Red Hook’s team-based, disaster-packed roguelike Darkest Dungeon [official site] always seemed slightly at war with itself. Was it a tongue-in-cheek romp through Cthulhian dungeons, or was it a painstaking exercise in squad micro-management and not-a-foot-wrong combat strategy? Both, in practice, but increasingly it seems Darkest Dungeon was intended to be the latter. Its own internal cold war between merriment and masochism came to a head last week, as long-term fans griped anout the latest changes to the early access game. Graham summarised these yesterday, but in a nutshell: focal point for the discontent was a new system which sees defeated enemies leave behind corpses, which in many cases block your guys from attacking any still-living foes stood behind the carcass. Other, apparently difficulty-hiking features (such as heart attacks) also came under fire.
In a game which heaps upon your heroes an unrelenting onslaught of misfortunes including bleeding, starvation, blight, phobias, fetishes, curses, traps and addictions (not to mention straight-up murder at the hands of various monsters and malcontents), this latest cruelty seemed one too many. The volume of complaints eventually caused the developers to add an option for players to deactivate corpses and heart attacks. Curious as to whether this was a case of knee-jerk internet pitchforks at dawn or the developers having made a bona fide boo-boo, I descended back into the Darkest Dungeon to sample its latest horrors for myself.
Short answer: calm down, internet. Corpses and heart attacks ain’t no thing in and of themselves.
Long answer: corpses and heart attacks are but a symptom of a game which has clearly struggled to reconcile its dual nature, increasingly coming down on the side of obstacle and aggravation for obstacle and aggravation’s sake, and I’m not at all surprised people are getting fed up.
Even longer answer: the eight or so paragraphs below.
I always liked Darkest Dungeon, but it was never without deep-set irritations. Its so-doomy-it-must-be-at-least-faintly-satirical commentary raises it sky-high, and its focus on how adventuring in frightful places leaves potentially permanent scars on your heroes’ minds made it a refreshing inversion of RPG tropes, as well as an entertainingly unusual exercise in team management. Send ’em to self-flagellate, booze themselves into oblivion or seek the pleasures of paid flesh to heal their minds, rather than simply brute-force your way through hell with perfunctory potion-quaffing. But the central trouble, for me, of its earliest builds was that so many things go wrong so often, and it struggled to convey all this information and its effects efficiently. Trekking through a deep, dark monster lair with a team who whimper and grouse and fail to strike true is one thing, but it’s quite another to be constantly interrupted by canned dialogue denoting heroes’ ailments, or slow, repeated animations to show damage over time effects, gritting one’s teeth miserably during the sometimes endless-feeling wait to make a usually failed attempt to stab a baddie.
The mechanics were clever and engrossing, but the game lacked flow. Initially, this improved significantly and quickly, as the devs responded to feedback, ironing out delays and tightening up the fluidity of its many feedback barks. New heroes, monsters and items came into play, and the adventure as a whole got bigger. Darkest Dungeon seemed well on course to meet its early promise. But lately it’s returned its focus to punishment, looking inwards rather than outwards as part of an apparent attempt to return to unending doom rather than jolly adventure. Going back to Darkest Dungeon for the first time in a few months, in the wake of all this bellyaching about corpses, I was disappointed to find that it’s taken up its old bad habits again.
There’s so much stuff in the way, so many little delays, so many animations or messages to tell you about everything that’s going wrong, so long before you can press one of your attack buttons (or, at least, that’s how it feels). It is, I think, trying to prevent players from simply ploughing through dungeons and treating quirks and ailments as simply flavour, and to encourage them to regularly rotate their roster of heroes rather than rely on a core team. This is fine in theory: it’s the game’s ethos and why it’s appealing. In practice, a simple combat loop is being artificially slowed down, with the very respectable aim of making every step and every action feels fearful and dangerous. There’s no chance you can simply batter your way through all those brutes and beasts who ambush you, and even if you succeed there will be terrible consequences. Great on paper, and at various points in DD’s life great in pixels too, but the mechanical and repetitive, interruption-heavy way this has been achieved – no doubt limited by the existent restrictions of the game and its available resources – unfortunately makes Darkest Dungeon in its current form feel tiresome if played at length.
