Early Access Impressions: Darkest Dungeon

First favourite game of the year alert!

You know, Steam is so over-populated with roguelikes and roguelites and roguelikelikes and, indeed, all manner of other games about getting killed and losing everything that I can’t help but look upon a new addition to this rogue’s gallery with bleary eyes. So many, so quickly, so much death. Then once in a while one turns up that makes me fall deeply in love with adventuring through deadly places all over again. Last year it was Sunless Sea, but this time it’s Darkest Dungeon. Elevator pitch: XCOM as fantasy RPG, plus a bit of The Sims.

Darkest Dungeon is about sending a squad of heroes in to do your dirty work for you, growing attached to them as their skills improve (or, at least, as they survive a few dungeon runs) and suffering the requisite heartbreak when they perish on the battlefield. Darkest Dungeon asks for a new level of care for them, however – they’ll suffer from mounting stress while out stabbing skeletons and crawling through pitch-black mansions, and if left unchecked this will eventually escalate into major afflictions that will handicap them in battle.

Add to that each hero’s traits, more of which are gained at the end of any dungeon run they survive, which can be beneficial but more often than not make them either vulnerable or a liability. Maybe they freak out if it’s too dark, maybe they freak out if it’s too light, maybe they’re more prone to bleeding, maybe the only way they can de-stress in the town – the base mode between missions – is at the brothel or with self-flagellation.

All these deficiencies and obsessions combine into characters who are entertainingly awkward to manage. I’ve got a lady on my team who’s afraid of both darkness and light. I’ve got a guy who’s a nymphomaniac but is barred from the brothel. Another lady likes stealing half the gold for herself. Someone else has got a creeping cough. Everyone has a thing, most of them have multiple things, and all of them will develop more things the more times you send them off to fight for you. Darkest Dungeon reflects that a career spent fighting ungodly monsters in dark places, seeing your friends die and regularly getting horribly wounded is clearly going to take a heavy mental toll.

As a result of not being the perfect shining ciphers of most other dungeoneering games, my heroes are a pain in the bloody arse. They’ll even occasionally disappear, lost for a time in some den of iniquity because they just can’t face any more horror. Well you would, wouldn’t you? Much as I sympathise with their breakdowns and coping mechanisms, sometimes I’m glad when a particularly messed-up character kicks the bucket mid-quest.

Where Rogue Legacy played with similar ideas, this isn’t anything like so gimmicky. One of the core challenges of Darkest Dungeon is working out how to take care of this collection of maniacs, freaks and phobics, and how to make them most useful. Negative traits can be got rid of in the Sanatorium, but this is both costly and means you can neither take the hero questing or de-stress them until they’ve been violently cured of their impairment.

Near the start of the game, you have this long list of healthy fresh meat to pick from for each mission (you can take a maximum of four out at a time), but not much latter whoever’s not in the graveyard is stressed out, messed up and angrily objecting to the idea of going back out there. In other words, the twist on the XCOM recruitment formula is that old soldiers are essentially as problematic as rookies. Even if someone’s not totally messed up, they can be conceptually preposterous – for instance, one character was both a leper and a nymphomaniac. ‘Safe sex’ probably doesn’t begin to cover it.

As for the adventuring/fighting itself, you’re off on a trip through monster and trapped-filled rooms and linking corridors, with the threat of starvation and insanity dogging you as much as sudden death does. Darkest Dungeon doesn’t offer much opportunity for healing, so it’s a real endurance test for your heroes. And, sometimes, for you. Clearly I’ve got lots to learn about the game, but I’m finding I’m spending a little too much time with my party all on rock-bottom hitpoints and maxed-out stress and not a lot I can do about it except wait for death or bail out early. It’s a thin line between hope and despair, but increasingly I’m falling on the latter side of it.

The combat is beautifully presented, all sudden zooms onto paper cutout-esque characters performing simple but big, characterful animations, but it’s perhaps the least successful aspect of the game. It’s a little too long-winded, especially once your characters go a bit bonkers and have to say some doomy bon mot between each action. E.g. someone who’s turned Abusive insults his companions’ fighting prowess every time they take a turn, so you have to wait a few seconds for him to say his piece, then a few more seconds for the bubble which shows how stressed out the insulted party became as a result.

