Wot I Think: Darkest Dungeon

Darkest Dungeon [official site] begins with a foreboding admonition. It’s a game about making the most of a bad situation, you’re told from the outset. Your actions are permanent, therefore the quests you embark upon will often end in failure. “Heroes will die,” it says. “And when they die they stay dead.”

These preeminent words of wisdom project an honest sentiment that’s not only a tone-setter for Darkest Dungeon, but also serves to define its makeup: through each stage of development – from its beginnings, its crowdfunding success, a year-long stint in Early Access, and now onto full release – developer Red Hook Studios envisioned a brutally difficult game that would offer little in the way of concession. But does the game make death and despair engaging? Here’s wot I think.

Darkest Dungeon is the realisation of its theme and cruel twist on dungeon-crawling. Its prudent candor is what stands it apart from the hordes of commensurate permadeath-operating, procedurally-generating roguelikes available elsewhere. It’s a game that can be stubborn, incredibly frustrating, at times baffling, and often wonderful. It’s as much about micromanagement, resource gathering and squad building as it is about luck, perseverance and determination, where the line between hope and despair is often as hard to determine as guessing which mindset your haphazard crew will grudgingly drag onto the battlefield.

Unlike its genre siblings, though, it’s far from a whimsical fairy tale depicting valiant warriors and fervent champions, but the complete opposite. Worse still, it wastes no time reminding you of this at every turn.

A patriarch attuned to a lifestyle of opulence and excess has excavated the caverns that wallow beneath his family’s sprawling estate. Rumours once pointed to a sacred underground tomb housing untold wealth, thus, driven by greed, he’s spent his entire family fortune – your family’s fortune, it turns out – in a selfish pursuit to grab what he can. Instead, the gates of the underworld have been inadvertently thrust open and its ghastly inhabitants have overtaken this particular corner of the overworld.

A pop-up hamlet-turned-bustling economy of parishes and brothels, blacksmiths and taverns has assumed residency on the estate and now it’s on you to reclaim your recently deceased ancestor’s manor. Well, not you, but a line of keen but self-effacing rogues-for-hire who very quickly realise they’re in over their heads. From here, you’ll gather four soldiers from the village Stagecoach – a conveyor belt of replenishing employment – to lead into battle. From hereon, you’ll test their patience, mettle and wellbeing; not to mention your own.

Of the 14 hero classes eventually available for draft, each inclusive combatant performs better – or at least has the predilection to do so – in the settings and circumstances levied by each of the game’s four unique battlegrounds and fifth titular darkest dungeon. As such, experimentation is encouraged at the expense of a solid ‘best four’, as it were. Vestals, for example, fight best against the undead monstrosities that lurk within The Ruins, yet offer little in the way of melee strength. Often, the mindless brute force of a Bounty Hunter will dig you out of a hole – and prevent your team from being sent to one – but the hard-shelled and shielded beasts that reside in The Cove suffer most at the hand of your Plague Doctors, masters of the status effect.

Managing all this in practice is more complicated than it might sound. Combat is meticulous to the point where fortunes can flip in the blink of an eye. When it does, you’ll feel instantly hard done by. You might take an enemy down to its last breath before it unleashes a ranged, sweeping critical hit that destroys your party in one fell swoop. You’ll curse, and, while you’ll struggle to admit it, you’ll know you’ve messed up somewhere along the chain that’s led you down this fatal dead end.

Positioning, within the party and among enemies, is vital as attacks can only strike specific sections of the enemy formation. Perhaps you utilised your jester’s last ditch, hail mary-style attack that inadvertently bumped him to the front of your formation, knocking your crusader into third place. In this spot the latter is useless, thus you wasted a turn nudging him forward again. In the meantime, that burly Brigand Bloodletter has made light work of Marisco the jester, now stranded out in front, and, too busy focused on pushing your crusader forward, your grave robber in second has all but bled out. Add this to the fact that felled enemy corpses don’t instantly vanish, instead forming obstacles to fight around – sometimes blocking you from attacking idle enemies – and suddenly what looks like straightforward turn-based fare very quickly becomes a surfeit of knife-edged decisions that can quickly serve to overwhelm.

Add this to the fact that battles are randomised in classic JRPG-style, foes get decidedly tougher when the darkness gauge that tops the screen expires – and you’ve inevitably run out of torches – and that mysterious sub-bosses appear from nowhere even after you’ve supposedly vanquishing an area and, well, my head’s beginning to spin simply by recounting it all.

Success is then hinged upon how you best mix and match your foursomes, yet even a well-trained, well-equipped, well-provisioned team can be struck down in an instant. “And when they die they stay dead”, the narrator’s prophetic verse marks an unforgiving reminder that you’ll become intimately, and infinitely, acquainted with. Even a seasoned squad – one which has survived perhaps four or five or six dungeon runs – can, and will, succumb to Darkest Dungeon’s most lethal enemy: stress.

Enemy attacks cause stress. Watching a comrade suffer a blow causes stress. Darkness causes stress. Too much light causes stress. Hunger causes stress. Bleeding causes stress. As is consistent with reality: just about anything causes stress. While a full stress bar can have positive effects, afflictions will more often force maladies upon your squads such as paranoia, masochism and antagonism, among many others. Perhaps the afflicted will mock teammates for their lack of valor in battle, which in turn causes the recipient’s stress to rise. Maybe they’ll retreat in action for fear of a teammate’s betrayal. Or maybe they’ll flat out refuse to cooperate, even when offered food or remedies should they wind up on death’s door. If any given fighter’s stress bar fills a second time, they’ll suffer a heart attack on the spot.

“And when they die they stay dead.”

