How Darkest Dungeon Drove Me To Despair

People have called me a maniac for my gaming habits, but they know nothing. When I discover something new it becomes – for a day, a week, maybe months – an obsession that devours time. It helps to be a freelancer of course but it always happened anyway: when Resident Evil 4 came out I used to walk home in my lunch hour just to get 20 minutes in. When Darkest Dungeon [official site] was released I couldn’t get enough but, over many hours, it has gradually driven me away – in a manner so fitting it must have been intended.

Darkest Dungeon is a roguelike dungeon-crawler where you build up a barracks of troops and, over missions, they level up and become more effective. The idea is that, as you loot dungeons, you’re also building up your town hamlet and a considerable fighting force to face the game’s greatest challenges. The nasty flipside to this being our old friend Dr Permadeath.

The most unusual feature of Darkest Dungeon, and what intoxicated me about it at first, is the stress system: as your party explores creepy deathtraps and fights horrific nasties, each member’s stress levels increase. When it hits 100 their resolve is tested, which usually results in their tiny mind cracking and the emergence of an undesirable quality – maybe they’ll start berating their teammates, increasing stress levels further, or go masochist and start wounding themselves. In short, you never want them to go mad.

But the game makes this inevitable: of course it does. The stress system is designed so that it starts in the background of each mission, slowly ticking up, before you notice about two thirds of the way through that your characters’ meters are looking very high. There are exceptions, but generally it’s something that bites in the latter half of quests – when you’ve got something to lose.

What I initially admired about this system is how it loosely parallels what’s going on in the player’s mind. What madness does, in terms of how Darkest Dungeon works, is two things: increases the chances that another member of the party will have their resolve tested, and takes away control from the player. It makes things more difficult, and it frustrates you.

The increased pressure on your party therefore finds an echo in the player. As the stress meter rises towards 100 you get anxious about it, trying to stress heal that character and prioritising stress-dealing enemies even more than usual. When they break anyway, as they eventually do, it’s almost a relief for a few seconds – your faint hope of a positive resolve test still shining – and then when they go mad it increases your own stress.

I know my chances of escaping this dungeon laden with loot have just decreased. I know my characters are now in greater danger, and if I push on things will get worse. Every turn in battle brings a little knot of fear, as I wonder whether they’ll follow orders or give in to their own baser natures. I probably look serene at these moments, quietly contemplating the dungeons’ amber glow, but inside it’s a hurricane.

Whether this is an intended effect or not is beside the point: it’s ingenious. I continued to play Darkest Dungeon, pleased with myself for noticing this, but as I became more familiar with its tricks other feelings began to coalesce around the parallel.

Prime among them was a creeping sense that at this game’s heart lies a flaw, something that had come to dominate each session more and more. Part of why Darkest Dungeon’s design is so great is that it’s full of snowball effects – stress leads to more stress, afflictions build up over time and render characters weaker, and failed or abandoned quests waste precious resources you can never afford to fritter away.

Another of these snowball effects is losing heroes and what you have to do to rebuild your forces. You can’t ‘fail’ a playthrough of Darkest Dungeon, but you can easily reach a point where you have a decent hamlet but have to grind out early quests to level-up new heroes, which feels suspiciously like starting over. At first I thought this was a minor problem because, after all, avoiding it is in your hands.

But now, my mind calloused by dozens of hours and heroes lost, I think different. What ended up happening, several times, was that the small snowball effects turned into something much larger. On one occasion I pushed too far in reaching the Drowned Crew with high-level heroes, a boss I’d already bested at lower levels, and underestimating its key attack. That attack pulls one of your heroes forwards each turn, immobilises them, and causes tonnes of stress.

I’d previously beaten this boss through brute force on the immobilising enemy of the Crew, but this time around my Veterans were already stressed going in – and inexplicably failed to connect the important blows. My Bounty Hunter went mad on the second turn, and became abusive. Each subsequent turn he ground down the team with petty insults: “Hmph. A child could do better.”

But what really did for me was a hesitation, and then an inability, to retreat. I stuck around just to see if I had a glimmer of hope, but the Drowned Crew kept immobilising party members – and I couldn’t retreat unless they were freed, or they’d be left for dead. I finally freed one, the next turn fell to the Bounty Hunter… and he refused to take orders. Back to the Drowned Crew and another immobilised hero: over the next few turns two other heroes went mad, as I wavered between running and wanting to have everyone escape.

