An estate in ruins, eldritch horrors, and eagerly suicidal heroes. Darkest Dungeon know its audience, and they’re the best kind of masochists.
“Ruin has come to our family.”
With an opening like this, you just know you’re in for a good time.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a review of Darkest Dungeon when it arrived on PS4. I had a single problem with it; a control scheme straight from the depths of the pit itself. Then Red Hook fixed that with the Switch release, so I needed to revisit this.
Darkest Dungeon is a side-scrolling turn based roguelike RPG from indie developer Red Hook Studios, and is best described as a punishing, torturous grind through horror and loss. It’s also one of the best games I have ever played and friend, I have played a lot of very good games.
Your ancestor has written you a letter saying to get your butt home, because he has totally messed up the estate and needs you to fix it. But while this sounds like the same setup as Stardew Valley, it’s less about farming and marrying the cool goth girl than it is about desperately trying to hold back the encroaching madness of the Elder Gods using an army of cool goth girls with spears and junk.
Zeroes to Heroes
For each quest you choose 4 heroes, each with their own pros and cons. Your starting roster consists of a Crusader, a religious tank/ damage-dealer, a Highwayman, wielding pistols for ranged damage, a Plague Doctor, the masked woman who supports with Blight damage and some party buffs, and the Vestal, a nun with some kick ass healing abilities. This team is balanced, a great intro for beginners, and remains very effective the whole way through the game. That doesn’t mean you should just use them, though, as from the versatile Grave Robber, to the werewolf-esque Abomination, there’s a huge variety of Heroes and Skills to take into quests, and half the fun of Darkest Dungeon comes from experimentation with your party.
And Darkest Dungeon does want you to experiment. My go-to in most games is to find something that works and stick to it, but Darkest Dungeon has never even heard of a comfort zone; it drives your characters insane with stress, gives them nasty diseases, and sometimes has your faves sit out a round or two for the sheer, unadulterated hell of it. This is how I discovered my favourite class, the Hellion, and what seemed like an inconvenience became the best thing ever. The Hellion is amazing; she immediately got Rabies in the first Dungeon she entered, which actually gave her a boost of 25% to damage at the cost of some accuracy, and ended up making her even more devastating. Later she became a vampire, and rabid barbarian vampire women for the goddam win.
Stress is arguably more important than health in Darkest Dungeon. At 100 Stress, your Hero will develop an Affliction, and this stays in effect after quests. These are, by the way, the absolute worst. Some aren’t terrible, like a compulsion to search every box you come across, which also carry their own risk-reward balance. Paranoid, on the other hand, makes the Hero randomly refuse Healing. Which also adds to the Stress of other party members. My first to lose his mind, Spiffington the Houndmaster, drove two of the party insane before he died because he wouldn’t let me heal him. Poor show, Spiffington.
Of course, there’s always the chance a Hero will rise to the occasion with a Virtue. Here, they gain a useful buff instead of crippling madness, but I wouldn’t bank on it happening much. Some Heroes like the Jester can reduce the Stress of their teammates with combat or campfire abilities, but it’s not something you should try to tank through. And sure, you can always send an Afflicted Hero to pray or booze their stress away in town to remove these issues. But sometimes it’s best to cut your losses and either fire them or just, ya know, let them die.
I let some people die.
The autosave is merciless, and so must you be. Permadeath doesn’t seem so bad, as you get to choose from a minimum of 4 new Heroes after each quest. But when you’ve invested hours and gold into levelling and upgrading a Hero, losing your first hurts. I gave all my guys custom names as well, and when my Plague Doctor Lazy Susan got cooked by a swamp Hag, I was enraged. Stress can kill too, by the way; while Afflictions seemed bad at 100 Stress, once you hit 200 you’re in heart attack territory. You can later visit the ever-growing graveyard in your estate to remember the fallen and how they died, which gets depressing, but really makes you care about your Heroes and think about how far you’ll push them for that sweet sweet loot.
Oooh, the Forbidden Word
Darkest Dungeon is one of those rare games that can legitimately be called Lovecraftian, and actually does it well. There are fish people and eldritch horrors, shamblers and necromancers, but this alone does not a Lovecraftian game make; the whole theme is the bleak, hopeless struggle against forces of unimaginable power, where your life and your sanity are constantly at risk, and the ending perfectly encapsulates this style as well.
It’s amazing how much Darkest Dungeon draws you in. The art looks so simple, but a cool light mechanic and some of the most appropriate ambience I’ve ever heard makes you lean forward in your seat as you press on through the dungeon. Your ancestor’s commentary is sardonic and omnipresent, commenting on critical hits, blight and bleeding damage, and stress levels. This, amazingly, never gets annoying, although I did actually shout at the screen more than once to shut up, I know they’re going to die, stop reminding me. And if you thought your character’s stress was bad, wait until you’re playing, because I got so engrossed I’m sure I woke the neighbours.
It’s not an easy game to understand the nuance of. There’s a ton of stuff to keep track of, like party classes, Afflictions, Stress, Diseases, Skills, Trinkets, and more. This is tough enough with just a few Heroes, but when you get a roster of 25 it’s damn near impossible. Management is literally the difference between life and death too, so it’s not like you can go in blind and hope for the best. I played with a spreadsheet of my team beside me, so I knew who would work in a given context.
No Guts, No Glory
There is no perfect way to play Darkest Dungeon. You’ll always be without something you need, stretched to the limit of your ability, and overreaching can be deadly. Once I had enough Level 3 characters to take on a Veteran dungeon, I jumped into it. I watched them all go insane and die. An entire team died fighting weird fish-people after 15 minutes because I didn’t understand that the jerks don’t bleed. I wept.
The best part of Darkest Dungeon is that 20 hours in you’ll still be learning, trying out new skills and combinations, and sometimes rebuilding Heroes from scratch. The upgrade system for weapons and abilities is interesting, allowing different Heroes of the same class to fill different roles in a party. Because of this, you never feel like you’re just grinding away with the same-old same-old, and the game feels fresh even dozens of hours in. I’m still learning and growing with an embarrassing amount of time invested.
More Masochism, Mate
I have to mention the additional content, because it is game changing. The Crimson Court added a new area, as well as a form of vampirism and some incredibly long dungeons. Do you want more badass women, because here’s one. The Shieldbreaker arrived, merging the spear tactics of the Hellion with the Blight abilities of the Plague Doctor. She even has her own little personal plot too. And an endless mode came in with the Colour of Madness; your Heroes don’t die so much as get lost in the twisted vortex of an eldrich madness dimension. This mode is all about the long game. It’s great. How can you not love this?
Darkest Dungeons is one of the best roguelikes I’ve ever played, and the Switch release has no flaws to speak of. It’s a damn near perfect game. I’d go so far as to say the word masterpiece. It hurts you, sure, but it only hurts you because it wants you to get better. The mechanics mesh together well and, while there may be too much intricacy to appeal to a mainstream market, it’s an absolute must-play for those wanting a challenge. It’s addictive, so much so that you may join your heroes in madness, but good luck getting me to stop playing now. Red Hook have made something really special here, and it’s definitely worth a peek into the darkness.