So to avoid untimely deaths, de-stressing your mercenaries by way of the hamlet’s services becomes not only a necessity but also part of the game’s grand strategy. I sent one of my earliest recruits – Dismas, a Highwayman who I’d become particularly fond of early on for, well, not dying immediately – to recover from one notably arduous dungeon run in the town’s tavern. Booze, I thought, that works for me – it’ll surely work for him. In the meantime, I took on some new blood, went about training her up, and completely forgot about ol’ Dismas as he searched for restitution at the bottom of the bottle.

Weeks passed, comrades came and went, and by the time I realised I’d misplaced my one-time stalwart, I had a paranoid alcoholic on my hands who refused to turn up to work unless heavily inebriated. Through some warped sense of loyalty, I drafted him into the next expedition – a trek into the aforementioned Coves – where he died a slow and grueling death. Maybe I should’ve sent him to the brothel to relieve himself, or to seek penance at the abbey instead? I felt bad, but at the same time a sense of relief.

You see, starting afresh in Darkest Dungeon is a pain – grinding for hours to stretch beyond mere apprentice level is an undoubted slog – yet housing and maintaining a veteran team who either can’t stand one another or themselves proves an equally testing challenge in its own right. What’s refreshing about the whole system of recovery, though – on a tertiary level, over and above strategy and management – is that it reflects the horrors your team put themselves through for your sake, and that their undertakings have indeed taken their toll on their wellbeing and performance.

Handling issues of mental health in videogames can be a controversial topic, but Darkest Dungeon comes at it from an angle of pragmatism: if this were reality, these things really could have psychological effects on those involved. That is to say: how often do our videogame heroes engage in mass murder without batting an eye, for example. Building systems and structures around your characters’ states of wellbeing is a natural extension of the roguelike genre and works well in this instance. Furthermore, afflictions can be cured via time spent in the Sanitorium; weapons can be customised by the Blacksmith; skills can be upgraded at the Survivalist; and unique abilities can be enhanced at the Guild as your characters progress.

Upgrading the Stagecoach perhaps becomes the most important feature of the game, particularly when the chips are down. The game’s multitude of systems can at times feel overwhelming – especially when your team sheet is full, your old guard is preoccupied at the pub, and your new starts are too green to get their hands dirty. A high turnover is what you need to face the grind and that is only possible with a fancier wagon. The jump from apprentice level to veteran is a big one, thus it makes sense to have more than four warriors fighting at top rank.

It’s at this stage I feel Darkest Dungeon might lose people, though. The precarious balance of fair/unfair the game so elegantly maintains up to this point seems to become distinctly skewed in the game’s favour, and for a longer period of time than seems necessary. It’s hard enough to make it to this stage at all, yet the final push into the latter stages of the game – and onto the eponymous Darkest Dungeon – requires an inordinate amount of grind, grit and determination. It’s worth sticking it out, but it ain’t for the faint of heart.

Then again, that’s exactly what Red Hook Studios set out to do. In Darkest Dungeon you’ll engage in more dungeon runs than you’ll care to admit. You’ll slouch around its underground recesses while steadfastly clutching a sliver of health or a shard of sanity. You’ll wonder at its pitch-perfect art style, and cringe at its relentlessly pessimistic, but entirely correct, narrator.

You’ll lose lives, money, resolve and the marbles of your crew, before you’re back at the hamlet with nothing to show, no further forward, another four bodies resigned to the graveyard. You’ll incessantly tour a ragtag mob of reluctant rookies into foregone conclusions. You’ll laugh at the fact you’ve wound up with a nymphomaniac alcoholic who is barred from both the Tavern and the Brothel. You’ll cry. And cry and cry and cry. But I think you’ll love it.

“Heroes will die,” reads the preeminent understatement at the game’s start. “And when they die they stay dead.”

Darkest Dungeon is out now.

100 Comments

  1. MrFinnishDude says:

    “Remind yourself, that overconfidence is a slow and insidious killer.” Great line from the game, and one that any player should take to heart. So many times the “Random Number God” or “RNG” for short, has punished me for getting cocky, pushing my adventurers forward for that sweet, glimmering loot, only to have them get absolutely decimated due to my own, blind and foolish greed.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      “Random Number God” or “RNG” for short

      You know, this is a much better explanation for why gamers are now using “RNG” as a synonym for “randomness” or “random” or “luck”, rather than simple misuse of a technical term.

      • Paladin says:

        Just wait until you learn about RNGsus.

        • Silent_Thunder says:

          RNGesus is a false god. Nuffle is the true King of the Dice, and he shall strike down the nonbelievers with little mercy.

          Or he might reward them. He’s fickle like that.

      • Enkidum says:

        Why is it a misuse? I mean, I haven’t seen it being used this way myself, but everything pseudo-random in a game will be generated by some kind of RNG.

        • kreon says:

          There are a lot of reasons why it’s a misuse. Admittedly, it’s not really a helpful distinction for laypeople. No one wants to be the one on the forums saying, “No it’s PseudoRNGeezus!”

          In short, it’s prohibitively expensive (computationally-speaking) to attempt to generate a truly random set when you can get a psuedorandom set with whatever distribution you need using cheaper methods. You’ve got your linear congruential generators and Mersenne twisters (the latter are the default for random number calls in many/most environments) for quick and cheap psuedorandom generation. I’m pretty sure that now people use Xorshift generators in non-crytographic settings if they really want to push the limit of pseudorandom number generation on consumer hardware. All of these will work by pulling a “seed” (just any old number) from somewhere. Historically it would just be the current time on the computer. From the same seed, the same pseudorandom sequence will result. That’s why you can save seed states for maps in some games. You input the number and bam, your pseudorandom map is back. Incidentally, this is also why pseudorandom number generators are not used cryptographically.