It was panic stations. I couldn’t leave my best heroes behind to die, I couldn’t make the hits to free them, and everyone was going nuts – the Vestal masochistic, the Grave Robber hopeless. They’d refuse to act on turns, reducing my chances further. In the end they died slowly, and anything but gently, over multiple turns. If I’d fled earlier then three may have lived but in the end I was left with two alive, one imprisoned, and no choice but to retreat. The Vestal stopped rending her own flesh for a moment, listened to me, and made it out.

This kind of scenario is why Darkest Dungeon is great. It’s a seriously tough challenge, and the unpredictability of the stress mechanics is at its best when they interfere at crisis moments. Losing control at the exact time you must not lose control is intense – escaping with flesh wounds is such a relief, and when the above happens it’s just terrible.

The fact you feel the loss so deeply is a testament to the game’s developers. The truth is I hadn’t been doing too well outside of that incident anyway. I’d lost a previous squad of veterans in an ill-fated attempt to pwn something huge and Eldtrich, and so including my crazy Vestal I had three level 5 heroes left. That’s not enough for a party, and so I faced having to grind up my level 3s before I could have another go, and starting the long road with a fresh group of level 0s.

To enjoy Darkest Dungeon, and games like it, you must make a compact with RNGesus. You accept that He will provide you with both the greatest and worst of moments, and that part of your strategy – only a small part – will now come down to chance. It’s a great trade-off for the most part. Despite all of this it is still possible to acknowledge that He’s a particular asshole when it comes to games with permadeath.

There are games that suit ‘grind,’ but Darkest Dungeon isn’t one of them – even though it’s a roguelike, the dungeon layouts are by far the weakest part of the game and have far too much uneventful backtracking. When you have to grind heroes back up through the levels, minor irritants like this seem to transform – a madman’s vision perhaps – into major flaws. This specific failing makes the permadeath sting even more traumatic.

If you screw up in Darkest Dungeons, and I hold my hands up and admit to this, the design is that you have to waste time. In this context, it’s what grinding means. For bad decisions made in an instant, I now had to re-invest hours in earlygame dungeons to regain the strength my forces once had. On top of this, the best way to bolster your gold when you’ve hit bottom is to send a party of four level 0 heroes out, paying no attention to whether they live or die, leave with as much loot as possible and dismiss the survivors.

That’s strange, isn’t it. Permadeath has the unintended consequence of making low-level heroes cannon fodder, in a mechanical sense, and yet they go mad even more frequently than your ‘real’ heroes – because you’re not taking care of them. The process ends up numbing the game’s core appeal. What I had once found so appealing about Darkest Dungeon, the way that fear and paranoia could almost bleed out of the characters into your playstyle, was now in danger of becoming routine.

My love for those veterans, each carefully levelled up and specced-out with favourite skills, soon became scorn for those that were supposed to – eventually – take their place. I found myself playing lackadaisically, bored at grinding low level dungeons, and through this lack of care losing heroes that I’d levelled up partway. Frustration turned to anger and, as my mistakes multiplied and the graveyard began to bulge, that anger’s familiarity turned to contempt.

I’ve sunk ample time into Darkest Dungeon, and it’s a wonderful game in many respects. But you only have so much time, and when you realise the game is designed to punish players by wasting their time – a full party takes hours to level up to Veteran or Champion levels – it can breed resentment.

As my heroes got stressed, I got stressed with them. As they succumbed to madness, I felt a little flutter of panic. And as they died I was angry and then, knowing what that truly meant for my save file, despondent. In a way Darkest Dungeon accomplishes something great, because I began by caring about the heroes. Now I look at new faces and know there’s no point. I have become, like the game’s narrator, embittered by my own failings – angry at fate itself, and placing no value on the lives of others.

Few games deliver on their worlds so completely, intentional or no. For some this kind of consequence-heavy design is exactly what they want, and fair enough. For others, maybe not. And me? I’ve given up, past the stage of caring, content to let my hamlet sink to ruin – and laugh at the thought.

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  1. Aerothorn says:

    As someone who hasn’t played Darkest Dungeon – is this article based on the default difficulty level? I have been interested in the game, but I hate grinding with a passion and will tend to bounce off a game the moment it throws hours of unfun tasks in front of me.

    • Pazguato says:

      Same here.

