First Dark Souls, now Darkest Dungeon? I need to get outside more…
Darkest Dungeon is an independent game by Red Hook Studios. It was successfully crowd-funded on kickstarter in February 2014 and released fully in January 2016. Since then, it has sold over a million copies and is slated to receive DLC in the near future.
“Ruin has come to our family.”
These are the first words that you hear when you start, and they reflect the dark nature of this game. When you open Darkest Dungeon, a cutscene plays before we get to the main menu. The cut scene is of a man writing a letter to you, regaling you with events that precede your arrival. In the game, he is called “The Ancestor” so it’s not clear on the specifics of your relationship. But what we do know, is that we are the same family.
Originally, your family’s estate (which you name later) was a wealthy manor, perched on a cliff over a moor. He talks about the wealth, luxury, and rumors of the antiquated halls. It is said that far beneath the estate there is “a gateway to some fabulous and unnameable power.” The ancestor, growing more and more curious about the rumors, decided to peruse the whispers. He explains that he used up the remainder of his fortune to uncover these secrets, hiring men to excavate the site.
What he found was a stone portal, containing horrors beyond rational thought. The hired workers were slaughtered by some ancient evil and only The Ancestor made it out alive. We end the cut scene with his final thoughts, as he takes is life after sending the letter.
“You remember our venerable house, opulent and imperial, it is a festering abomination. I beg you, return home, claim your birthright and deliver our family from the ravenous clutching shadows of the Darkest Dungeon.”
This cutscene plays before the starting menu of the game and does a good job to set the mood of the game. It also parallels concepts that you will encounter within a session of the game. The Ancestor hires men to do the job for him, which is what you do in the form of hiring units. And like The Ancestor, your hired muscle may face their demise because of it.
Starting a new game will start another cutscene, this time describing your travels to your family estate. This is the point where I need to bring up a point of criticism, although it is very minor. The narration in this game is phenomenal, the voice acting talent of Wayne June is stellar. However, it’s not clear whether or not we are listening to him speak to us directly, if we are reading memoirs, if he’s a ghost, or if it’s just a narration. This is a minor complaint, but the identity of the narrator isn’t internally consistent. It’s implied that The Ancestor killed himself after sending out the letter, we see him reach for a gun and we hear a gunshot over an image of the estate. Is the dialog that reacts to my actions also a letter that he wrote before he died? Luckily, Mr. June’s baritone voice and the vocabulary of the narration make for a good listen if a little repetitive.
The first section of any new game will be the same for all players. The cutscene leaves you on a forest road after your stagecoach crashes. You are introduced to your first two units Dismas the Highwayman and Reynauld the Crusader. These units are given to the player in every game, their stats and quirks are the same every time. You traverse a linear dungeon called “The Old Road” which serves as a tutorial for basic unit controls. The game guides you through a week in the estate, then leaves the players to their own devices.
One of the prominent themes in Darkest Dungeon is “Lovecraftian horror” a subgenre of horror fiction. Lovecraftian horror is named after H.P.Lovecraft, a late 19th-century author most famous for the cultivation of the Cthulu mythos. Lovecraftian horror focuses on the unknown and the indifference of the universe. Our everyday lives are an illusion, and reality is so alien that it would damage the psyche of an ordinary human. Darkest Dungeon contains concepts like unknown power, insanity, and unholy cultists.
Combat in Darkest Dungeon is turn based and is where the majority of mechanics focus on. You set up the formation of your units before you enter the dungeon, but units are not limited to this for the entire duration. A typical encounter will happen when scouring a dungeon and will be versus an enemy team in their own formation. Units abilities are restricted to specific targets and can only be used in certain positions. For example, the crusader’s “smite” ability can only be used in the parties first two positions, and can only target and deal damage to the enemy’s first two positions. The priority of who gets to attack is determined by all combatants speed. The faster the unit, the more likely they are to go first. Once that person has taken their turn, they can no longer act until every other unit has acted. Once all units are finished, the round restarts and everyone has to compete for going first again. A unit’s turn consists of them picking an ability to use, swapping positions with an adjacent ally, or just passing.
Combat bonuses (“buffs”) and debilitations (“Debuffs”) are given to a unit in percentages. For example, the plague doctor’s “emboldening vapors” increases units damage by 25%. This buff lasts for a few turns and is able to have multiple instances stacked on a single target. percentages are added up to a total percentage if they are similar. Having two emboldening vapors would yield a 50% bonus to damage. The only things that don’t follow this rule are accuracy, speed, and dodge. These don’t work by percentages because these are bonuses added onto a virtual dice roll. There are 2 different damage over time effects called “bleed” and “blight.” Both of these mechanically act the same, they deal damage to a unit at the start of their turn. lastly, there is a debuff called “marked” that acts differently depending on which side casts it. Having a mark on a player’s unit means enemies are more likely to attack that unit. Having a mark on an enemy allows specific abilities to do more damage to the marked foe.
Units called “heroes” are at the core of this game. Units are how the players interact with and explore dungeons. Each unit has a class which determines their abilities and statistics. Normally, units have eight different combat abilities, of which four are randomly chosen when the unit is available for hire. These abilities are unique to each class, and there is no overlap of abilities. Heroes that specialize in damage will have more abilities dedicated to damage but will lack in other areas, like protecting themselves. There are currently 15 different classes in Darkest Dungeon:
- The Abomination: This unit is special in that it has access to all of his abilities from the get go. He has a second form which can deal a substantial amount of damage, at the cost of slowly driving your party insane.