          Even running the above would be expensive while the game was running — so a lot of times the game will generate a pseudorandom sequence and store it in an array for later use (this is what might happen on a loading screen). When the game needs a ‘random’ number it will just pull it from the array.

          This is all beside the fact that most of the time true randomness would be problematic in a game. Procedurally generated levels are not random. They have pseudorandom aspects, but not to such a degree that the a player could not get through the level — both as in from A to B, and (generally) with respect to difficulty. A pseudorandom number might be used to pick which tile is placed where, what orientation it might be in, what monsters/events will be in it, but all of that will be bounded and weighted by the game designer’s intention.

          As to whether your weapon damage and chance to hit are random…it will depend on the game. In many games even a pseudorandom sequence for that sort of thing would lead to player frustration. Some designers will aim for the “feel” of randomness, while actually limiting the ability of a player to critically fail a roll (by nudging their distribution one way or another).

          The result should be a game that allows players to fail the right amount. That amount will vary depending on the audience/genre of the game, etc… If well done, a player won’t be able to tell anyway. After all, as a species we’re pretty crap at identifying randomness.

          #screed

          • SirMarth01 says:

            “All of these will work by pulling a “seed” (just any old number) from somewhere. Historically it would just be the current time on the computer. […] Incidentally, this is also why pseudorandom number generators are not used cryptographically.”

            If you’re using system time as a source of entropy in the first place, you probably shouldn’t be doing anything involved with cryptography.

            That said, crypotographically secure pseudorandom number generators do exist, and are used. So long as you have a decent enough entropy pool to feed the CSPRNG, it should theoretically be…well, crypographically secure.

            As for random map generation: the seed itself is generated randomly (or pseudorandomly), but the map generation itself has absolutely no randomness to it. It functions similar to a hash function: the same input will always generate the same output. (Not to say that the same output guarantees the same input, but hash collisions are a different subject entirely.)

            Everything else you said seems to be right, though.

            (If I’m wrong about anything, forgive me. I am most definitely not an expert on cryptography.)

          • kael13 says:

            Awesome post. Felt like I was back in my CompSci classes, but with an interesting twist – relating pseudorandom generation to game design.

            For readers, an example is how Blizzard tuned the Legendary drop rates in Diablo 3 to be less random (but still feel random) as some players would go significantly large amounts of time without any phat loots falling on the ground. Diablo devs effectively increased the chances of a Legendary over time, so the longer you play, the more likely you’ll receive a Legendary, so it becomes almost guaranteed after 45mins to an hour.

          • Mr. Mister says:

            A very good example of altering randomness to suit irrational human expectations is Fire Emblem: While the hitchance is always presented in % (and in a way you can always calculate that % yourself just from adding/substracting ever-consultable units’ stats), what the game does instead (without ever telling you) is pull not one, but two RNG numbers (per hit check) in the 1-100 range, then compare the average to the shown hitchance. What this does is increase the hitchance when the shown % is above 50%, and reduce it when below it, because while you’re bound to miss a 95% Hit attack once every twenty times on average, humans might get angry if it happens more than once in a same chapter.

            A continuous approximation (not accounting for the discrete RNG output range) of the actual hitchance is 2h^2 if the shown hitchance in fraction of 1 is 0<=h<=0.5, and 4h – 2h^2 -1 if 0.5<=h<=1

          • disperse says:

            If you want true randomness, you need the Dice-O-Matic:
            link to geek.com

          • Moxum says:

            Going to be a bit of a jerk and point out that true randomness doesn’t exist mathematically, and no computer model can incorporate it. An effective way of increasing your entropy pool is to have a human move the mouse as randomly as possible, and even that can’t be truly random, as your movements are simply the result of chain reactions in the brain.

            So, pseudorandom is just a bombastic term neckbeards came up with for the purpose of creating jargon that makes them SOUND smart, but is really just nonsense.

    • Moxum says:

      Random Number Generator :)

  2. Premium User Badge

    gritz says:

    Is there ever a moment where you feel like you’ve overcome the hurdle or is the difficulty curve kept just out of reach even at the very end? From reading this, it doesn’t sound like there’s ever a moment where you feel like your hard work has a rewarding payoff.

    What kind of time investment does this game take? Difficult is great, but I’m not sure I could stick with that kind of punishment for 50+ hours.

    • Premium User Badge

      gritz says:

      To illustrate what I mean, think of (original) X-Com: Your squaddies die in droves in the beginning, but you work your way up through lasers, plasma, power armor and psionics and suddenly you realize how powerful you’ve become- even though a stray Sectopod can still kill your 100 mission Commander if you’re not careful.

      • Moxum says:

        Uhh, you’re not referring to the 1994 game are you? Because Enemy Unknown is sure as hell not the original. It’s like literally the fifth XCOM game that’s come out over the years.

    • Jeremy says:

      There is a significant curve to the game, that is mitigated by 1) Learning more about the systems in play, and 2) Improved upgrades, skills, and trinkets.

      However, DD makes a point of not allowing upgrades, skills, and trinkets to overpower a team and make them immune to death. There is a definite need to understand the systems to have success, and you will never quite escape the danger of death and loss.

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        gritz says:

        But does “success” mean a real feeling of empowerment? Or does it just mean surviving the grind a little longer?

        • anHorse says:

          Honestly it becomes piss easy until you outlevel a difficulty (your group will refuse to do easy dungeons once level 3) and then it becomes precarious again

          • Jeremy says:

            Also very true. At Level 3, you move to intermediate dungeons, and at 5 up to champion dungeons. Those first few runs will remind you that this game is difficult.

