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Darkest Dungeon (PC) artwork

Darkest Dungeon (PC) review

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Darkest Dungeon (PC) image

The story of Darkest Dungeon begins when you receive a letter from one of your aristocratic ancestors. He tells you that in his mad pursuit of power, he has inadvertently opened a portal to hell. Now, demonic corruption is spreading throughout the land, with his manor at its epicenter. He can't live with what he's done, and by the time you receive his letter he will be dead. Nevertheless, he hopes that you can somehow find a way to cleanse the corrupted countryside, and in doing so, clear your family name.

That is a tall order, but it is nevertheless up to you to hire parties of doomed adventurers and send them into the ruins, forests, caves and crypts surrounding the manor to slay the abominations within. All the while, the voice of your ancestor will whisper in your ear, as though his ghost is watching over you. The macabre storytelling is bolstered by the sinister voice talent of Wayne June, who does an amazing job of immersing you in this dark Lovecraftian tale.

Darkest Dungeon has all the mainstays you'd expect from better roguelike dungeon-crawling RPGs, including procedurally-generated dungeons, satisfying loot, and a wide variety of character classes (fifteen in all). However, Darkest Dungeon's twists are what set it apart. Foremostly, as your heroes battle unspeakable horrors, they will experience stress, they can go insane, and they will develop personality "quirks" that can have positive or negative effects. Your heroes essentially develop personalities of their own, and this is a brilliant addition to the genre that helps you connect with your characters and care about what happens to them.

Darkest Dungeon (PC) image

There is also a town-building aspect, where you must build support structures for your adventurers in the field. These include mainstays such as a blacksmith to forge weapons and a shop to buy gear, but also buildings whose sole purpose is for rehabilitation or stress relief. If one of your heroes comes back to town as crazy as a jaybird, you can lock him up in the asylum for a while, or perhaps try to calm him down by sending him to the tavern for some good old-fashioned drinking and whoring. The abbey is also available to provide solace to those who are of the religious persuasion, including super-relaxing flagellation services. Yup. To each their own, I guess.

However, no matter how you decide to fix up your heroes, it costs money to do so, and oftentimes money can be in short supply. You will inevitably be faced with tough questions about how to manage your resources. Will you decide to spend your meager funds on curing your heroes' various mental illnesses, or will you upgrade their armor? Will you let an important and powerful hero relax for the week, or send him back into the fray? You may even be faced with the decision of whether to keep a hero around at all, as fixing their broken mind might not be worth the cost. It may be grim, but you can always fire heroes to make room for fresh meat on your roster. That pretty much describes the tone of the game, right there.

Another twist is Darkest Dungeon's unique, positional combat system. Your heroes are arranged in a straight line against the enemies, who are arranged similarly. Fighter classes benefit from being in front, while support classes are most effective at the back. That might sound pretty standard, but there are also skills that allow you to push or pull the enemies out of their respective positions. These can be used to expose a back-line caster to a devastating frontal attack, or send a particularly troublesome front-line fighter all the way to the back to prevent them from attacking. Since the enemies use these types of skills against you as well, careful planning about your heroes' builds can go a long way in preventing nasty surprises. One way to do this is to equip your heroes with charge and retreat-type skills that deal damage to the enemies whilst moving them forward or back. If all else fails, you can simply spend a turn to try to get your heroes back into their proper positions.

Darkest Dungeon (PC) image

Another twist is the "light meter." Your heroes must keep their torches alight to prevent darkness from setting in, as this will increase their stress and the likelihood of being surprised by enemies. However, darkness also increases the amount of loot you receive, so there's a risk/reward mechanic at play here. In most cases you'll just want to keep the torch as high as possible, though this can be difficult, as certain magical enemy attacks will actually drain the light. Reminds me of some nightmares I've had.

These unique mechanics aside, Darkest Dungeon has all of the other typical RPG hazards to worry about, like traps, poison, bleeding, disease, etc. Giving your heroes items to raise their resistances is the best way to mitigate most of this stuff, but since you can only equip two pieces of gear at a time, it's a fair bet that there will always be some weak point in your build. If you focus entirely on keeping your heroes protected, there won't be any room to buff them up with damage bonuses. There's that risk/reward again. Surely you can see a theme forming by now.

However, heroes can be specced to fulfill different roles from mission to mission, so you can build your party exactly the way you want. For example, even though the frontline Man-At-Arms generally fares better at the front, he can also be specced to provide pure support from the back lines if you give him the right gear and skills to do so. The Vestal, who is primarily a healer, can be specced for rough n' tumble combat up front if need be. Ensuring there's synergy between your respective characters is half the fun of Darkest Dungeon, especially when you manage to return from a mission victorious and with everyone in one piece.