    • haldolium says:

      This is based upon how Darkes Dungeon will turn out eventually, no matter the “difficulty”. There are a few options you can turn on or off individually for an “easier” experience, but that doesn’t affect how DD overall works which is pretty well told in the article, even when you turn off a lot of options. People will die eventually.

      You can make the grind a little bit less grindy with using the heroes in rotations, so that you will always switch between pushing lowlevel heroes and gaining money (hopefully, but unless you go into boss dungeons you can usually survive when knowing how the game works), and then go into the depths of the harder dungeons fully equiped with unstressed and somewhat healthy higher tier heroes. The latter though will cost a lot of money since removal of stress and quirks and deseases can be rather costly.

      However at some point it can turn and might not be rewarding anymore in itself, but it depends too on how much time you sink into the game and at what rate too.

      I still return to it every now and then, but I do agree that the stress kind of jumped over onto me as well.

    • Morph says:

      Well depends what you mean by grinding. You do a dungeon, do another dungeon, then another dungeon… I mean that’s the game. Dungeons are fairly similar (though there are 4 different types, so you will have some idea of the enemies and hazards you are up against) but really you’re doing the same thing over and over. You could say it’s grinding or you could say it’s the game.

    • BisonHero says:

      In each dungeon run, your party has inventory space to pick up both raw gold (used to upgrade hero equipment and skill levels, and also to heal their stress levels back to normal) and building materials to upgrade the efficiency of buildings in town (these materials have no monetary value).
      There is no XCOM-like fail state; you can never fail on the meta level, so you never have to restart your whole save. Because you have to spend gold on heroes to upgrade their equipment and skills, if those heroes die, you effectively lose all that money (the equipment is not “recoverable” in any way), so if your high level heroes die, it’s like watching your ~40,000 gold investments suddenly die. New recruits are completely free, but “leveling up” doesn’t increase the effectiveness of their equipment or skills in any way; you have to pay for all of those upgrades on each individual hero, and the “hero level” just limits the equipment and skill upgrade maximum you can pay for at any given time.
      Note that it also takes dozens of hours to grind out all of the base upgrade materials. Granted, once you’ve finally maxed everything out back at the base, you can completely ignore picking up the upgrade materials, and instead keep every single bit of gold and treasure you find, slightly increasing your average gold income per mission. Still, this takes quite a long time. The game is tactically interesting to play, but yeah, if you lose a group of high level heroes, you’re essentially losing a big gold investment, and it will take quite a few missions to level up (and then pay for upgrades) rookies back up to where those guys were at.

    • DubecLeCroat says:

      Yeah, that article sums it up really well. I love the atmosphere, the constant stress, the attachment you feel to your heroes, even the frustration of them dying… but then the grind hit. And I realized how long the road ahead would be, and how little fun it would be, and stopped playing. I still love the game, and am really glad I bought it. It’s quite unique, and you don’t have to finish every game you play.

      Instead, I’m going on 200 hours in Crypt of the Necrodancer… now with dance pad!

  2. Captain Joyless says:

    I have to concur with the article in a few important respects. While the game is dripping with atmosphere and can create nerve-wracking situations for the player in any given dungeon crawl, the town and recruitment mechanics break the game.

  3. C0llic says:

    I pretty much agree with this article, and yet I sill love the game. It’s so stressful, and so time consuming that you really do need to keep putting it down once you’re past the honeymoon period. I sill love the game though, but like you I’ve come to realise I may never finish it.

    All that being said, I consider it money well spent and a fantastic experience. I bought in during early access and have managed to rack up a massive 57 hours of playtime. For the cost and enjoyment, there’s no way I can feel bad about that.

    I pity them all now. Knowing what they’ll eventually become. Only death or madness waits for all of them, and yet I do think I’ll be back after XCOM 2 loosens it’s grip on me. Ready to callously sends scores more of them to their doom.

    I have to agree that by this point, I’m no better than my ancestor.

  4. Metalfish says:

    Now I’m not a teenager and I have a job, relationship and, to put it bluntly: too many things to do and not enough time to do them in I’ve found myself greatly appreciating games that don’t waste my time (intentionally). Darkest Dungeons loves wasting your time. Or my time at least. It might just be that I’m not very good at it.

    Recently the Witness makes claim to this “respecting the player’s time” or somesuch, but does actually pointlessly reset* puzzles you’ve already done if you make a mistake, making you do something you already know how to do.