      • Jeremy says:

        I played the game two separate times during EA, once at the beginning, and once after the “corpse update.” For me, there is a very clear sense of empowerment as you move through the game. Understanding classes, stats, trinkets, positioning, etc means that I generally feel in control of each run. When things go bad, it’s because I pushed ahead in spite of the risks.

        Also, there is a very distinct endgame that happens once you start the Darkest Dungeon(final dungeon). It definitely requires an understanding of the various mechanics / systems in place, an understanding of how classes play well together, and fully upgraded weapons/armor/skills.

        Having both of those in play was very rewarding, and at the same time, I can understand why some people would be put off by that. Many people can’t stand Dark Souls for the same reason (strangely enough, myself included.)

        • Premium User Badge

          gritz says:

          Good answer, thanks!

        • Hmm-Hmm. says:

          Hmm. I do wonder how people with no prior knowledge of the game fare, though. I mean, understanding mechanics can come easy or be rather infuriating. Is it possible to be stuck on a boss or be unlucky? Because such things (and say, taking too many/too dew supplies) combined with a lack of understanding of the games’ mechanics might make the game somewhat frustrating.

          Personally, I don’t mind characters dying and such but I don’t like developers expecting players to know game mechanics before they’re explained (or, you know, after encountering them once or so). This is also why I doubt I’ll get the game because if I get stuck after trying something a couple of times I get frustrated. And then the game ceases to be fun.

          • sonson says:

            Failure is inherent to success in the game. Most games allow you to just bash on through them irrespective of what you do, whereas failure in this is necessary because teaches you the game.

            One example: The first boss you encounter will basically be impossible if you have been loading your party in a certain way. But then, so will the rest of the game. That failure encountered there teaches you a core system in respect to fights and party composition that will allow you to reliably progress.

            If the first boss was just a reiteration of what you’d faced up to that point but with more HP, then you probably wouldn’t learn that lesson and then get promptly destroyed shortly after when you have more to lose and without warning.

            It requires persistence and grind, but the game teaches you how to play if you pay attention and are willing to invest past the point that most games enforce as being fail states-losing a good squad, dying mutiple times etc. It’s not unfair or mean-spirited at all. But it’s certainly not breezy or for people who don’t want to commit either. And that is core to the game and a good thing.

          • PW_Shea says:

            My personal experience is that if you treat this like a management game where you manage a team of revolving characters over a long period of time, AND you prioritize leveling up the stagecoach, the game is still hard. It tutorializes you well. The loading screen tips clue you in to some secondary, less clear mechanics.

  3. Guilty Bearcub says:

    I got a HP. Lovecraft feel from this. With all the hopelessness and slow but steady despair. Is it just me?

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      There are various explicit Lovecraft references, so that’s obviously the intention. I don’t think you can have a proper Lovecraftian game where combat is the main focus, though.

    • shadowmarth says:

      Haha nope, that’s very intentional, in both tone and content. I wouldn’t be shocked to see some actual Lovecraft monsters pop up later.

    • anHorse says:

      The word eldritch is used on a lot
      The cove is basically innsmouth
      The narrator does Lovecraft audiobooks
      The studio “red hook” is named after The Horror at Red Hook, a Lovecraft story

      It’s pretty upfront

      • RedViv says:

        It’s The Rats in The Walls – The Dungeon-Crawling Adventure

        And glorious for it.

      • LennyLeonardo says:

        Oh my giddy/bulbous aunt, he does HPL audiobooks! This is brilliant, I love you.

        • anHorse says:

          I was so happy when I found out

        • Boozebeard says:

          I was excited too but the one I started listening too was really really flat in tone. It was kind of a drag. Decided to just read it instead.

    • C0llic says:

      It’s very lovecraft inspired. Eldrich abominations and cosmic horror all around. It’s also very good if this is your type of game.

      The grind does set in, but honestly, because of the sheer brilliance of the presentation, you’ll likely have enough fun to justify buying it even if you never get to the end.

    • Premium User Badge

      DelrueOfDetroit says:

      Looks to be a healthy dose of Mike Mignola (Hellboy) influence in there as well.

      • horrorgasm says:

        where do you think Hellboy took all that stuff from…

        • horrorgasm says:

          I mean I like Hellboy and all, but pretty much every thing that’s ever happened to him has been openly taken directly from other stories/myths

          • C0llic says:

            He is correct though; the style of the illustrations is very Mike Mignola. Yet another reason to love the game.

    • Abndn says:

      It’s heavily inspired by Lovecraft, and “Rats in the Walls” in particular.

  4. njury says:

    Have been looking at this since they started development, but waited patiently through kickstarter and early access because I lose interest in games too quickly to play anything but at least a finished game.
    Happy reading this review. I most likely will never complete the game, but look forward to playing it anyway!

  5. caff says:

    Excellent review. I tried to love this, and want to love it more, but the brutal difficulty and some grating mechanics turned me off. I’m still glad I played it though.

    • C0llic says:

      I think that’s why it’s such an easy recommend. Even if you eventually give up, I can’t see anyone with an interest in the subject matter or genre feeling cheated. When many triple A SP games last around 8 hours, its pretty damn likely you’ll be in love for at least that long, and you haven’t spent nearly as much.

      • LennyLeonardo says:

        I’d even say that eventually giving up is more in keeping with the spirit of the game than persevering.

    • Darloth says:

      Try watching it.

      It’s so much less stressful as a viewer than as someone playing it, and I find it’s almost as much fun.

      • MercurialJack says:

        I can highly recommend Baertaffy’s Darkest Dungeon series on YouTube. He’s a fantastic narrator to watch playing the game. A (rough) quote from one of his latest videos “I’ve never felt so invested in a video game as I do right now.”

