I hate Darkest Dungeon. With every fibre of my being, I hate it. Not because it’s a bad game; it is, in fact, one of the best games I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing—certainly the best I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing professionally. I hate it because it punishes me at every opportunity. Never a moment’s respite from having my nose rubbed in failure like a dog left home alone. It’s humiliating and degrading in ways that are typically reserved for professional dominatrixes (dominatrixi?). And I’ve loved every embarrassing moment of my abysmal failure—but I digress.
From the first time I saw the art style of Darkest Dungeon, I knew it was going to be something special. What I couldn’t have known is just how bleak the game would be—or how cruel.
Make no mistake; Darkest Dungeon is a true Roguelike. Many games may claim this, but few can have you losing party members in your tutorial battle. You will fail. You will have to discard saves. You will have to learn to abandon party members, rather than pay to recuperate them. And you will have to abandon missions and suffer the consequences in a desperate attempt to eke out a profit. Any and all attachments you may have to protecting a “core party” must be thrown out the window in order to survive, and you must abandon any loyalty or protective instinct you may hold towards the pawns you use for your greater purpose. They are disposable; expendable; nothing.
The game revolves around the tale of a great house, burdened by the weight of luxury and excess, driven to explore the mysterious nature of its manse, only to open a buried portal to the underworld and unleash Hell and damnation. After fleeing the outpour of abominations, and with one last missive sent out before his suicide, the lord of the house beckons you to return to restore your house’s name to greatness. But before even arriving in town, your wagon throws a wheel and your party is forced into combat with hell-touched highwaymen---but a taste of things to come. And not just the possibility, but probability of reaching a failstate during this introduction is a testament to the brutal and unforgiving nature of what Darkest Dungeon has in store
The story unfolds as you progress through dungeon delves—or doesn’t as you don’t, as the case may be. These delves are the indirect focus of the game, with the primary focus being on the steady stream of adventurers you recruit, attempt to train, and inevitably lose or abandon. With stress as a factor, both for the player and your adventurers in equal measure, every decision carries with it a great weight. Properly provisioning an expedition limits the impact of stress on a party, and helps to ensure success, but it’s also costly—prohibitively so. Torches will improve lighting conditions, reducing the chances of being ambushed, and limiting the effects of stress, but lower light increases critical chances and the volume of loot you find. But beware of your gambles; should a party member’s stress levels rise too high, they become Tested, causing them to develop a devastating negative perk (or rarely a positive one) that lasts until they destress. Their ability to spread stress to other party members in this state is devastating, and letting stress levels continue to rise will result in a fatal heart attack.
Beyond this, party members develop various positive and negative traits as they level up---should they last that long—and may require specific methods for destressing. With only limited slots to do so on offer, sometimes a kick in the pants is favourable—and certainly cheaper. These traits also frequently have combat effects, or can even lead party members to keep loot for themselves in the case of the ever-irritating “kleptomaniac”. And all the while, your botched adventures and failed attempts at heroism are put to a wonderfully bleak soundtrack, all with the stoic narration of the head of your house, a la Bastion.
The wealth of randomized dungeons on offer, the variety of recruitable classes and the ability to customize them for better synergy, and the brutal challenge of each new enemy all work together to provide an endless variety of options and opportunities for failure.
If there’s one great failing to Darkest Dungeon—and there is only one in my opinion—it’s that the game does little to emphasize the importance of developing the whole at the cost of the individual. Learning to exploit adventurers and abandon them when their value begins to diminish is very important, and it’s not at all something that I (or most gamers, I suspect) are accustomed to doing. Ruthless efficiency in place of sentimental loyalty is the only way by which you can hope to best the atrocities that threaten your ancestral home.
But that learning curve is a small price to pay for one of the most ruthlessly challenging, and downright enjoyable games I’ve played in ages. I may hate it more than any other game, but I also love it more than just about any other as well.