Across the course of a fight, you’re spending far more time waiting for that to happen than you are actually clobbering stuff (or being clobbered), and it’s damned frustrating. Even when your characters have a clean bill of mental health so you can get on with the walloping that much more, it’s just a bit repetitious. It’s built around a Final Fantasy-style random encounter model, and while nothing like as egregious as many of those games’ interruptions, fights are just that bit too long for my tastes. They’re 4v4 (unless you’ve lost any of your guys in an earlier fight), so there’s a lot to plough through. On the other hand, you’re usually on your last legs and praying for relief, so getting pulled into a long and dangerous fight ups the stress levels. Sympathy for your characters, basically.

Sometimes frustrated I may be, but I’m also absolutely hooked. This is a complex and malevolent game, and I’m really enjoying having to juggle quite so many balls. Surviving quests is one thing, maintaining an effective team as fatalities and insanities mount is another. So many elements, but they come together so well.

There’s a whole bunch of stuff I’ve not mentioned, such as upgrading buildings in town in order to better deal with your heroes’ deficiencies, or the importance of placement on the battlefield (each hero can do different stuff depending whether he’s at the front, back or middle of the stack), or how the very infrequent gear you find in the dungeons always has a negative effect as well as a positive one. It is a deeply cruel game, but at the same time it’s an entirely manageable one, because you can always draft in more heroes. Those who die are gone forever, but you get to try, try again.

As for its early access status, this is an unfinished release in excellent shape. There isn’t an ending yet, and more monsters and heroes are still to be added, but it’s slick, stable and full of stuff. You probably wouldn’t know it was unfinished, at least not until a dozen or so hours in with no endgame in sight. I know Early Access is a moral matter for some of you, but in this instance you’re definitely not buying a rickety, fractional game if you had a look at this now. It’s also rather beautiful, in its gothic comic art, and with a wonderful doomy narration as you fight too.

Slightly ponderous combat aside, Darkest Dungeon is the best time I’ve had with a new game this year so far.

56 Comments

  1. Wowbagger says:

    I couldn’t agree more, so happy I backed this on Kickstarter,, the first real return I’ve had from it so far.

    • paranoydandroyd says:

      Absolutely. I’ve played the drat out of this already. Real ups and downs, and still manages to feel very balanced. Progressions is a tiny bit slow/grindy. That’s my only major complaint, and that’s likely to be fixed by release.

      I am in love with the narration.

  2. MrFinnishDude says:

    Now THIS is the state early access games should be put into early access!

  3. XhomeB says:

    Having also backed the Kickstarter campaign… well, I couldn’t be more pleased so far. Atmospheric, addictive (a bit repetitive by design, but I don’t mind it, the game always finds new ways to keep things fresh), tough as nails. Love it.

  4. Capuchin says:

    I backed this but not at early access level? Boy am i regretting it!

    • Jockie says:

      I’m currently in the process of upgrading tiers though their support e-mail address, though its being done manually so may take a while.

      Edit: scratch that, took like 20 minutes.

      • AngoraFish says:

        Now that the game’s in “Early Access” it’ll be on sale in the next six weeks guaranteed, after which the devs have guaranteed (after a great deal of grumbling) to release the remaining keys to original backers.

        • Xzi says:

          I sure hope so. I missed the kickstarter for this, but it immediately caught my eye on Steam. Any small sale would have me jumping all over it, even though I’m currently playing three other roguelikes at the same time. Man I love these games.

  5. Chris D says:

    I haven’t had the same experience with the combat as Alec has, although I have been actively trying to minimise stress and keep afflictions to a minimum as I figure unreliable party members are the best way to get everyone killed. I reckon if you’re at the point where multiple characters are afflicted it’s probably better to head back to town and try again than press on for an extended period.

    • Underwhelmed says:

      Suicide squads are very therapeutic. 100% chance to eliminate all adverse habits, addictions, and insanities!

      • ender1200 says:

        The only downside is that you get nothing for Total party kill. So it’s important to manage to flee the dungeon with at least one survivor.

  6. Flakfizer says:

    I love many things about this but just find combat Frustrating. Combat is biased towards random numbers so much that it feels like my decisions have no bearing on how it plays out. Health and sanity seem to drop far quicker than they can be replaced and I’m not sure how getting ‘better’ at the game would matter when characters can die before they even get a turn.