And so to corpses, which I haven’t found make the game particularly more difficult so long as I wasn’t playing it recklessly, but they do slow it down even more, without ostensibly adding anything to enliven the experience. Here’s how they work: if you kill an enemy, in most circumstances their sprite is replaced by a small mound of flesh and bones, about the size of a cowpat. Where previously any enemies stood behind their fallen ally would all shuffle forwards, so that your heroes’ short-range attacks can reach them, now they remain in place until the corpse is ‘killed’ as well. It’s not difficult to get around this: corpses don’t withstand many attacks, at least some of your four team members should be able to target enemies at the back of a stack, and abilities which auto-clear all corpses on the battlefield are easy to come by. The trouble is, well, just read the last paragraph back.
In both concept and execution, the corpse system is simply daft. What, a slumped, fallen, quite possibly hacked-to-pieces body makes a meat shield for up to three others? The other dudes who are trying to kill you are always going to keep on standing as far back as possible rather than try and get in there? Stabbing and spelling a carcass a few times makes it evaporate entirely? Magic can instantly whisk three bodies out of sight but can’t carry away even one living soul? Not to mention that bodies are presented as being six-inch-high domes that even a baby could climb over. And a corpse with a health bar? It looks dumb on the screen, even though the thinking behind it is not. Worse than that, it’s boring. Essentially, you have to constantly alternate fighting with sweeping the floor. It is possible that it encourages people who try to rely on simply stabbing with their front two team members and healing with their back two to mix up tactics and ensure they can do damage from anywhere, but frankly this is already something you’d learn from a few hours with the game anyway. I didn’t find that corpses made my experience much more difficult, but the already-repetitive fights became more drawn-out, and my desire to run more dungeons wavered.
Like I say, the corpse system is a front-line symptom of what’s apparently going on throughout Darkest Dungeon. It has slowly, surely escalated its cruelties, and corpses suffer for simply being the most visible example of this. To play it now is for your heroes to be bombarded by pop-up maladies, poisons and spurting wounds, by psychoses which see them refuse to fight or otherwise misbehave, and by enemies who hit a little harder and take a greater toll on your warriors’ sanity. It’s not a slow trickle of fear and anxiety, it’s an onslaught of busywork. Now there’s this distinction between temporary and permanent quirks too, the latter meaning it costs more and takes longer to remove madness, phobia or addiction from your heroes than it already did. I.e., more wait, more work.
Heart attacks, another system which has drawn community criticism, aren’t quite as silly as corpses, but it’s one more burden to manage, and another factor which doesn’t feel additive. In short: if your heroes get too stressed during a dungeon run, they’ll suffer fatal cardiac arrest. It’s in keeping with everything Darkest Dungeon is about – the trauma of battling monsters – but extreme stress or misfortune already adds multiple maladies and phobias to your characters, which in turn makes them rubbish at fighting and therefore likely to get killed by their enemies, so yet another way to die seems redundant, and even a little arbitrary.
Darkest Dungeon isn’t actually unfair, in that tactics and planning, not to mention persistence and concious sacrifice, will more or less win the day, but it slams the brakes on during what so very obviously is fast, straightforward combat at heart so often that it feels unfair, which may well be worse.
It is, I think, the mark of a game which seeks to first and foremost be gruelling, and has become worried that it might be too playful. The problem is two-fold. One, many of its Early Access community enjoy the playfulness and so are clashing with what Darkest Dungeon’s creators want from it. Two, again, an over-reliance on slowdown and repetition: in other words, grind. A sad fate for a game which sought to leave roleplaying stereotypes behind.
There’s every chance Darkest Dungeon will throw half this stuff out in favour of other systems, that it’s simply trying things on for size in the Early Access changing rooms – but the trouble is we can all see it. And we can all shout ‘your bum looks big in that’ if we don’t like what we see. The grind-y changes strike me as a consequence of listening to that part of any game’s fanbase which will cry ‘harder, harder, ’til it makes me bleed’ as much as it does the devs not wanting their game to become another jolly, hacky-slashy roguelite, but now they’ve got to face the complaints from those who just want to have a good time. I don’t for one second envy them having to reconcile opposing voices, let alone stay true to what the creators themselves want. Darkest Dungeon has been, in a great many respects still is and may well once again become a wonderful game, but right now it seems to be struggling to execute its vision. I love what DD is trying to do, but I’m worried it’s getting bogged down in adding more and more minutiae that only handicaps it.
Monster corpses? Yeah, turn ’em off: but turn them off because they’re irritating, not because they’re too hard.