    *Yes, I know there’s a good reason why it does this: to dissuade you from brute-forcing puzzles. It’s still balls.

    • Person of Interest says:

      I think It’s to ensure you’ve actually figured out the puzzle rules. If you’ve guessed your way through the first puzzles in a sequence, the last one will be practically impossible.

      Also it takes 5-10 seconds to re-draw the original puzzle, if you’re confident you understand the rules and don’t need to experiment with it some more. I would not call it an example of grindy time-wasting.

      • Kitsunin says:

        It’s pretty obvious this is why, too. When I found myself in front of a tough puzzle whose rules I understood, picking a wrong answer wouldn’t reset anything. It has specifically reset the earlier puzzle for those times when there were relatively few possible answers, or I realized I was just guessing at the rules.

  5. Hobbes says:

    This doesn’t even touch on the most cardinal of sins that the game commits – Which is that in the endgame, the game will actively punish you for doing well with the “Never again” debuff.

    If you complete a Darkest Dungeon map, your heroes are afflicted with an unremovable debuff that renders them unable to return to any subsequent DD maps, meaning at that point you absolutely NEED to grind up fresh heroes. It’s at that point the game shifts from being a game that punishes you for mistakes to punishing you for doing well (which is bad design).

    At this point said debuff is hardcoded, so we can’t mod it out, it’s the sole reason I’ve stopped playing, because I refuse to countenance a game that actively punishes you for doing well, not even the Dark Souls games did that.

    Maybe when Red Hook stops drinking the grind kool aid they’ll sort out modding and then I’ll look at “de-hooking” Darkest Dungeon with a mod of my own (one that seriously buffs enemy frontline fighters so they’re more than PROT sponges, and changes AE so it’s not the be-all-and-end-all, as well as nixing “Never again”, etc).

    For now I advise people wait on playing, if not purchasing.

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      X_kot says:

      Your opinion is likely the majority, but I can’t understand it. The Never Again trait means you can’t use the same comp throughout, but those heroes can run other dungeons, and they don’t count toward your roster limit. Are you saying you only have 4 max level characters and that once you reach the DD you don’t want to do any other runs?

      • MercurialJack says:

        What’s wrong with the concept of finding a four person party make up you like and taking them to max level, and wanting to play through all the stages of the DD with those four characters? Your implication is that this is bad, but I don’t see why.

        I agree with the above – the Never Again debuff is punishment for doing well and, as far as I can tell, only serves the purpose of forcing you to play other/different characters even if you may not get on with their mechanics or skills etc.

    • Hobbes says:

      You’re missing the point in saying this.

      The point is that the game punishes you for success.

      Therein lies the issue. A game which punishes you for doing well is doing something wrong at a fundamental level. If it’s punishing you for screwing up, that’s reasonable and expected, but the moment it starts punishing you for doing what you’re supposed to be and required to be doing, it moves into arbitrary moon logic which we moved on from since the late eighties.

      It’s a blunt solution where many better ones have been suggested and proposed, but Red Hook went with the worst possible one because they needed to arbitrarily pad the end game in the name of reasons. When you can’t come up with a better reason for your design decision beyond “it’s thematic” and there’s literally no mechanical reason that justifies it beyond the fact it forcibly extends and mandates people grind out heroes then there’s a problem with your design, not with their expectations or game play.

      • Hieronymusgoa says:

        with over 25 years of gaming it is rare for me to get into a game that much like into DD. but i feel the same way: even if you master it to some extent and overcome so much then there is the final dungeon and even only knowing about the debuff makes it pretty hard to get back into it for more than just some dungeon crawling on the side.

        imho, and i dont need people to agree on that, the game would still be fucking awesome and tough but closer to being perfect with something like 5% less overall difficulty :)

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        X_kot says:

        I think where we differ is that what you see as punishment I see as the point. Have you played other Cthulhu-esque games? The seminal Call of Cthulhu pen-and-paper RPG essentially guarantees that all player characters will either die or be driven mad, even if they succeed. Characters going through the Darkest Dungeon should be broken wrecks given all of the shit they’ve been through. The theme is what makes the experience rewarding; the mechanics are secondary. If you want a game that simulates the heroic journey, there are plenty out there. Darkest Dungeon, and really anything that is trying to emulate Lovecraftian horror, should be about the little candle violently snuffed by the darkness.