    • Chris D says:

      Hmmm. How are you losing characters before they get a turn unless you’re already wounded going in?

      The randomness can have an effect but it’s far from insurmountable.

      My top tips:

      1. Prevention is better than cure. Work out who’s the biggest threat and stop them. This can mean killing them but also stunning or moving out of position are also effective. Don’t fixate on just doing damage. Don’t fixate on healing if it’s not safe.

      2. Don’t ignore buffs. Taking a turn to boost accuracy or debuff dodge is better than continuing to miss.

      3. Don’t overspecialise. Your going to get shoved out of order or otherwise disrupted. Have enough flexibility that you can compensate for that.

      4. Carry enough supplies, keep the light level up until your confident enough without it.

      5. This is the big one. Know when to cut and run.

      6. Really not kidding about number 5.

    • Kitsunin says:

      There really is an abnormally massive bias towards random chance in it. I think it’s kind of fitting that sometimes you have to cut your losses even if you didn’t make any real mistakes…
      But one time, I spent over 1,000 gold on preparations for an experienced party, who got almost completely wiped on the third room, because during the second battle multiple crits sent someone’s stress sky-high, who proceeded to make everyone else feel hopeless. So I spent all my money on stress relief and sent newbies in with like 4 food and 2 torches, and they went on to clear the whole dungeon without even getting very stressed about it. A similar situation happened a second time after an entire group died.

      • Hex says:

        Well, sure — any dungeon run can be your last. That’s an important element of the game. It’s never safe.

        And while yes, there are times where the RNG can be infuriating — I say this as someone who’s had 3 total party wipes so far, 2 of which were teams of my top adventurers — it’s not as bad as Xcom: EU. Not by a long shot.

        I’m around week 50 or so, now. The game gets much more manageable once you rank up adventurers to around level 3 and 4. They become relatively tolerant of stress, and with appropriately ranked up skills, unlucky streaks become much less of an issue.

        Absolutely loving this game.

      • Hanban says:

        In my experience the RNG’s impact can be mitigated for the most part. Chris D’s comment is good advice. When I’ve wiped, which has happened once so far, it’s happened because I went for a boss I wasn’t prepared for.

    • Christo4 says:

      I kinda liked the combat at the beginning, but then started to see errors and stuff that really annoyed me.
      Firstly, if i have my torch at max, i find it extremely annoying that i am the one who gets surprised instead of the enemy and the enemy barely gets surprised 1 out of 5 or so tries. I’ve been surprised at least 3 times in a run with the full torch by the enemies while the enemies never got surprised.
      Then i think the numbers on resistances are completely wrong. Like, I had an enemy with 70% stun resist which got stunned pretty easily, another one with 70% stun resist that barely got stunned and someone with 10% bleed resist who didn’t bleed for 3 rounds. So yeah, i think some of those are fucked.
      I also hate that, usually, your heroes can only attack at range from the last 2 positions and at melee range from the first 2 positions, but other than the crossbow skeletons i haven’t found the same rules to apply to the enemy, which again i find stupid (i mean, it should be a good strategy to shuffle their positions so that you can make a strong melee character not attack, but unfortunately it never works).
      Another thing that i hate is that the stress levels are way too high for enemy crit attacks, while for your crits it barely matters. I mean, i find it annoying (again) that a crit from an enemy, even if it does like 4 damage, gives all my teammates 20 stress, but if i get a crit it heals something like 5. Not to mention that the enemies usually do a lot more crits than my guys (which again i think some of the numbers are wrong).

      Also, the fact that if you leveled a character to level 3 you can’t take him to some easier missions is BS. I would be ok with them not leveling up, but if you ask me to grind away then at least allow me to grind some missions with good people (that could die as well). But no, ofc. The fact that i got more gold and stuff at some easier missions that some harder ones also annoyed me, because that meant that if i wanted to use the higher leveled characters i had to make them go in a lot harder missions where they would have a higher chance to die and if i finished it i had a lot less rewards than in the easier ones.

