I am a huge fan of dark fantasy. By dark fantasy I don’t mean erotic fantasy, or perhaps playing as a modded Skyrim character with a tattoo and a motorcycle. I mean something like the Warhammer 40K grim dark world and Lovecraftian themes that speak of corrupted minds and shattered souls. Much like a difficult game, a difficult, dark universe for a game’s setting allows for a real sense of urgency in saving the people from oblivion. Too many games have a looming threat that the player must do away with, and defeat. However, whilst ultimately following this goal, the player is swamped by side quests and various random encounters. These side-line distractions often bog down and muddy the plot-line by making the urgency of apparently “saving the world” not so urgent. Townsfolk will potter around and speak of sweetrolls and elfroot, unaware of the swooping dragons and hordes of undead warriors only a few minutes walk away. The apparent lack of attention given to the horrifying state of affairs infesting the game world is often such a game-breaker for me that I will often run off from the main plot in order to simply explore. Darkest Dungeon however invites you into a world which is bleak with a capital B, preceded by an F word ending I-N-G. (Not farting).
Darkest Dungeon is a 2-D side-scrolling dungeon crawler with rogue-ish elements. You are tasked with rooting out corruption from your family estate and it’s surrounding lands after your ancestors experiments into the occult predictably led to disaster. Most of the time in the game you will be leading a group of heroes through a dungeon with a particular quest in mind. The way in which the movement through the dungeon works is fairly simple; moving along corridors filled with traps, enemy parties and random loot drops. The corridors are split up with rooms that allow for camping, where your characters can rest and recover health and stress. Rooms as you might expect are often filled with chests, shrines or more enemies to slay.
Characters in your party will start out with a selection of traits, some positive and others negative. Your character might be thick blooded, and resistant to poisons, perhaps they will have a hatred of demons and damage them more. Much more interestingly your characters will have a selection of negative traits, perhaps kleptomania, claustrophobia, fear of the undead or they might be just a complete drunk. The traits really come out in the dungeon crawls, that might well make the quest that much more difficult, or might well make the recovery process that much easier by drinking your characters into a blind stupor.
Before beginning the dungeon, you will decide which heroes you intend to take on the quest, up to a maximum of four, and decide their positioning. Positioning works forward to back, with heroes having certain abilities that only work if they are in the right position. Combat is turn-based, with your heroes having certain abilities depending on their classes. There are healers, tanks, damage dealers, support and ranged classes, and so a lot of room for strategy to be worked out. The importance of placing your heroes in the correct position is made paramount with the inclusion of these abilities and the stress mechanic. Certain abilities require you to be in a certain position in the line-up, and can only target certain enemies in their line-up. This results in the possibility of your heroes being knocked back or pushed forward into positions where they are less effective or perhaps completely useless.
The stress mechanic is the most novel addition to the game, and does the most to push the game beyond a solid experience to something far more engrossing. Certain enemies attacks will cause stress, perhaps due to their horrifying cries, or disgusting presence. The environment itself might well cause stress, perhaps one of your characters has a compulsion to check every corner for loot, to only find a corrupted book that chills them to the core. Each character will have a stress meter, that will fill up or deplete depending upon what happens during the quest. A character might critically hit two enemies killing them in one hit, and lose some stress for themselves and maybe the rest of the party. When the meter fills up the character will have their resolve tested resulting in good or bad outcomes. An example of a bad outcome would be your character becoming abusive, insulting your party and increasing their stress level on their turn. Conversely a good outcome shows your character rising to the challenge, finding new courage within themselves and inspiring their party to victory, reducing their own stress and the stress of the party.
Half the game will place you in charge of a hamlet, that contains a blacksmith, tavern, chapel and a sanatorium. The tavern and chapel are used to lower your characters stress level between quests. Depending on their traits and quirks, certain characters might prefer to indulge in the brothel, perhaps simply to meditate or maybe just drink the sorrows away.
Unlike many other game worlds, the world of Darkest Dungeon feels as if the evil to be slain is in every aspect of the environment, whether it be the forlorn music droning in the background, the devastated landscape comprised of ruins and hovels. Perhaps the shattered look in the eyes of the inhabitants, a sense that the people are rotting along with their decaying homes. The story is hurried along by the addition of a simple mechanic, the fact that you cannot wait around for your characters to rest or recuperate from their experiences. In order for time to pass you will have to go on another dungeon crawl, regardless if you can’t afford the equipment to make it go smoothly. This addition drives home the darkness of the surroundings, and the desperation of moments where you have to send your characters into impossible situations in the hopes of getting enough loot to upgrade or pay for treatment. The eldritch horror theme is a personal favourite of mine, especially when the mental state of the characters involved is in constant question. Darkest Dungeon takes this and makes it a game-play feature without making it too overwhelming.
The heart of soul of the game is found within the game’s narration. The narrator explains the events of the quest as they occur, much like the game Bastion. For me this feature makes the game, even more so than the traits, or stress meter; simply due to the imaginative and morbid descriptions of the events occurring and the background to the Estate’s downfall.
In short, Darkest Dungeon is coming along swimmingly, it has enough content to be worth your time in its current state. With more content on the way only improving the experience and perhaps giving new classes and quest types. Fully recommended if the theme is of interest, and definitely worth a look for fans of dungeon crawlers.