        • Kitsunin says:

          Are there, though? I can’t think of any other good RPGs with an emphasis on management sim elements, like DD.

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            X_kot says:

            That’s a good point – I was thinking more broadly. “2D side-scrolling, turn-based, tactical RPG” is a pretty small niche. If you don’t mind the 3D, XCOM fits pretty well.

          • Kitsunin says:

            That is true. Playing XCOM 2 and DD at the same period, DD feels a lot like a lighter XCOM, I guess with grinding as a punishment instead of time pressure and a failure state.

        • Moth Bones says:

          Yep, CoC players accept that they will very likely have to roll one or more new characters over the course of an adventure. It hadn’t occurred to me that the disposability of DD ‘heroes’ might be intended to mirror that.

        • Hobbes says:

          But things like CoC do this in far more elegant ways and with far more subtle tools. “Never again” is binary, and lacks any form of granularity. It’s a blunt hammer where a scalpel would do a far better job.

          Again, my issue is not just with the debuff, but how it operates on a mechanical level, and how it actively punishes you for doing well. It’s a bad solution to a specific problem and smacks of a rush job that was put in to artificially pad the end game. If you’ve a comp that -works- for the final four dungeons then you’re being forced to make four copies OF that comp (if you know beforehand) or you’re going to be in for a lot of painful grinding (if you don’t).

          Either way, it means that “Never again” fails in what it’s attempting to achieve, and in effect the game shifts to dealing with a bad mechanic as opposed to playing the game and mastering the various intricacies. There’s been proposals and suggestions that come up with far more subtle options that would introduce -actual- risk/reward options for people who get as far as the endgame, but none of those were taken, rather instead they went with the blunt hammer because forcing people to grind up 16 heroes for padding sake.

          Bad mechanic which does nothing to add to the game.

          • Premium User Badge

            X_kot says:

            So the heart of your issue here is that the game “punishes you for doing well.” I disagree that games should never do that. Papers, Please makes you feel like a heartless fascist for doing your job well; Cart Life hammers you with how inconsequential your hard work is to your customers. Unfair treatment is a valid game expression because “fun” is not the only value. You walk into a dungeon, fight a boss you’re unprepared for, and get wiped. Armed with information, you do it again and succeed, making incremental improvements as you go. That’s this game and Dark Souls, except DS is faster and you can cheese animations.

            You want the game to be shorter and you want to only need one team to complete it. I hope that Red Hook keeps this game as it is but that another dev creates something that fits what you want.

          • Hobbes says:

            “You walk into a dungeon, fight a boss you’re unprepared for, and get wiped. Armed with information, you do it again and succeed, making incremental improvements as you go. That’s this game and Dark Souls, except DS is faster and you can cheese animations.”

            You manage to be insightful yet at the same time then manage to completely miss the point. Grats. Yes, you succeed, and the reward for success is?

            You get punished. Right. That’s where this game differs from Dark Souls. There’s no reward, instead your survivors get debuffed and are no longer useful in the endgame. NOW are you following? See the problem?

            You’ve just illustrated what the issue is. Yet you’re refusing to connect the dots together. Good grief.

    • Monggerel says:

      You can disable “Never Again” by using literally the first Cheat Engine Table you can find with Google (only download them from the CE Forums or you might get a surprise).

      Not sure if I’m allowed to post the link here, so apologies if this is racist or illegal.

      link to

      • Monggerel says:

        Also, I haven’t actually tried the Table myself… should have mentioned that earlier.
        Mea Culpa Caveat Emptor Et Cetera

      • Hobbes says:

        Grats, you’re still missing the point. It’s hardcoded, and not moddable in the JSON files. That means it can’t be resolved “cleanly”. If it needs cheat engine, that’s not clean, that’s hackity.

        Your answer as a result is meaningless.

        • Monggerel says:

          I suggested a practical solution to the “Never Again” problem. I admit I can’t quite see how that would constitute a failure.

        • Hobbes says:

          Your “practical solution” involves a nonstandard option (Cheat Engine) which isn’t a viable implementation for people who want a mod option or want a patch or some form of dev acknowledgment.

          Again, and I repeat, what you’re saying is meaningless, you’ve even admitted as much by suggesting caveat emptor on account of the fact that Cheat Engine is far enough off the beaten path that it poses a possible viral threat if you download from the wrong place.

