Darkest Dungeon is a turn-based RPG that’s brutal, often unfair, and consistently bringing the kind of surprises you cannot possibly prepare for. That last part is one of Darkest Dungeon’s bigger problems. It slowly makes the math side of video games seem as sterile and soulless as real-life math can feel.
You know, most of the time when you hear about math in games, it’s to do with procedural generation, and it’s usually negatively received. Yet math is an understated, yet essential, part of the creation of any game. Algorithms, spreadsheets, algebra and probably a job lot of abacuses and calculators run through the code of each and every game, specifically tailored to ensure that when you so much as take a single, virtual step forward, the game will know that your avatar should step forward and not, y’know, launch into the air, spinning like an overzealous Booker T on a jet-propelled Tilt-a-Whirl. Yet the likes of procedural generation and random number generation are what stick out, mainly because these are rather common and popular implementations in the past few years. Heavily associated with the modern sub-genre of roguelikes, procedural and random generation can be compelling blessings or a blighted curse, depending on how a developer handles and subsequently relies on them.
Darkest Dungeon casts you as the new owner of a dreary, sprawling homestead in a dank, depressing hovel of a town, itself infected with an almost gothic rash of decay. There’s a lot of treasure and trinkets to be found in the underground passages and dungeons of the placed. Rather than roll your sleeves up and search for it all yourself, you’re to employ teams of highly skilled individuals to venture forth into the dreadful darkness of the estate’s many underground rooms and corridors, because these men and women are fools willing to do your bidding. They do not know the horrors that await them, horrors that will shred their very psyches, and quite likely tear them to pieces physically, as well. All so you can earn some cold, hard cash and build the once shit hovel of a town into a shit hovel where you’ve got enough sparkly trinkets lying about to disguise the shit.
Of course the grounds of your newly-inherited home are rife with unspeakable evil–I mean, what else did you expect? Nobody inherits a cool house filled with nachos and craft beer in games, it’s always stocked up with evil and death. Here, there are plenty of obstacles for your four-person parties to contend with. Obstacles such as replicating skeletons encased in a luminescent goo, cultists with sharp n’ rusty metal spikes strapped to their arms, occult-dealing types that summon Eldritch horrors through portals to attack you, an oppressive darkness that you’ll constantly be fighting against, and–most importantly of all–you’ll be attempting to handle the minds of your party, as all these things combined take a psychological toll on the psyches of these poor fools.
The brave and unwise that venture into the dungeons are subjected to a rather novel twist on an RPG mainstay, regularly known as ‘“status effects,” by having very severe psychological trauma become as big of an impact on combat as being stunned, sliced, shot or severed does. The aforementioned darkness is one such thing. You get a finite amount of torches (although you can buy more before a mission, along with a variety of other supplies), and letting it get too dark can affect your volunteers and do strange things to their heads. Keeping it bright also gives you the jump on the beasts and beings that dwell down there, but lower light means their very appearance, coupled with the lack of light, causes your party to get stressed out, potentially lowering their resolve. The reactions from the ongoing stress get continually worse if left untreated, with madness manifesting itself via abusive behaviour, teary submission, aggressive selfishness, suicidal risk. In the most extreme cases, when they’ve seen and endured things beyond the comprehension of a normal human being, they can die of a heart attack.
There are some positive manifestations, too, which you can choose to make permanent, for a price. These occur when party member’s resolve is tested, but rather than succumb to negative effects, they rise up and fight the fear, causing a positive, upbeat vibe for the whole team for a bit. Being that these are all randomly generated heroes and situations, you’re never sure quite what will happen, which is fine for a bit–almost thrilling and novel as you experience your teams going snooker-loopy in different ways.
The whole sanity/insanity angle is by far Darkest Dungeon’s smartest move. Beyond that, it does feel very much like a generic 2D RPG with roguelike tendencies, cherry-picking ideas from the popular games of its type to retrofit itself. This is perfectly fine, of course, because that sanity hook it hangs from gleams with promise and ingenuity, but the roguelike in Darkest Dungeon dulls that hook somewhat.
The permadeath of anyone who perishes in the dungeons should be a winner here. XCOM, for example, makes you care for every life with the way permadeath matters. Darkest Dungeon gives you a procession of free, fresh meat to send to the slaughter, thus making you not care about them. You’ll probably be hard-pressed to remember many names, that’s for sure. This fits the game to some degree, as the angle is literally sending someone else to do a job because you don’t fancy dying, just diamond shoes. Why it doesn’t work is because even when you do maintain dungeoneers for extended periods, you soon learn that it doesn’t matter.
All too soon the excitement and grim glee of seeing what terrible things will befall your latest quartet of damned souls fades and the grind becomes an ever-increasing problem. Of course, that’s part and parcel of many a game like this, but here it becomes boring, which feels genuinely surprising when you see the deliciously dark, gothic, Lovecraftian art style and sombre, oppressive atmosphere Darkest Dungeon has. The randomness of it all adds an air of frustration, too, as you never can be properly prepared. Half the fun, I know, but it isn’t always as enjoyable as it could be.
Still, this isn’t going to be an issue for all (the damning difficulty might be, though), and there’s plenty of fans out there willing to endure to enjoy Darkest Dungeon, and that’s understandable. It’s a solid, if unspectacular, turn-based RPG that does unique and refreshing things within its particular playground, but don’t be surprised if over time the freshness sours and you feel a tad disappointed and a little bored by busywork.