  6. shadowmarth says:

    I’m enjoying it quite a lot. The combat is good, the classes are very different, and the difficulty seems about right. I do have some problems with it though. For starters, the fact that all your upgrades, and all your treatments scale in cost is VERY ANNOYING. It makes it feel like you’re never making any progress, or getting anything substantially better, just getting BIGGER NUMBERS to deal with progressively beefier (but as of yet, not particularly different) enemies. The skills are the same. I get the feeling that perhaps higher tier upgrades might improve their function slightly, but so far (I think I’m about 1/3 through the game?), just like the weapon and armor upgrades, they are purely numbers boosts, and not terribly dramatic ones either.

    I think that’s really the thing that rubs me the wrong way about the town management stuff. There’s no tech tree, there’s just upgrades. Everyone’s town is going to be exactly like mine, with only minor differences in the order they unlock the upgrades, but due to the scaling costs, even that will be pretty minor. It all feels like triage, with the choices usually being pretty darned clear.

    The only part of the game I can really see as very deterministic is the combat, and especially the choice of team composition, but the way your people have to take time off between every other mission (and frequently every mission) makes it very difficult to make those choices too. That forces you to fuck around with your teams, which is good, but when it’s time to hit a boss or something, it’s very annoying to have to spend three weeks treating and relaxing the team you want to send in.

    Finally, I know this all sounds like bitching, but I really do like the game, I just have been trying to pin down what it is about it that I don’t like. X-Com (original) is my favorite game of all time (XCOM is good, but didn’t live up to it in a lot of ways), and the thing it has that this doesn’t is the sheer variety of options and strategies you can implement across the entire game. This game is fun and interesting, I was just hoping for a bit more from the meta-game bit. I’m hoping to finish it, and it keeps pulling me back.

    • Kitsunin says:

      I’ve only gotten far enough in to start doing veteran level missions myself, but from what I’ve heard very, very little actually changes aside from numbers. Apparently the Darkest Dungeon changes things quite substantially, but until then, you even fight identical bosses from each area three times each, with a mere numbers boost.

  7. sandman2575 says:

    Love that JD named his eyepatch-attired Man-at-Arms “Big Boss.” Should probably change the name of his Highwayman to “Ocelot” for consistency…

  8. king0zymandias says:

    Been playing it the last couple of days. It has some very interesting ideas no doubt, and it’s quite satisfying to come up with strategies by mixing and matching multiple classes, abilities and trinkets. Tactically the game definitely has depth and combat is quite challenging but fun.

    However what is bothering me is the inordinate amount of grinding necessary for outfitting and training heroes adequately. When you have to do the same quest 10 times it loses some of the horror and becomes a grind instead.

  9. vorador says:

    I tried it still on early access. It kicked my ass.

    To put it bluntly, it is way too random and punishing. While i can appreciate some hard difficulty, i only appreciate it when i fail because of my shortcomings and i learn something from it, like Dark Souls. Not when the game randomly decides to spike the difficulty or have one of your characters break down in the worst moment.

    Darkest Dungeon likes to punish me simply by playing. While some people might strive under such treatment, i’m not one of them. I might get back to it if i’m in the mood, but not likely any time soon.

    • sonson says:

      Randomness really isn’t an issue if you understand the mechanics. Treat it like a strategy game rather than a roguelike and it becomes eminently doable.

      I suck at roguelikes, never completed one, but I’m powering my way through this, 35 hours in I haven’t lost anyone since week 2 and done all the first level bosses without loss and can equip a new party of level 1 heroes with the sort of equipment and upgrades that make the entry level dungeons a cakewalk. Again, so long as you’re respectful of the circumstances and invest in proper strategies each battle.

      The RNG is basically the enemy occasionally doing to you what you do to them routinely, without ever stopping to think that its unfair or random.

    • TormDK says:

      Best advice I can give for new players is.

      DO NOT USE ALL CURIOS YOU FIND. PERIOD.

      It’s a trap, and by pressing every thing you find, odds will not be in your favour. This also means that you need to find a list of afflictions that causes your heroes to use curios automatically, and have it cured asap, as otherwise they will hurt themselves more than they will help.

      • C0llic says:

        As far as curios go, there are many items that pretty much guarantee positive outcomes. So I say try things out before you have heroes you really care about and learn what works with what.

        • Kitsunin says:

          Yeah, if you’re already in a pinch you should avoid curios like the plague because very few offer a worthwhile immediate benefit, but I’m pretty sure the value of good results always on average outweighs the bad. You can weigh things even further toward good by, for example, having someone with high disease resist examine fish guts.

          • lagiacrux says:

            im just using the wiki for the curios.
            trial and error seems to tedious for me, when a wrong interaction can practically end the run.
            some might say “thats cheating”, but i dont really care. i enjoy the game way too much to let this minor thing drag me down.

  10. GernauMorat says:

    A fair review. Personally I’m loving it, and I am absolutely not a sucker for extreme difficulty in games – I’ve bounced off Dark Souls despite multiple attempts to get in to it, for example. Darkest Dungeon doesn’t feel ludicrously difficult to me, however: its systems are well defined, and despite the RNG it feels fair. You fail because you took the extra risk, pushed your people to far. In terms of getting into it, upgrade your stagecoach first (as the review says) so you have a steady stream of fresh recruits, and fire anyone who is going crazy/ got loads of negative attributes early on, as it’s not worth the gold to cure them until they reach a higher level. Other than that, remember you can retreat from a dungeon, and its not always worth checking all pieces of loot, particularly if your team is already teetering on the edge….