          • Celerity says:

            Really. I mean you can use Cheat Engine as a means of bypassing the grind, just give yourself 500k gold and 500 of each heirloom. That’s still a cheat device, not a part of the vanilla or modded game.

        • jimbob1 says:

          I loved this article but I actually love the endgame design.

          I read through this thread as well and it’s actually you who is missing the point, Hobbes. Your point was more than clear and certainly not rocket science to understand. I don’t think anyone misunderstands you. They simply disagree.

          Sorry but the devs wanted a different end game than you do and it’s their baby not yours. Make your own game. I like that you beat DD phase one and then have to figure out a dynamic for and then grind a new party to do the other phases.

          It’s totally as you say it is: you are punished for doing well. But that’s what makes the endgame great in my opinion.

          Your problem is that some of the other posters here just plain disagree with you. Get yourself under control and stop being rude to others just because they disagree with you.

          If you don’t like grinding or being punished for doing well then I guess DD isn’t made for you. It’s still an incredible game in it’s present state and the design wasn’t rushed; it was intentional.

  6. Overvulture says:

    I agree with everything you’ve said, and yet I still absolutely love this game. Once the final release came out, and I actually had an end goal to work towards, I was determined, and sank hours and hours into pushing through. And just like you, a few mid-point crushing defeats left me in despair, frustration, and wanting to just say to hell with this game forever. I hated the game and resented it so strongly for hurting me.

    So I let it sit for a few days, focused on other titles. But I couldn’t help but imagine how I could have done things better, how that bad roll that killed my favourite hero could have been avoided entirely if I had just played the few turns before it better. Eventually I just couldn’t help it, and back I went, with new strategies in mind that pushed me all the way to the end with minimal problems, all the way to the third (of four) Darkest Dungeon missions, so close to the end of the game…

    Then I lost my entire party, the first time that had happened in this save file so far. So I let the game sit a little while again.

    Training up eight new heroes, I finally made it back to where I was, and pressed on again, and completed it without losses, going on to finish the game without problems. The grind was a slog, and my eagerness to get it over with made me come near disaster a few times. But I did it, finished the game, and now I’m just glad I never have to go back to the hamlet. The sense of relief was tremendous.

    Yet now, reading about it, I’m left feeling like I might someday go back again, maybe even to attempt that terrifying NG+ mode. DD is cursed with some serious anti-player aspects and seems to outright want to be an unpleasant experience, rather than just enjoyably challenging, but it’s just such an emotional ride I can’t help but absolutely adore everything it does, even when it’s wasting my time. I haven’t seen a game so thematically perfect in a long time, and that alone is worth a recommendation even if you end up hating everything about it when it breaks you.

  7. Mr. Mister says:

    I’ve been playing this with the Pitch Black mod (harder overhaul; think Long War for XCOM), and I’m having lots of FUN. I find it funny how, as it decreaszes your chances of clearing a quest, failing one doesn’t feel so bad as long as you get some loot out of it to fund another run with 3 or 4 fresh heroes and you keep investing your excedents in slowly upgrading and destressing your A-team members one at a time.

  8. Heliocentric says:

    SAN test fail.

  9. Napalm Sushi says:

    After playing similarly grimly themed board game Kingdom Death last night, and after also getting underway with an XCOM 2 campaign, I wonder if what’s missing from Darkest Dungeon is a sense of the game “pushing back” at the strategic level and the possibility of an absolute form of failure. Perhaps if it were balanced around such looming urgency, a party wipe would be more a source of genuine, motivating panic rather than tired, “here we go again” resignation.

    • BisonHero says:

      Yeah, the meta layer is the real issue. There’s no real consequence to wiping your whole party on a mission. You lose a bunch of invested gold into those character upgrades, you lose some good trinkets which will take forever to find again, but ultimately all it costs you is time, and eventually you’ll upgrade more characters and try it all again.

  10. Sternum says:

    I find that I enjoy Darkest Dungeon best in short doses. I typically fire it up once or twice a week for a quick ten minute dungeon fix. Any more than this and the game’s inherent repetitiveness starts to show itself.