Aesthetically, Darkest Dungeon has an amazing art style, excellent music and incredible sound design. "Inspired" is the word that I would use to describe it. This game captured my heart in a way that video games rarely do. I have literally dumped hundreds of hours into it, mostly within the summer of 2015 when the game was still in Early Access and had reached a near-perfect state of development. During that year, the game received critical acclaim from journalists and players alike, and for good reason. It seemed to hit every note just right. All it needed was some more content, a few more character classes, and the addition of the final endgame zones. Simple.

Darkest Dungeon (PC) image

But then something happened. Around the fall of 2015, a highly vocal minority of players took to the internet and started to complain. Basically, these complaints boiled down to: "This game is supposed to be hard! It isn't hard enough! FIX IT!" And the developers listened and did what they were told. Patch after patch, they implemented new, questionable mechanics to try to make the game more difficult. The first (and arguably worst) way that they did this was by introducing the "corpse" mechanic, which causes monsters to spawn obstructive piles of viscera when they die. The intended purpose is to ensure that monsters who are still alive will stay firmly in position instead of being pulled forward. And since your heroes apparently lack knees, they cannot step over the corpses to get to the enemies hiding behind them. Instead, they must literally hack through the corpses' hefty health bars. Makes total sense, right?

They also made ad hoc changes to enemy damage and critical hits, added stress effects to the monsters' attacks, nerfed most of the heroes' equipment, nerfed the surprise mechanic, nerfed camping, extended the reach of all front-line monsters to ensure they could reach the back rows, and added "heart attacks" that cause your heroes to drop dead if they are exposed to critical levels of stress. They did all of this and more; this is an abridged list. On and on it went. All of this started because the community had found a single party build that was overpowered and could be abused, but that didn't matter The developers literally did everything they could to make sure that the game was as fucking miserable and difficult as possible, all at the community's insistence. Keep in mind that Darkest Dungeon was not actually an easy game to begin with.

Then, when some of the things they added didn't work out quite as planned, they backtracked. Most notably, they decided to dumb down the corpse mechanic, hoping to appease the nay-sayers, tweaking it so that it wouldn't spawn corpses from ALL monsters, only SOME monsters would leave corpses behind while others would not, and any monsters dispatched from critical hits or poisoning also wouldn't spawn them anymore. Makes even more sense, right? Now, not only did we have a mechanic that was nonsensical and ham-fisted, but also inconsistent and impossible to plan any sort of strategies around.

Darkest Dungeon (PC) image

Watching them flounder between each patch gave me the impression that they were trying to please everyone at once. Maybe that's why they eventually incorporated a menu full of toggles where certain things, including the corpses, could be turned off. Some might say that this was simply part of the Early Access process, that they were just trying to give their supporters what they wanted, but it seems to have come at the cost of letting too many hands steer the ship. Even though the players have retained a certain amount of control over their Darkest Dungeon experience, most of the questionable changes that were made remain immutable.

The end result is that Darkest Dungeon is a bit of a mess. It is full of band-aid solutions to problems that didn't need to be fixed in the first place, and its insanely high difficulty renders it utterly inhospitable to new players. Even if you are a long-time veteran, the game is now so ridiculously stacked against you that horrible things will happen to your heroes despite your best efforts and planning. For example, it is now possible for one your heroes to be crit-chained to death before you even have the chance to take your turn. Thus, skill seems to take a back seat to whether or not you can beat the RNG, and that kinda sucks. If you get lucky, you will likely have a good session of Darkest Dungeon; if not, you might rip your hair out as one of your favourite heroes who you spent dozens of hours building up is slain in an eyeblink.

Thankfully, this game is finally out of Early Access and the developers have moved on to making DLC. They aren't likely to mess with it any more than they already have, and in its present state it is still a good, enjoyable game. You will likely have fun with it as long as you can stomach the sharp learning curve and endure the early-game beatings. It's just a shame that Darkest Dungeon didn't turn out to be the amazing game that it could have been, the game that it practically already was back in the summer of 2015. It was painful to watch this game go through Early Access; it was like watching a bumbling artist spill paint all over his canvas right before it went to auction.

Project Horror 2016
Project Horror saw one (1) horror review submitted every day through the month of October. This review was part of that effort.

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Featured community review by Nightfire (October 21, 2016)

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If you enjoyed this Darkest Dungeon review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!

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hastypixels posted October 21, 2016:

Mighty No. 9 and a host of other games have actually gone down the tubes this way, and it's DC Comic's biggest struggle. Too many hands on the steering wheel. Shadowrun wouldn't have returned to the limelight as a fan favorite under those conditions.

It doesn't take a Kickstarter or GoFundMe to water down leadership of a product, but it does seem to be a commonality.
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EmP posted October 28, 2016:

This is a game that's been kicking around my to play list for a while. But I just can't seem to summon up the drive to just start playing and get on with it. Starting to think I never will.
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Nightfire posted October 28, 2016:

It's still worth a look. I'd just recommend doing some rapid clicking on the checkboxes in the options menu before you begin.

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