      The last thing i’m going to complain about, which is also kind of an exploit, is that usually, to keep my full party healed, i keep the lowest enemy in the group of enemies that i encounter as last and then proceed to stun him constantly, while using my healer/s to heal everyone. I find it stupid that you can do this, but between the battles you can’t heal at all unless you’re at camp. They should at least give you some exploration points or smthg that allows you to heal on the move.

      Another suggestion would be that the enemy should get some kind of stress points as well, perhaps something like valor scare or something. So that, if you crit the enemies then at least they can get some kind of stress as well just like you do, so you won’t be the only one who’s getting scared (which doesn’t really make sense).

      So yeah, i kinda like the game, but for something like this, which is expected to be hard, i also expect it to be fair on the player and penalize him for his mistakes, which i don’t feel that the game is doing currently. Unlike Dark souls, FTL or others, the game feels a lot more unfair through giving a lot of advantages to the enemy, while your guys are constantly penalized, sometimes for even moving while doing everything you can to prevent it. In other rogue-likes, if you do something to prevent it then i expect to actually be able to handle a situation, but no, in this game you can’t do that (like getting surprised with torch at 100 while the enemies barely get surprised, even if it says ++ moster surprise).

      • Christo4 says:

        Dat wall of text o.O

      • Jeremy says:

        With the melee and ranged thing, there are quite a few options, and here are some of the combos that I use. For back half melee, you can use a Jester, Highwayman, or Grave Robber. For front half ranged, you can use Hellion, Bounty Hunter, Highwayman, and I’m sure others. Stunning a back row enemy with a Plague Doc, and then using the Bounty Hunter’s ranged melee can take out those back rows in a hurry. Ultimately, diversifying your skills are important, because if you get surprised, and your highwayman ends up in the front.. you need to have pointblank shot ready so you get a free shift backwards and an attack.

        Some of the randomization and balance issues will probably be sharpen up a bit as it gets closer to release. They have already worked on some of the balancing that people have found to be too harsh (Brigand Fusilier and Cutthroat for instance).

        As for not being allowed to take higher level characters on easier missions, I think I actually support that. Mainly because it would be easy to work up a huge pile of gold and loot, and power through the game. This keeps things moving forward, and keeps your characters on the thin edge between success and failure which I think is so important to the theme of this game. Every time I make it through a dungeon, it feels like a true victory, rather than just an expectation because the game is holding our hands and making sure it’s not too hard.

      • dajt says:

        Re surprise, that makes sense to me. If you have a bright torch it can been seen much further away than it allows you to see. It would also be a giveaway to something around a corner – it can see the light, but you can’t see it.

  7. drplote says:

    In many ways, combat seems less about choosing actions from round to round than it is building a party equipped to deal with the types of enemies you’re expecting to encounter, and who can adjust decently to being pushed/pulled around the marching order.

    I’ve seen a ton of people complaining that they lose multiple rounds as everyone has to shuffle around due to being displaced by an enemy ability or surprise. I think the problem is really that they’ve chosen a party composition that too rigidly requires Person X in slot 4, Person Y in slot 3, etc. I started having a much easier time of it when I made sure party members could still do something useful if they got bumped out of position. Some characters can actually change position as part of their attack, which can be very useful to get people back into position without having to waste a turn.

    • RedViv says:

      That. Specialisation on one single spot is very bad. Find a party where everyone has a nice skill set for at least two spots on the grid.
      You can even make parties work that would seem absolutely wretched in most other games if you set them up correctly. It’s a magnificent puzzle to solve.

  8. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    I watched a Let’s Play of this on Sunday and decided to buy this immediately when it came out (which was on Tuesday) and have not regretted it.

    One thing I love, and that wasn’t mentioned in the article, is that HP don’t have a hard threshold. At zero HP the character is not dead, they are “At Death’s Door” – another hit might kill them, but until then they can act normally (with reduced stats) and they can even be healed. Similarly, I like that maxed out Stress does not always lead to the character breaking down. Instead, sometimes they become heroic and get a bunch of temporary stat bonuses. It’s a mean game, but sometimes it throws you a bone.

    The only thing that is a bit annoying is when a character gets traits that completely block them from stress-relief (for example “Won’t pray” combined with “Will only pray”). It doesn’t make much sense and it makes them almost useless until one of the traits is removed in the sanitarium.

