On Tuesday, February 3, indie developer Red Hook Studios pushed their new title Darkest Dungeon onto Steam Early Access after an incredibly successful Kickstarter last year which saw the game meeting 9 of its stretch targets.
There’s a good reason why Darkest Dungeon was so successful: the proof is in the pudding, ladies and gentlemen. Darkest Dungeon is a dangerous, captivating, and deadly delve into both the physical and psychological torment that adventurers go through on their quest for riches and glory. Never before have I come across that concept, let alone the manner in which Red Hook developed the idea and presented it in the gameplay, and it contains some of the most intriguing and meaningful decisions I’ve ever seen.
Darkest Dungeon is a story about a man, obsessed with finding the hidden secrets of his old, venerable family estate. Upon spending the family’s entire fortune and unearthing a demonic portal of doom, the estate is crushed and consumed by evil. Now, your forbear urges you to come back, to right his wrongs, and delve into the depths of your ruined fortune and restore what was rightfully yours. At its core, the story itself isn’t new, but its presentation and gameplay bring it to life in a way that helps to make Darkest Dungeon a wonderful experience
The joy is to be found in the Affliction system. While delving, your team of stalwart adventurers may find that they’re not cut out for this line of work. Stress levels will rise, triggered by loss of light, getting injured in battle, seeing a party member fall in battle – even the time spent in such a creepy, monster-infested gets to them after a while.
When stress is pushed to the max, the character will undergo a skill check (ah, the good old tabletop days…) and the hero will either rise up and face their fears, gaining a positive trait that will bolster them and their fellow members through the rest of their dungeon dive, or succumb to the madness that their terror has wrought, gaining a negative trait that will affect them and possibly the rest of the party. These can be anything from an increased critical hit chance or more effective dodging, to lowered resistances and becoming verbally abusive to the rest of the party, which then increases the stress levels of everyone else. The Affliction system can quickly accumulate these negatives, and sometimes you’ll find that you’re completely out of control of your own party as you watch them turn on each other while the monsters gleefully watch on.
In short, you’re often your own worst enemy.
The Affliction system is powerful and it adds a new level of thought to the dungeon crawling genre. You can attempt to reduce your stress levels by completing your quest run in the dungeon (good luck, you’ll need it), or by completing activities in town. Sending individuals off to gamble or pray in the chapel are all good ideas, but make sure you have both the funds to pay for it, and additional members to replace the ones that need some me-time. You need a full party of 4 to head out into the danger. Some of the treasure you bring back, if you’re successful, is used to upgrade the facilities in the town – helping your heroes recover more quickly, upgrade their gear, or buy items to help them on their way.
The list of hero types is extensive, with each having their own preferences in team position and targets, with their own unique skills. While avatars are mostly the same, names are randomly generated and due to the Affliction system they tend to evolve their own distinct personalities. My Leper is a righteous tank while my Highwayman bunked off for three days after gambling, only to mysteriously return with no explanation (that jerk). One of the most interesting aspects of Darkest Dungeon is putting together a party that you hope will last the next encounter. As you play, you learn what combos work together (Berserker and Bounty Hunter for the win!). Most importantly, you learn what not to do next time.
If you’re successful in completing your run (and that is a very big if), your heroes earn Resolve experience, which is used to level. I have only successfully managed to level two heroes to Resolve level 1, but it does improve their ability to resist stress while questing. As you embark on each quest, you have the option of supplying yourself for the journey (food and torches are a must have), as well as choosing which dungeon to explore and what type of mission you can go on. Currently, it seems to jump around randomly with what places are available and what types of delves you can do (short, medium, skirmish, exploration) but I hope that aspect gets nailed down to be less randomized as it develops.