  11. ARM says:

    This game was one of my rare Early Access games, and because I have to pretend to be an adult, I never had the time to properly play it.
    Now that it’s an “official release”, I’ve started everything from the beginning, and realized that I will never finish it : some of my best characters died with honour, but my best died in a horrible turn of events when she was full HP (surprised by monsters, hit four times with 3 critic + bleeding + poison, and those infections killed her when she was the first to start, not even a chance to run away). And at first, I genuinely laugh about it :D

    I really enjoy this game and even this kind of injustice might be quite fun… But I really do not have the time to spend 5 hours to grind characters just to see them disapear in a dice roll.
    Spending so much time for absolutely nothing, not even the satisfaction to progress or improve, is something I do not really feel good about :/, and there is plenty of other games that I want to play in my free time.

    My heart is more broken than my characters’ dignity, ’cause I would love to love this game, but it seems it doesn’t want me… :(

  12. MikoSquiz says:

    It seemed promising back in the earliest of backer-access days, with the wonderful presentation and all, but it seems like every tweak to the gameplay was aimed at making the game a slow, fiddly, tiresome slog. As it is, I’d love to see what lies further into the game but I absolutely cannot be arsed to play even a little bit more.

    • Xzi says:

      They certainly fleshed out the pacing more for the release version, but the dungeons are procedurally-generated, so of course they did. It would be pretty pointless to have you run through three or four dungeons and give you the “you win” screen. The combat mechanics themselves don’t slow you down once you begin to understand them.

    • sonson says:

      Most of my party are at Master Level now, doing veteran quests. Average Dungeon probably takes about 20-25 minutes tops, with most rounds of combat being over in 3 rounds. If they’re taking longer than that then your strategy is sub-optimal somewhere.

      To be honest, one of the main things the game teaches you is that you *can’t afford* to drudge. You have to find ways to clear dungeons and win fights fast.

  13. jj2112 says:

    Well I think I might try it. After finishing Dark Souls 1 and 2 and Pathologic I feel I can finish anything… and then I’m sure I’ll be thrashed.

  14. Ufofighter says:

    Game is basically a masochism test. Repetitive and with a RNG more loaded than a dice in a western movie.

    • Jeremy says:

      I don’t think that’s a very fair assessment. I would say that the majority of complaints I see have been leveled at the RNG, but there are so many ways to push the balance in your favor. ACC and DODGE are probably the initial things to focus on, and with the use of Buffs and Trinkets, can very regularly hit enemies, while avoiding damage. Grab a Jester, and use his Battle Ballad to pump up your Heroes’ ACC and DODGE, and you’ll find the RNG isn’t all that stacked.

      • Ufofighter says:

        It was an overstatement, I agree. But I still think the game is too punishing for the level of randomness and grind involved. It reminds me of Long War, not tactically impossible to beat, but due to randomness and sheer repetition eventually you will be in the receiving side of statistically infuriating events.

        • Xzi says:

          We have a number of people here on RPS who have lost no characters or very few characters deep into the game. It’s not a foregone conclusion that RNG is gonna get ya in Darkest Dungeon. Strategy and planning win out way more often than not.

        • sonson says:

          Yeah that’s not happened to me at 41 hours in. Tactics win 90% of the time. RNG will occasionally beat you into retreat but that’s it if you’re smart. I’ve never, not once, lost anyone who had full health or was below 70ish stress in a random event or battle. I’ve lost a few heroes who were on -50% health or near their stress thresholds to crits-but that’s on me for going in there with them like that.

          I’ve never lost a fight, against any enemy, including bosses, at any point in my Full Game run where my heroes have been above the +50% threshold or within a healthy stress bracket. Crits hurt but if you’re going into a fight in good shape and a sound strategy they should never finish you off. If you’re not going into a fight in good shape then expect the worst.

          Also, as above- the main source of true randomness is the curio stuff. In which case, just leave it alone. If you don’t want random shit to happen, don’t press the random chance button.

  15. Premium User Badge

    Paraquat says:

    That writing, eh? Like an explosion in a thesaurus factory. And I’m fairly sure whoever wrote it doesn’t know what “swarthy” means.

  16. Premium User Badge

    Andy_Panthro says:

    I played it in early access, and while I enjoyed a lot about it, I found the stress mechanic a little too stressful.

    It seemed like a single dungeon run was enough to get most/all of my four chosen mercenaries afflicted with something, and too stressed to risk another run. So I had to hire another four to go for another dungeon run, then another four for the third… and so on. Stress relieving was limited, because you need money for spaces at the inn or wherever, and money to send them there too.

    I quit the game hoping that future updates might alleviate the more grindy elements, but it doesn’t really seem to be the case. I’ll probably go back to it at some point, but I get the feeling I’ll end up with less a band of mercenaries, but rather an entire battalion of poor fools endlessly rotated through dungeons until they survive or die.

  17. Laurentius says:

    It didn’t grab me, while I apprecieted design at first then I felt that game is a grindy and there is no short term payoff. FTL it is not.

    • Xzi says:

      Of course it’s not. FTL isn’t party-based. FTL doesn’t have stress levels or light levels. Not sure who told you it would be like FTL but they were way off base. It’s not like Dark Souls just because it’s difficult, either. It’s closer to a hard version of Final Fantasy Tactics than either of those things.

      • Laurentius says:

        It’s about what game delivers. FTL is great expereince if you have an hour to play at the evening. Whether you succed or not there is short term pay off, enemy ships are destroyed, you try to deal with odds with given hand. 45 minutes an evening playing DD left me with feeling that I acomplished nothing or almost nothing. I can see that in a long run I made some progress but it does not give satisfaction that I have from playing FTL.

        • sonson says:

          It would’t say much for the crawling chaos beneath the manor if it could be vanquished in the space of a 45 minute session.

