Darkest Dungeon (PC) review
"Math, I'm Not Your Psychologist; Solve Your Own Problems"
Darkest Dungeon is not an experience I would ever think of myself describing it as being as therapeutic as it is enjoyable and demoralizing. This is said from someone who gets too paranoid when playing horror games and deals with anxiety issues, and I have come away feeling more at ease when playing than I ever thought I would.
For the longest time, a lot of the things I had heard kept me from DD. The "grind", the artificial difficulty spikes ("Never Again"), and various aspects of it being a rouge-like experience kept me unconvinced until I saw a steep enough sale. Now that I've put 23 hours into my first 52 weeks, I think if you know a few things about DD you will find a game that doesn't suffer from its repetition and that justifies its infamous difficulty. In many ways, if I were to recommend this game to a specific audience I would suggest it to people who want to understand/get-into difficult games (like XCOM) but who also don't like the idea of failure-states after 15+ hours into a game. You cannot fail DD at any point in the normal mode--NG+ adds a time-limit of 90 weeks and a character death quota of 13.
Games like these understand its shortcomings from RNG, so to alleviate the pressure the developers provide you with many ways to live with your mistakes. The only way you will lose to this game--excluding NG+ modifiers--is if you give up or constantly make bad judgment calls. No other game that uses RNG has ever made me feel as responsible for my errors. The inevitability of screwing up will happen, but you'll learn to deal with it to finish the game. In many ways, DD teaches you how to deal with issues one catastrophe at a time.
Not Your Common Rogue-Like
Of all the rouge-likes/lites out there, this one is my favorite design. In most cases, the presence of RNG ruins these games into being more reliant on luck than actual skill/knowledge, and the repetition of doing all the previous content over-and-over will tire you out from ever succeeding. DD, however, mitigates these problems in various ways. For one, the RNG here is tastefully applied to heighten the tension in and out of combat. Unlike the 99% of other rogue-likes, you do not fail the whole game from one encounter; your progression is kept at the Hamlet. Human lives are a free, expendable commodity never in short-supply--something you can exploit for min-maxing. You may dismiss party members because they're too expensive to "repair" or you can deal with their quirks, which are never game-breaking or are impossible to remove. (The exception being "Never Again.")
Another difference is how the gameplay prevents you from screwing up from one turn. One example is the "At Death's Door" (0 HP) mechanic where you can take an additional hit(s) before your character dies. The percentage chance to resist death is given to you, and you can avoid this mistake by either moving him/her out of harm's way or use skills that protect, heal (for 1 HP minimum) or other tactics to draw attention away from the character. You can always flee-battles (which counts as exploring a room) and abandon quests to save your party and return with the loot you have.
Stress-management, a vital thing to master, can easily be handled with a "stress-healer" when in dungeons or by careful management of your whole party roster at the Hamlet. And because death is permanent, you should never have one A-Team, B-Team, etc. but a selection of skilled adventurers with various synergies available to you. The infamous "Never Again" quirk shouldn't ruin the game because the whole experience is about making the best with what you are given, so you have to learn to be flexible. In many ways, the tactics DD teaches you is similar to card games where you have to know when to bluff to risk the odds and when to fold and take your winnings. Even if you abandon a quest, you will most likely earn enough gold to be a net-gain. The difference between both games is that winning at DD is inevitable, only that the time required to finish it is based on how eager you are to challenge the odds.
The Developers' Divine Comedy
Difficulty is something of a double-edge sword. If the game is too demanding of the player, the player becomes apathetic of success though s/he may find the success more rewarding; if the game is too easy, it becomes a slog to replay tedious content but beatable. I want to say that DD finds the happy medium in its "safety-net" grind, but I don't think every player would agree that it's flawless. As previously mentioned, the game lacks a final fail-state outcome where you have to start over until you beat the game once. The fail-state, at this point, is tolerable because you will have to understand the mechanics and how the game wants you to play it in order to win. The only way that the game keeps you engaged from this system is if the game keeps its punishments as an ever-looming threat from the tediousness of doing the same five mission types (Clear X rooms, Find 3 X, Restore 3 X, Slay X Boss and Darkest Dungeons.)The difficulty reinforces the developers' intentions for you to play the game as they wanted you to play it, which hasn't always agreed with its Early Access community.
Based off my experiences, I see nothing wrong with all the changes. Corpses add a risk/reward to using skills that may destroy the body (and loot); heart-attacks emphasize the penalty of not managing stress or taking too long in battle; the reinforcement addition discourages stun-locking enemies to heal the party entirely in battle (you can't use skills outside of combat)--this last mechanic I've never seen happen to me, so it's not too demanding. All of these changes were made to cut out the cheap tactics and make the experience more risk/rewarding, which I am personally fine with as the game feels designed for these changes. However, I still wonder why they took away the option to add/remove these additions.
All of these elements contribute to the game staying interesting from a 35 - 40 hour playtime (average for a 90 week playthrough for NG+) in spite of its limited content variety. The three-tiered layout of the entire game (Lv 1, Lv 3, and Lv 5) areas help foster a sense of scaling difficulty for the Lv 6 Darkest Dungeons (4 of them). Lastly, the other updated changes like transferring heirlooms for one-another helps cut down on the grindier aspects of the game. The problem, however, is if you are a completionist or too conservative of a player, which may make the game take 70+ hours. In that regard, there is not enough variety to keep the game compelling for that length, even if you're a die-hard for turn-based squad-strategy games. You don't have to complete the Caretaker's Tasks to beat the game as the bosses only give you a different mission type and Trinkets as rewards. The process of rebuilding a lost-squad member is somewhat randomized by both the class and level assigned to them from the caravan. (The highest you can unlock is a chance to get Lv 3 heroes, out of 6). But the process of rebuilding the team isn't that long as missions give you a substantial amount of XP to rebuild a Lv 6 team in 2/3 hours.
Ultimately, what separates a grind from progression is what is the end goal. If you set mile-stones to slay one boss to get that one trinket, if you vary up your party-arrangement to level them all up, and if you focus on building certain structures in the Hamlet to improve your whole roster, etc. then you should never feel as though you are slogging through the game.
"Math, I'm Not Your Psychologist; Solve Your Own Problems"
As someone who is a fan of reviewers like Joseph Anderson--and he has done a good critique of DD with a lot of complaints I agree --I want to reiterate that this game is not going to be for everyone. But I think a lot of people who would be interested are dissuaded by EA adopters and people who take as few risks as possible.
Community review by Brian (January 29, 2017)
Current interests: Strategy/Turn-Based Games, CRPGs, Immersive Sims, Survival Solo Games, etc.
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