I recently played Darkest Dungeon. And when I say I played it, I mean I really, really played it.
My conclusion? I really liked it. But I’m terrified at how addictive it is. There’s something about the level of stress, tension and completionist tendencies it inspires that makes me think I should just stop, delete this game from my computer, and run full blast in the opposite direction. In a good way. For the most part. But maybe in a bad way, for someone like me who eats games like this in one laborious, herculean bite instead of pacing it out over weeks.
Darkest Dungeon is a dungeon crawling, indie, turn-based RPG with unique mechanics and a unique art style. The closest analogous game I can think of in modern times is Etrian Odyssey. The whole aesthetic of the game is original — the art style is all its own, and the world, rather than treading on tired high-fantasy, is a mixture of Lovecraftian influence and the old world Gothic mythology that informed the universe of Anne Rice novels.
The gameplay is unforgiving, in a way that’s incredibly compelling. There are no redos or save-scumming, and the game feels like it has real stakes. As you go through each dungeon, each step you feel a pressing unease and take serious consideration into each move you make in battle, your party composition, and all the other relevant decisions of gameplay in order to lessen the chances of irrecoverably losing something important — whether that’s a character, progress, items, or simply your own mental health.
One of the standout achievements of the game is the narrator, whose weirdly soothing baritone voice adds a lot of the color and exposition for the narrative that gives context to all the dungeons you’re making your way through. I wouldn’t say it has a terribly coherent story overall, more like each dungeon has a sort of episode about how the dire situation came to be.
I would say an issue I have with the game is that it gets very grindy in the middle and toward the end. And during the section where it’s grindy, some of the difficulty and the tension is lost, so you play through the game on a sort of autopilot, and if something goes horribly wrong, it’s more annoying than it is meaningful.
The essence of the grind takes the form of say, at the end you have to have 16 characters to go through the final dungeon. I had about 9 that I was using, so I had to grind up 7 more characters.
Or, to unlock the next boss in a dungeon level, you have to play through the dungeons multiple times, but each stage has both upper and lower level limits, so you can’t take high level characters into low level dungeons. As a result, if you level up the dungeon maps unevenly, you find yourself having to grind through a bunch of low level dungeons with a new party just to unlock the next boss fight.
Another instance of grind takes place in the Crimson Court DLC, which was actually my favorite dungeon, but it’s hell on the pacing. I didn’t start the game with it activated because everyone online said it’s a bad idea and you should activate it halfway through.
Well, the way the Crimson Court dungeon works is that an ‘infestation’ builds up in the world over several weeks, and when it gets high enough you get an invitation to the dungeon. So, what I found was that by the time I got to the final boss, I still had to grind through a bunch of dungeons just to skip time in the game until the infestation got high enough to get an invitation. That was pretty grueling.
The classes are very interesting. There are many, they all have good flavor and unique purpose. I won’t list them all but, for example, you have everything from the Flagellist, who causes bleeds and can power up when near death to the Occultist, to the Leper who wears a mask an hits things with a broken broadsword which is… not really how I pictured lepers, but whatever.
Nurturing the characters’ growth, discovering strong party formations, and optimizing your battle strategies is one of the strongest parts of the game. Still, I wish there was some kind of mechanic to help differentiate individual characters from others of the same class, like a very simple talent tree as is offered in Etrian Odyssey.
Overall, I’d recommend Darkest Dungeon. Good art style that does its own thing without hitching its wagon to ungodly played out trends, addictive difficulty, compelling gameplay, and a lot of great atmosphere. It really makes you feel tension, which is great. It’s a rare quality when a game can inspire an emotion like that.
I’d give it a B+.