  9. Drake Sigar says:

    The style permeates every corner of the game. The narrator does so enjoy his dark adjectives and if you pick up an emerald the item description will be stuff like ‘Green, the colour of rotting flesh…’

    It is amusing, and serves to hammer home the world of Darkest Dungeon. Thematically appropriate, but also not lame if that makes sense? Like, I just made it sound like something a teenager might write in his black skull diary, but it’s much smarter and more compelling than that.

    • RedViv says:

      The Dark Gothic ambience is helped very much by the fact that Red Hook have some very talented wordsmiths twisting vocabulary to achieve the most menace manageable.

    • sicemma says:

      It reminds me of Myth:The Fallen Lords quite a bit somehow. Similar mix of proper dark dark, camp dark and goofy elements to the voice work.

  10. Kitsunin says:

    One issue I have, is that progress doesn’t seem to make things any more interesting. Adventurers who survive do get more complicated traits, but keeping track of those I find to be tedious more than anything (better menus might help a ton, as might the stretch-goal’d alternate palettes to distinguish between class-mates (how can that be a stretch goal? it seems damn important simply for readability, to me)) and all the upgrades that can be bought are just additional percentage points, which is seriously boring.

  11. scannerbarkly says:

    This game is just superb. Everything about it appeals to me from the writing, sound design, narration, in game mechanics and punishing learning curve. Couldn’t ask for more from a game and it has the kind of polish that makes you wonder HOW in the hell other Early Access titles think they can even compete.

  12. mortal_vombat says:

    Just one look at the art style was enough to add it on my wishlist back in December and that was before i saw it was a roguelike turn based RPG (the perfect combination :) ). i watched a couple of videos over the last few days and i’m glad there’s also a competent game behind the art. looking forward to playing it, hopefully soon :)

  13. MisterFurious says:

    “I’ve got a guy who’s a nymphomaniac”

    Men can’t be nymphomaniacs. Only women. For men, it’s called ‘satyriasis’. I learned that from ‘The Big Lebowski’.

  14. Shardz says:

    I’d rather play a half finished game with great potential than to play a half baked game that is final.

  15. Listlurker says:

    I love this game. Played an insane 17 hours straight after I loaded it (yay, chronic insomnia!).

    One of the best gameplay tips I’ve gotten lately? In missions where you can camp (i.e. where you are given firewood at the mission start) look to camp earlier rather than later in your run.

    Camping isn’t really about healing so much as lowering stress. If you camp +before+ your characters are on the brink of breaking, you can significantly lower their stress levels using the right camping skills, so their chances of finishing the run without developing a new psychosis go up significantly.

  16. lordcooper says:

    Fair review, and I’m adoring the game so far. Two minor niggles though, not all battles involve four enemies and the battles aren’t random like in FF (you can tell as scouting reveals them on the map and covering old ground doesn’t result in new fights), my assumption is that they’re placed when the level generates.

  17. Listlurker says:

    And yes, as has been said, know when to retreat or to flee the dungeon altogether. Sometimes, trying to hammer through will bring you nothing but misery.

  18. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    My star hero is currently AWOL because I sent him to the brothel to calm down, but it awoke unsavoury passions in him and he fled into the night to slake his dark lusts elsewhere. I don’t know if he’ll be back.

    My vestal virgin and my bounty hunter have both developed serious drinking problems. They refuse to seek any solace but that which can be found at the bottom of a bottle, so I can only calm one of them at a time until I can afford to upgrade the tavern.

    My rogue now hates the gods, and likes to have a nice therapeutic rage at them during camp, which freaks out the religious members of my party.

    It is grim. I love it.

    • mortal_vombat says:

      that all sounds little inconvenient but still amazing :)

    • monstermagnet says:

      I suspect that rogue of yours is my uncle.

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      This is precisely the sort of comment I was hoping to read when I opened the article. Few things hit my buttons more accurately than a game that has you recounting emergent stories with fervent enthusiasm. That, combined with the very positive tone it’s been received with so far, means it’s going squarely on my “will buy, soon” list, early access or no.

  19. dosan says:

    I agree with the early access review, except in the part that Alec says combat is frustrating for the dialogues and fluff bubbles.