- The Antiquarian: This is another special unit because it passively increases the amount of gold you get and can carry through the dungeon. However, she is not an effective damage dealer. Instead, she helps the party with useful buffs.
- The Arbalest: This unit is a heavy damage dealer who is better suited to attacking from a range. She also has slight healing and debuffing capabilities.
- The Bounty Hunter: This unit is a damage dealing unit. He specializes in taking on a single enemy unit at a time.
- The Crusader: This unit is a frontline defender. Although he doesn’t have a large range, he specializes in taking hits and fighting the undead.
- The Graverobber: This unit is a nimble fighter, able to change her position within the party easily and deal surprising strikes.
- The Hellion: This unit is a barbaric melee fighter who does a lot of damage and excels in making opponents bleed.
- The Highwayman: This unit is a glass cannon, he can deal a lot of damage but is not able to take damage himself.
- The Houndmaster: This unit uses his trusty hound to harass enemies and help allies.
- The Jester: This unit helps ally units by applying buffs and relieving stress. He also has abilities which cause bleed.
- The Leper: This unit deals damage at a short range. What he lacks in range he makes up for in self-sufficiency.
- The Man-At-Arms: This unit is a hearty fighter who specialized in rallying allies and taking hits for others.
- The Occultist: This unit uses eldritch magic to damage and debilitates foes. He does have healing abilities, however, they have their own risks.
- The Plague doctor: This unit specializes in spreading blight to enemy units as well as buffing allies.
- The Vestal: This unit specializes in healing and stunning enemies.
Units have what’s called “camping abilities.” The abilities are used during a camping event that happens in dungeons. These abilities are meant to relieve your units stress and give temporary bonuses.
The dungeons themselves are randomly generated. In the lower right-hand side of the screen is a map of the dungeon which marks your current position. You choose which room to progress to and lead your troupe down a corridor to get to it. Rooms can be empty, have treasure, and/or have enemy units. They can also have a “curio” which are good or bad events. Corridors contain traps, random encounters, and curios.
Each step you take and each room you enter reduces your torchlight. With a higher torchlight, your units will receive less stress and monsters will not be as difficult. Having a low amount of light will make enemies hit harder and cause your heroes to take more stress damage. However, the amount of loot that you receive will increase. Players decide what’s more important, loot or their unit’s well-being.
Torchlight is an important mechanic to understand while delving into dungeons, and it reflects a common motif in this game. Resource management will crop up in a lot of aspects of the game. From upgrading buildings to managing units stress, players are tasked to be as efficient as possible. When you’re not spending quality time in a dungeon, you’re managing resources at the Hamlet. This includes buying trinkets for units, healing stress, removing quirks, upgrading armor, and upgrading abilities.
During your dungeon diving escapades, your units will take damage and receive stress from enemy attacks. If a unit’s health reaches zero then they will be put at “death’s door”, a state where any resulting damage has a chance to kill the unit. Stress is on a scale of zero to 200. Once a unit reaches 100 stress, their resolve is tested. There are two possible outcomes of this, either the stress will embolden the hero or break their will. If they pass then they will get a massive random buff that lasts for the rest of the dungeon. For example, your character could become “powerful” and receive a 25% bonus to damage. If they fail, they will be put into a state of affliction. In the afflicted state the unit will sometimes disobey commands, refuse buffs and healing, and cause stress to other units. When stress reaches 200, then they will have a heart attack, bringing them to death’s door. Having a heart attack at death’s door can cause a deathblow, and kill the hero.
One side effect of affliction, as well as dungeon exploration, are quirks. Units can develop quirks which affect the hero, both in the hamlet and in the dungeon. These come in the form of derangements and virtues and can have either a positive or negative effect. For example, your units could develop a “fear of mankind’ which will increase the stress that they receive from fighting other humans. These can be removed from the unit for a price at the hamlet’s mental ward, however. Lastly, units can receive diseases from traps and enemies. These are always bad and will affect your heroes combat ability. Like quirks, these can be removed at the hamlet.
Each expedition is one week in game time, and as time progresses the dungeons get harder and harder. This is balanced by giving the players the option to choose where they want to go. Each week, various dungeons of different levels are made throughout your estate and you get to choose which one to send a party to. Each dungeon has a level, reward, a goal, and a location. there are five different locations that dictate the challenges you face. The ruin is home to undead, the cove has fish-people, the weald house terrible pig mutants, the warrens have blight infested fungus people, and the darkest dungeon house unspeakable horrors. The goal of each dungeon ranges from exploring rooms to picking up tomes, to beating bosses.
After you pick a location to travel to, you are tasked with purchasing provisions for your units. Provisions are items that can be used in the dungeon like food, shovels, and torches. Players can buy as many provisions as they want, providing they have the money and inventory space to do so. It’s good to be conservative, however, as the inventory space that the provisions take up are also where you store loot.
Darkest Dungeon is effective at creating complex scenarios with straight forward rules. There is no hidden component to any of the player’s abilities. The majority of things can be clearly explained by scrolling over an icon. This is a turn-based tactics game, meaning players are expected to take the time to think about their moves. It’s genuinely satisfying to see a plan that you make come through and pay off. One problem, however, is the randomness of this game. It can feel like the game is working against you when you miss twice in a row and the enemy gets a critical strike. Additionally, a fair amount of trial and error is needed for some aspects of the game. Bosses are especially prone to this, you’re not really given any clue as to what the boss can do based on its description. Never the less, this game is great for those who like time to think of a plan and manage recourses.