Decisions matter in Darkest Dungeon, like they’ve never mattered before. Perma-death is not a new concept, by any means, but with the Affliction system it makes every step perilous, every decision nail-biting – even taking the time to think about what decision to make can see your team crumble from the inside. It makes it all the more sweet when things go your way, too. I had two utterly unsuccessful delves in a row, where my party of 4 were annihilated. I hired a few more trusty meatbags- err, adventurers, and tried again. My third delve was met with stunning blows, lucky strikes, hordes of treasure, a few level ups, and some excellent positive traits. Each successful strike and kill of an enemy elicited from me a fist pump and a resounding, “Take that!” It was exhilarating and it’s been a long, long time (if ever) where any game was so intense and so satisfying. Darkest Dungeon nails it. There’s a healthy dollop of RNG then, as with many roguelikes, but it never threatens to overshadow the enjoyment.
The devs specifically highlight Darkest Dungeon’s “Lovecraftian” story, which is a dead-on description of both the story itself and the highly stylized, “crow-quill,” comicbook-esque graphics. H.P. Lovecraft developed his self-named style by writing about the unknown, the supernatural and extraterrestrial elements within the horror genre and how evil and otherwordliness can literally drive people insane, most famouls in his Cthulhu Mythos, which has expanded over the decades by many other writers to become a rich tapestry of lore and unspeakable horrors. Lovecraft would be proud of what Darkest Dungeon accomplishes, both with its deep, somber narrator and unique monsters.
Darkest Dungeon elicits some powerful nostalgic vibes, too, as the 2D graphics you see in the screenshots here attest to. Party position matters, denoting what skills are usable from what position, which enemy can be attacked, and which position that party member prefers to be in. Leveling is difficult, particularly when put up against the Affliction system and perma-death, but it is oh-so-sweet when achieved. Your roster can always be filled with new, fresh recruits, but you may not always get that healer you so desperately need (true story).
Darkest Dungeon is hard, and frustrating when it doesn’t go your way, but intensely satisfying when it does. That feeling is intensified by the narrator, who will interject during battles. I had one instance where I did a 20+ critical hit on an enemy with only 8 hit points, and his enthusiastic, “A singular strike!” was both heartfelt and carried real conviction behind it. When things don’t go your way, you can hear the sardonic smile in his voice when he murmurs, “How quickly the tides can turn,” and watch your party crumble into oblivion. Even at this stage of development, there’s a massive amount of polish in the presentation and gameplay systems.
Of course, being in its infant days of Early Access means you’ll encounter bugs that need squishing. I had one complete crash to desktop, and two instances where the code for an item appeared rather than its actual text. Red Hook has been vigilant and active in reaching out to their backers, so I don’t suspect that bugs like that will remain very long, and you hopefully won’t see them once Darkest Dungeon is finally finished.
My only suggestion after some intense sessions would be for Red Hook to look at some particular traits that feel as though they should be mutually exclusive. For example, I had one character who was both God Fearing (will only Pray while in town to relieve stress) and Love Interest (will only visit the brothel in town to relieve stress). Going to one or the other won’t work, as the hero will say that they need to pray if you try the brothel, and wants the pleasures of the flesh if you try to send them to pray. You can remove negative effects in the Sanitarium, for a price, but it’s expensive early on and requires a dungeon visit to make that hero available again. Those “will only X in town” should probably be a one-time deal, if a hero has one trait, they shouldn’t be able to get a second or third. Also, another hero of mine had both Weald Phobe (a minus to stats while in that dungeon) and Weald Warrior (plus to stats while in that dungeon); again, a few mutually exclusive code items should be inserted.
But you’re one of those people who abhors the idea of buying an Early Access title for fear of wasting your money, throw that notion in the dirt right now. Even at this stage, Darkest Dungeon is one of the best games I’ve played in a very long time, and only $20 in Early Access will net you plenty of content, with plenty more to come added in the way of free updates. Red Hook religiously respond to users on Steam and Twitter (I know, I tag them all the time), and are supportive and appreciate the feedback that they’ve had since development began. If you only invest in one Early Access title this year, make it Darkest Dungeon.
You won’t be disappointed.