          It’s a campaign, unlike FTL. It’s meant to take a while, it’s meant to be exhausting, you’re meant to feel overwhelmed. That’s a key part of how it’s theme emerges.

  18. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    I enjoyed this a lot during Early Access, and will again – even though I thoroughly expect never to complete it. Which is fine.

    The gloomy gallows humour of it is so well done and evocative, it makes losing fun.

  19. Michael Fogg says:

    This has plenty of great ideas and an iconic artstyle, but it somehow makes me wish for a less abstract (and tablet friendly) dungeon crawler, something more nitty-gritty like Temple of Elemental Evil or Legend of Grimrock (which I happen to be playing right now).

  20. Hobbes says:

    Darkest Dungeon is a textbook example of a fantastic game marred by a terrible endgame state. The reviewer forgot to mention that you can access the Darkest Dungeon right away (even though that’s suicidal, but you -can- if you want to send your party mad), and the only way the game prevents your first Resolve 6 team from being able to complete said dungeon when they are ready is through one of the worst mechanics I’ve seen to date.

    The use of a non treatable, hardcoded debuff called “Never again”, which bans those heroes from re-entering the final set of instances. Meaning you require sixteen to twenty heroes, minimum before you are able to tackle the Darkest Dungeon (but the game won’t tell you this beforehand) lest you complete the first map and then find your beloved party suddenly is locked out of the Darkest Dungeon and at that point, you’re unable to progress further until you subject yourself to the joys of grinding up a fresh party from scratch.

    This turns the game from a joy to an exercise in frustration. I’m in the process of having to re-write my review in light of this from a positive review to a negative one because of the parlous state of the endgame. It’s simply truncated and has had band-aids plastered on to deliberately prolong the grind.

    This is the sort of detail I would have thought the review might have picked up on, no?

    • Xzi says:

      I didn’t read any of that as unreasonable in a roguelike. It’s supposed to be hard to ultimately win. It’s supposed to take you multiple runs to ultimately win. Maybe you just didn’t realize this was a roguelike going in to it?

      • Nick says:

        you confuse difficulty with arbitrary time wasting gating.

      • Kitsunin says:

        It’s patently not a roguelike. It’s an RPG with management-sim elements.

    • sonson says:

      It’s a high stake reiteration of core mechanics. Losing party members should neither be a surprise or a problem. If you’re going in there in one attempting to clear it-which is basically what you’re suggesting, if you don’t have the roster to have a go again, you obviously thought that one party would be enough to not only beat it first time but repeat again afterwards- you’re fundamentally rejecting what the game teaches you. There’s a reason you upgrade the hamlet and have a roster of 25 heroes.

      • Hobbes says:

        Being punished for -succeeding- is not a lesson that is valid. That’s bad game design, and “Never again” is a blunt tool to promote that bad design principle. It takes choices out of the players hands and promotes a playstyle that either attempts to game the system by beating “Never again” (Bad) or forces players into needless grind (Worse).

        There are FAR better options. This is the worst option, and the fact they’re not interested in improving on it means that the game will get tossed the moment most normal players get their hard earnt heroes to the end of the first dungeon to find they get banned from subsequent DD’s.

        • sonson says:

          I think game design would be very boring if there was dogma as wrote as “This is always bad design”. I disagree, I think in this situation it makes sense.

          And also I maintain it’s only punishment if you’ve loaded all your expectations onto the existence of a few key heroes, which is antithetical to the entirety of the game in design and narrative. It’s the final statement in the fact that your objective is to beat the DD, heroes are just a means to that end. It might seem spiteful, but when someone told me about it the first time I wasn’t remotely surprised. It’s the final test as to whether your loyalty lies with your party-who you have been told throughout are expendable and unreliable- or with the sacrafices required to win. In this instance, I would suggest it’s not punishing success, because getting up to Lvl 6 *isn’t success*. It.s the last stop before success is reached. It’s a milestone, sure. But It’s not about the heroes, it’s about the Darkest Dungeon. You don’t beat the game when you get to the highest level. You beat the game when you beat the Darkest Dungeon.

          I’ve been leveling the majority of my roster alongside each other and rotating. If I lose a veteran or two at present there’s another 18 waiting to take their place and the rest of the roster are only a few missions away from getting there. The Hamlet is there to make an army of capable volunteers, and all my lower level heroes can be given powerful and cheap upgrades and trinkets to allow them to stomp the lower levels.

          I don’t understand why would you focus on an elite group when you have an entire roster of up to 25 heroes to play with? And consequently, in those circumstances, losing one or even 4 heroes would not be an issue.

          I do think you’re being punished for overly focusing on one set of heroes, yes, but I also feel as though the game broadcasts constantly that this is an adequate and dangerous strategy.

          • Josh W says:

            It is a hilariously blunt mechanic, and it does fit the theme of not-investing in your characters, but it’s also antithetical to the principle people suggest is fundamental to the rest of the game; not just taking a single run as the priority, but making slow progress and learning how things work, while knowing when to retreat.

            Suppose dark souls had an end boss that takes away some percentage of your levels and souls permanently? You can’t go back and get them, they’re gone.

            What does that do? Well it gutpunches everyone who has embraced the moral of dark souls about perseverance, learning from and amending mistakes, and triumph by learning.

            There’s not much learning to be done there, no move to avoid or work round, you’ve just lost souls and need to get more.

            Suddenly a theme of trying to guard your gains and shepherd them away from losses by careful play is damaged.

            Yes, people could use this to lower their soul level for multiplayer and gank people, and it could have a “purpose” in that sense, but it weakens the mechanical themes of the game, for the sake of a blander kind of difficulty.

            This game told you it was hard, but hopefully it also told you something else interesting about difficulty, otherwise it’s like the “bleak perseverance” of playing the national lottery. Eventually you might win, but it’s hard, and you have to “earn it” by playing a lot.

