As with any Lovecraftian-esque Gothic tale worth its weight in Cthulhu tentacles, Darkest Dungeon starts off with you receiving a blood splattered letter from a family member requesting help to restore the family name and repair the cursed hamlet you call home. Sadly rumors of a dwindling fortune, dealings with the occult, and a fateful expedition that resulted in all but one member being slain have seen your once good name tarnished beyond reproach, it is up to you to bring the light back to your land - but to do that you must first face the darkness. Thus begins your journey into the Darkest Dungeon.
It’s fair to say that the coach ride to your family home could have gone better
A short cutscene after starting a new game and you are thrust into your first mission and combat tutorial along the old road that leads to the hamlet you call home. Combat in Darkest Dungeon is turn-based, with each party member having a maximum of four skills at their disposal. Depending on the hero class and the skill selected, damage done to enemies can be either physical, bleed or blight (think poison) while the available skills are governed by the position the hero has in the party. Each hero class has a preferred position in the party, whether that is the heavily armored crusader at the front of the party or the Vestal who will happily be towards the rear of the party throwing down heals like no one’s business.
At its core, Darkest Dungeon is a turn-based RPG, governed by a brutal RNG/dice roll system where everything has a cost, one such example is Occultist class which can heal but also has a chance to cause the healed character to bleed, so much of the game falls under this Risk Vs Reward system. While exploring the dungeons below the manor, keeping the party’s torch lit results in a better chance to surprise enemies and take less adventuring stress, but it means you receive decreased loot from enemies. Do you spend your money on upgrading a hero's weapon and armor or do you buy provisions for the adventure? Its these constant decisions that keep you constantly second guessing yourself.
Darkest dungeon currently features a roster of 14 heroes, but initially you have two character types, the Crusader and the Highwayman. Heavy armor and a large sword are the main weapons available to the crusader, but like all warriors of Light, the Holy power of God can be unleashed on unworthy foes. The Highwayman on the other hand wields pistols and daggers with such finesse that he will usually leave an enemy bleeding heavily begging for mercy. But there is no mercy in Darkest Dungeon, only the inevitable pull of death. You will die, and those heroes you lose will stay dead. These are just facts in the world of Darkest Dungeon.
Would you buy provisions from this guy?
Across the 14 hero types, there are your usual character archetypes, heavily armoured tanks who hold the front line, healers who are best suited to hang back, ranged characters for dealing damage from the rear, and of course the rogue like characters doing damage over time attacks like bleed or blight. Then you have the hybrids -- and with 14 character types, you can bet there's more than enough variety to flesh out your party of four adventures.
Building a single “A Team”, however, is quite foolish because dungeon crawling isn’t for the faint of heart, or constitution. Every attack you receive will not only deal physical damage, but also mental damage, in this case, stress. Take enough stress and your resolve will be tested, which depending on which way the RNG gods lean can either make or break a party. Failing a resolve check will result in that character developing a negative effect which will last until some sort of stress relief can be administered.
There are a variety of different effects that can grip your character, at one point my crusader was so paranoid, he wouldn’t let the healer heal him and nearly died. This coupled with every time he took damage, would shout out something which gave the other three members of my party stress resulted in two other characters facing resolve checks, thankfully one passed and was given the positive effect of Stalwart, laughing off damage and reducing stress to those next to him (only to be undone the next turn by the paranoid and afraid).
You can rename all of your heroes to friends, co-workers or even the family pet
These elements of second guessing and hero stress can easily transcend the game-world and seep into you, the player. At one point I had accidentally spent all of my available money on upgrades to weapon and armor and only had enough money for a few torches and some food for my next adventure. This coupled with the fact that my one of my healers was dead and the other was cloistered in the abbey being flagellated, meant that It was an all damage party with no money for bandages or ailment removal.
Thankfully the RNG gods had taken pity on me and the procedurally generated dungeon was relatively small, but that didn't stop three of my characters losing 95% of their health, hitting 100 stress, failing resolve checks and generally having a terrible time. I did finish the dungeon without losing a party member, but the end result left me so stressed that I -- the player -- needed a break to recover, Let's just say folks that the clench was real. I haven't felt this kind of stress since my level 1 playthrough of Dark Souls.
Nestled amongst the decrepit remains of your town are a few other buildings. There is a Tavern, Blacksmith, Guild, Sanitarium and lastly the Abbey, all of which will help your heroes recover stress after a mission, improve skills or upgrade weapons and armor. As well as the aforementioned buildings there is also a Stage Coach that brings new adventurers to town, a Nomad wagon that sells overpriced trinkets, a graveyard to view fallen heroes and the survivalist -- a mysterious woman who can teach your characters different camping skills.
The tavern holds all sorts of stress relief, whether that be from the grape, the dice or the flesh
Everything in Darkest Dungeon is narrated with such detailed descriptions, almost as if the direction handed down to the story department from the lead developer was “why say it with one adjective if you can say it with four”. It may sound a bit wanky, but hearing Wayne June’s (the narrator) deep baritone voice articulating the most mundane of things, like triggering a trap or a critical attack with such detail adds a whole new layer to the game and breaks up the monotony of simply lighting a torch or eating some food.
Visually Darkest Dungeon looks gorgeous, Hand drawn Gothic character models are lovingly animated while the backgrounds are meticulously detailed. Simple attack and defence animations stop the game from feeling static and it all melds together resulting in a simple, yet distinct and unique portrayal of a cursed land engulfed in darkness. Obviously the audio is top notch as well, the background music is subtle and not repetitive and then there is the amazing narration that really makes Darkest Dungeon something really special.