    If the game didnt have them as they do, will be way less interesting, as it is SO full of fluff that its amazing for me. Once i got a Warrior Nun with Masochism, and all the dialog that she spoke was in character, its different of what a Highwayman will say with Masochism, for example. And most of the time, you see how their words affect other members, how it erodes their confidence. So i don agree with Alec in this, I dont play Darkest Dungeon for having a fast combat fantasy rpg, there are hundreds of copy paste games that will offer me that.

    I play it for the fluff and feeling of dread, and really dont feel the combat slow or affected by it at all, on the contrary , it makes it more alive and interesting.

    • Kitsunin says:

      When you have more than one character demoralized, everything goes directly into tedious mode. You’re seeing the same dialogue over, and over, and over, every time you take a step, or the demoralized character’s turn comes up, or a trigger is called (a strong hit while someone is abusive, for instance). If your whole party is stressed, that means a large part of the battle is dialogue bubbles being repeated. I can’t understand how it isn’t irritating to watch a guy say for the twentieth time “Well done, but the gods hit harder!” or whatever.

      If they were never repeated, that would be one thing, but they are, constantly, and it gets frustrating as all hell. Which is a shame, because having a totally stressed party should feel hopeless, like you’re trying to hold everything together, desperately. Not tedious, like you’re trying not to go insane waiting for the damn. Bubbles. To. Stop.

    • Jeremy says:

      I do love all the interactions and freak outs, but I think it would be better served by making things move just a little bit snappier. Maybe having multiple bubbles pop up at once, instead of having each bubble take a turn. In those moments when everything is going to crap, the last thing I want to do is wait 20 seconds between each attack.

      • tk421242 says:

        I would like to see an option to either turn them off or a skip button when they are triggered. I had a combat session yesterday that started as 4v4 and ended with only one of my members left and the entire enemy party killed. Took almost 20 minutes, that is way to long for one combat session when you are exploring an 8 room location.

  20. Henas says:

    I love this game. The narration reminds me of Bastion.

    One of the best tips I read regarding the early game was to think of it as an ‘Adventurer Manager’ game rather than a RPG. Flick the members with poor traits and replace them with fresh meat off the Coach. Focus on building the Stage Coach before other parts of town.

  21. sonson says:

    This looks as though it derived its concept from imagining what it would be like to play the Hero perspective in the opening cut scene in Dungeon Keeper, all the way down to how the town looks with the haggard fortress on the cliffs in the background.

    Which is just one of the reasons I will buy this and play it on my holiday in a week’s time.

  22. Eebahgum says:

    I’m beginning to think the narration is the only redeeming feature of this game.

  23. derbefrier says:

    Looks very cool. Once its out of. Early access. I will probably pick it up.

  24. Maxheadroom says:

    are the sales still going towards the kickstarter stretch goals? Dont normally buy into all that but the $450k one to be able to rent out your characters Dragons Dogma style sounds fun

  25. Continuity says:

    Started playing it today, its pretty great, style and atmosphere is spot on and the mechanics are finely balanced and compelling. The first 8 hours or so are very promising, I hope it live up to the promise as it goes on.

  26. Doctor_Darkest_ says:

    Really promising game, got nothing but praise for it. It really is the first EA title (Early Access) which looks nearly complete, or at least in Beta phase, at launch. I expect lots of great additions and tweaks to gameplay, though it is more than playable as it stands. Really have nothing bad to say about it, I think the intro alone is worth the current price.

    Check out this video for gameplay (if you are a cynic): link to youtube.com

  27. Necrourgist says:

    Bought this one Friday last week, and boy has it been an up and down…But overall…Week 30something, going stronger than ever and amassing an army of the faithful (is non-believer irl) *Crusaders (4) and Vestals (3) mostly, although i do have 4 Jesters and 3 Bounty Hunters for teh lulz* – My personal favourite party setup (currently) consists of: 2 Crusaders on the frontline, a Bounty Hunter with a cross-hero stun combo and Come Hither goodness (Pull 2? Yes please!) and a Vestal with Heal, Party Heal, Ranged Damage + Stun + Torch and Ranged Damage + Self-heal. This setup has served me well so far, and i definitely can and will and would and should and could […] recommend this game to everyone, their grandma’s and their grandma’s annoying dogs! Happy dungeon crawling hero dying goodness everyone!