            Good difficult games are difficult for a reason, and those reasons shape their appeal.

          • sonson says:

            End game, retreating and losing a hero once is not a problem, because you should have a few dozen to take their place. It’s a surprise first time-as are all the bosses. It takes that up a level. But the only thing it punishes you for is single hero focus, nothing more.

            Dark souls does that plenty in fact. Teaches you the strength of one mechanic then takes away your ability to use it. I.E Capra Demon, who destroys any notion that you can progress through the game through a careful and considered dodge-block-riposte approach. You have to learn how to cope with a totally different challenge at that point. Your DS example goes to show you how you misunderstand the game. You don’t lose *any* levels if someone dies in the DD, because your heroes aren’t your character, the Hamlet is. You don’t lose *any* capacity to progress or beat the end game. You can only gain information from losing a run. You lose noting permanent.

            A lot of people are completing the DD runs on their second go, after the initial challenge and shock of the new mechanic they encounter there. Most people posting on forums who have been playing the the game through EA have completed it. I’ve played the game 48 hours since EA, just over half of those on the new campaign (nearly a year in) and I’m about 2/3 of the way there. It’s not a game that I would class as hard, so much as challenging, and 30 hours to complete a game is on the conservative end these days.

            As with the rest of the game, a long term approach to roster and understanding of enemies strength and weaknesses and how to stop them is all you need, even if the game turns up the heat at the end. If you don’t have that, if you haven’t learned the game, it’s bastard hard- but it’s not difficult to learn at all.

  21. Saul says:

    I’ve found that once you have internalised the mechanics, it’s easy to play the game while listening (and paying attention to podcasts). This has kept the game entertaining for me long after the grind may otherwise have become stale. I even played it through a week of training last week, which made that experience much easier to bear.

    • Xzi says:

      Personally I love the audio in Darkest Dungeon. I’m sure there will be a point at which I turn off the music at least and switch to my own, but I’ve played 15 hours of the release version and I’m still sticking with game audio for now.

    • Kitsunin says:

      This week has been waaaay too full of podcast-fodder games. First I realize that Touhou pokemon game thing has been finished, then Darkest Dungeon happens, then my friends drag me back into Warframe. Not that I’m complaining, but I’m running out of podcasts to even listen to.

  22. Chillicothe says:

    The only repetition I’ve had a problem with is the “Boss ver 1.0/Boss ver 1.2/Boss ver 1.5/Boss ver 1.9” syndrome that recent MMOs have suffered from where mechanics largely are the same and used the same just with a higher stat threshold and lower tolerance for mistakes. The final version has fantastic balancing too.

    • mechanixis says:

      I agree with this. I think this game would have benefited from having the option to play on a “quick” campaign speed where you confront each boss type once (rather than three times) and leveling up new heroes is less of a timesink.

      I’ve been playing one campaign for 30-40 hours and still don’t feel close to taking on the final dungeon. I love the game to bits, but there is definitely a point where you’re just grinding your heroes up an ever-taller xp ladder until they can be deployed against bosses, and even if they succeed, you’ll probably lose a couple of them in the process and need to go back to grinding new heroes to replace them. After a point the game just feels bloated.

      • Kitsunin says:

        It’s not like you can only ever complete a game once, either. It seems like if you felt progress a lot more, the game could, potentially, be a lot more satisfying. Well, perhaps they’ve tried that and it wasn’t.

  23. Emeraude says:

    Just started, bothered to see the “Enable Anonymous Data Collection” option turned on by default without even so much of a warning to the end user.

    That kinds of things should never happen.

    • Xzi says:

      Wha? Is that even a thing in Windows? I mean, other than in Windows 10, but there it can be turned off globally and I think it only really applies to the Windows store nobody uses.

    • Xzi says:

      And also wouldn’t that be a carry-over from early access when they needed to gather crash and bug data?

    • C0llic says:

      I think those are just harmless metrics within the game so they can look at how people are faring when they play. I agree privacy stuff should be signposted, but i don’t really see this as being an important issue.

      Do any of us really care if the makers look at how well your game is going for balancing and bug reporting purposes? I can’t see this is a big deal beyond being conditioned to think ‘oh no, privacy!

      • Emeraude says:

        It’s not a matter of the data being harmful per see, it’s a matter of what should be base security/privacy protocols being disregarded – to the point that people fail to see the harm, being inured to it happening.

        We enforce protocols for a reason.

        And then, even if the data is harmless it’s not the developer/publisher’s place to decide whether it should be given – and what the going market rate should be.

        • C0llic says:

          I understand you’re arguing about the principle of this, but I’m arguing the context means I don’t consider it important at all. This isn’t a large publisher who could potentially be gathering data to try and sell you something.

          The data collected is, to quote a community moderator on steam ‘purely game data. Classes used. Deaths.’ As you would expect really. At least they do tell you, so if you care you can turn it off. Again, I’m not sure why you would care, but you can.

  24. sonson says:

    Best appraisal I’ve read of DD, engaging, informed, thoughtful and appraises it on basis of intent and execution rather than what it maybe should be instead. Good work writer person.

  25. cpt_freakout says:

    I haven’t progressed a lot yet but one thing I can tell other newcomers is that you should always have in mind the ‘Escape fight/dungeon’ button. It’s a bit of a gamble since your heroes will get stress modifiers on ’em, but often that’s better than outright getting them killed in some fight you weren’t really ready for.

    Most of my heroes are level 2 now and I haven’t lost anyone, not even the starting heroes, and their maladies are still manageable. I’m sure that will backfire in the long run, but at least I feel like I’m winning… somehow.