Adventuring through my backlog of games, one game at a time.
Developer: Red Hook Studios
Publisher: Merge Games
Release Date: August 19, 2016
Played On: PC
There’s a lot to like about Darkest Dungeon. The XCOM-like heroes who are both crucial and disposable. The large variety of character classes and build styles. The synergy between classes and skills, and the rewarding knowledge of enemies and lairs. And the way the art, music, narration, and difficulty all tie into the richly immersive eldritch horror theme.
I should have fallen in love and never looked back, but the tactical dungeon crawler began giving off a foul stench as it tried to last long past its expiration date, all but ruining the entire experience.
The story is told entirely through a single gravely-voiced narrator, an effective tactic employed by many a carefully budgeted indie game. A group of heroes are tasked with breaching a haunted mansion and descending to the foulest lairs of occult rituals. But in order to get there, they’ll need to level up, acquire loot, and expand their numbers.
Missions are chosen from one of four dungeons, each home to undead, brigands, fish-monsters, and mutant pigs, as well as a number of dead end hallways, traps, and treasure.
Darkest Dungeon is fairly unique in turning the classic dungeon crawling experience into a 2D side-scroller, but keeping the action grid-based and turn-based. It’s jarring at first but I quickly warmed up to this interesting new approach. Since it was 2D, positioning mattered on my four heroes, with different skills usable from different positions in my ranks, and when targeting foes.
Each ‘square’ of the map could hide an encounter, including a trap, a battle, or a curio that could end in treasure or terror. In addition to hit points, light and stress have to be carefully managed throughout the dungeon. Madness is a constant theme throughout eldritch horror and it’s well utilized here, acting as a secondary health bar that lingers when the heroes return to town.
The town holds facilities and amenities between quests, including upgrading weapons and armor, improving skills, and de-stressing my poor heroes. Most of the found loot are heirlooms used to improve these facilities, providing long-term goals over the course of several quests. Having multiple venues available for de-stressing was critical thanks to hero traits.
Every hero can be saddled with up to ten traits, five positive and five negative. These traits often help define a hero’s role in my roster, even beyond their class strengths. Some might become more resistant to disease, making them ore useful in the Weals, while others would be more effective against eldritch horrors, or undead, or simply gain more hit points.
On the flip side others could be crippled against certain enemy types, or be unable to use certain facilities, like the gambling hall, to de-stress. The trait system was a lot of fun, though in the late game traits simply replace other traits, leading to heroes becoming randomized rather than recognizable and memorable.
The late game is when the steady curve falls apart. Heroes cap out at level six, though they never earn new skills, you can simply improve existing ones up to level four.
The highest level regular dungeons are level 5, pretty much requiring max level heroes – yet they won’t be earning any more experience. A few new enemy types appear but the dungeons are essentially the same. The game employs the egregious system of simply boosting existing enemy HP and attack values.
Which means after 20 hours I was using the same skills and fighting mostly the same enemies as I was at 10 hours, but everything was taking longer.
Bosses suffer from the same diminishing returns. Each of the four dungeons has two different boss types, but you’ll fight each one three times in the three different dungeon levels (1, 3, and 5). The bosses are also pretty much the same, just bigger and stronger.
Completing quests rewards experience and loot, as well as heirlooms to level up the town. But around the time I was attempting the horrendously challenging level five quests, I had a maxed out party with darn good loot, and most of the facilities I cared about (weapons, armor, skills) were top of the line. I was growing tired of the late game grind and decided to attempt the titular final dungeon, only to crash and burn on the boss.
Let that sink in. I essentially suicided myself at the end rather than keep playing.
Darkest Dungeon lacks the content and incentive to last much beyond 30 hours, and from what I can tell, I was supposed to last much longer, grinding through level five dungeons and squeezing out every last drop of loot.
Thus Darkest Dungeon is the first backlogged game in six years (!) that I’m not going to finish.
It’s a huge shame because the gameplay itself is fantastic. The early game of learning enemy attacks and each dungeon’s major hazards (The Warrens’ diseases, the Cove’s many eldritch enemies, etc) is vastly rewarding. Discovering the impressively huge variety of character classes and skill synergy is a ton of fun, and the stress and trait systems help sell the theme and make the action more memorable and unique compared with other dungeon crawlers.
At least 20 hours or so were absolutely fantastic, which is longer than most indie games. But the repetition began to sink in, and the late game never got tactically interesting enough to warrant the increasing challenge and time, even on the easiest difficulty I was playing on. An excellent game that really needed better pacing and scope (or more late game content) to prevent it from wearing out its welcome.
- Combining tactical, turn-based combat on a single 2D screen is unique and interesting.
- The eldritch horror theme is expertly reflected in every element of the game, from music to art style, to enemy types and the somber narration.
- Stress is a tactically interesting new health pool and damage type to manage.
- An impressively huge variety of character classes and skill options.
- Heroes cap out way too early, and never learn any new skills.
- Dungeons don’t change much over the three difficulty levels.
- Enemies and bosses are mostly the same throughout each dungeon level, just taking more time to defeat.