make.
This is where I think the comparison to Dark Souls is apt, though not in the positive ways I tend to remember that franchise. I’m a huge fan of the Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls series (I’ve beaten all of them, some on NG+), but one of the issues with Dark Souls is that it draws a particular kind of gamer—that kind that grew up on NES games that were often difficult because they were just bad games. These gamers crave that punishing difficulty for the sake of being difficult, rather than difficulty being reflected in carefully crafted and intricate game mechanics. A quick look at the Steam forums for Darkest Dungeon reveals that same sort of gamer at work here, where questions or complaints about the difficulty—not just “hey, this is hard” but real questions about how mechanics are being implemented—are met with the typical “GIT GUD” response. In the end, I think appealing to this crowd is going to hurt Darkest Dungeon‘s broader appeal, and the Steam reviews of the past month or so are already reflecting that frustration on the average gamer’s part.
And when I say the mechanics are frustrating, I mean it. I’ve been in battles where I’ve missed 90% hits four times in a row. Yes, I understand that 90% chance to hit means I have a 10% chance to miss. I’ve beaten XCOM too, you know. Even in XCOM though, the RNG wasn’t as punishing as it is here. This is a game, on some level, that needs to be endured rather than played, and with so many other great gaming options out there, I just don’t know if Darkest Dungeon can keep gamers interested in its grueling difficulty long enough to figure out the secret of how the developers want it to be played.
All that being said, there is a wonderful feeling of satisfaction you get when you do start to overcome the game’s difficulty, and you start making consistent dungeon runs with the same sets of characters you’ve been developing for a while. This is where Darkest Dungeon reflects the better parts of Dark Souls. Though not quite on the same level, developing a winning strategy in DD, where can go into the depths and emerge victorious time and again, feels about as good as beating Ornstein and Smough for the first time. If DD can find some way to stretch that feeling out, it could have a winning combination on its hands. If not, well, wait for it to go on sale, and pick it up during a slow gaming season.
And prepare to bleed.