  11. yogibbear says:

    I love the article, and I’m also loving Darkest Dungeon. But I want to add my own opinion which would be a few things:
    -You do NOT have to do “dark” runs to make money. I am sitting on 140K with nothing to spend it on, except if I level up some more heroes just from doing medium & long champion dungeons with my lev 5 & 6’s after 3-4 trips through.
    -You absolutely SHOULD retreat if you have no chance of winning the battle.
    -You absolutely should not attempt dungeons that you do not have the gear/skills for. Accuracy matters. Dodge matters. A Lot.
    -I’m 65 hrs in and I still have not had anyone die from stress. Maybe you need to kill the stress dealers more? They’re my focus always and I find a lot of the time I get back to the Hamlet and only 1 person of 4 has more than 10 stress and needs to go meditate, with everyone else being fine.
    -Just progressing the normal campaign to kill all the non-DD bosses I ended up with 20x Level 6’s. So yes it’s a grind I guess… but it had content to go with it. I guess if you kept getting your party wiped (this only happened to me on my first go at the Hag back when I was a total noob) then yeah it could be grind-y but this is because you are bad at the game and it’s punishing you. Yeah it’d be nice if the game let you use heirlooms to unlock levelled up dudes in the stagecoach but otherwise game seems OK to me.
    -My biggest gripe is all the people that won’t even give the vanilla game a try and mod everything out of it so there’s zero challenge. The entire point of the game is inventory management (So people mod out the inventory restrictions…) and min/max-ing gold vs. heirlooms vs. resolve XP. Any long dungeon and your inventory will be overloaded so you’ll always be choosing between heirlooms or gold. This is excellent design. If you only do short dungeons you’ll always be short of gold. Medium & long dungeons allow you to freely remove stress, diseases and negative quirks.

    • Overvulture says:

      Yeah, I hate to be the guy who just says “get good”, but the game really does become so much smoother and less frustrating once you develop some consistent strategies.

      Retreating especially. I see so many people complaining of constant party wipes, when they push on even as things are going poorly, or having already lost someone. I see people stepping into boss fights with 90+ stress on three heroes and one already dead and not even trying to run when it inevitably goes poorly.

      The grind is still tedious though, and the game’s most major flaw. I think making certain progress milestones grant a permanent XP boost would be a good solution. Redhook is still working on the game, so maybe something similar will be implemented sometime.

      Though I do like how the lack of a failure state creates the sense that the game is trying to break your mind and make you quit.

    • Chillicothe says:

      People mod because “PC’s House, PC’s Rules”. It’s what the “panic at grinding” crowd is missing.

      There is something to be said about the balancing, however, as the Champion dungeons have a nasty habit of fodder enemies one-shotting to Death’s Door anyone without PROT (which is common as PROT gear is rare), whereas the bosses are easier than the first time as you know their weaknesses (hellooooooooooo Arbalest Marks on the Prophets).

    • Joshua Northey says:

      My first time playing I think I cleared 25 dugeons before losing someone. The guy is not nearly as hard as it is made out to be. I would quibble with the balance of the strategic game and the overall need to grind a bit, but other than that it is a great game, and one that doesn’t need much tweaking. It certainly doesn’t need to be made easier, then it would be even more grindy.

  12. jackflash says:

    It has a wonderful premise and stunning art design, but Darkest Dungeon is a deeply, deeply flawed game. I agree with the article that one of its worst sins is not valuing the player’s time. But more importantly, at least to me, is that it never really presents the player with any meaningful choices. By and large, you go through the game doing the same thing over and over. Weapon upgrades are simply a matter of paying the fee to go from a lvl 1 sword to lvl 2 sword; if heroes are stressed, you have to do the same de-stressing maintenance over and over again, which is again just a matter of paying money to make the stress bar go down. Indeed, “stress” is an interesting concept to explore thematically, but it is not made meaningful in terms of game mechanics here – it’s simply another health bar. There is nothing innovative or interesting in that. The game is dripping with theme, but it’s about as much fun to play as Monopoly.

    If they ever make a sequel that actually has deep, enjoyable game mechanics, it could be a killer game.

  13. preshrunk_cyberpunk says:

    It seems to me that Red Hood Studios have brought their players to the mouth of Madness indeed.

  14. Stevostin says:

    It seems you reached the same conclusion I reached but way slower. I know I am nothing special regarding turn based strategy, so I guess all RPS are pretty green. That would explain taking XCOM for something even remotely good.

    • Thants says:

      Ok, now explain why every other game reviewer also likes it. I guess they’re all just green too. Only a badass like you can see the real truth!

      • froz says:

        We are all waiting for an RPS post 3 months from now: “We were wrong about XCOM 2, it’s a shitty game and we are sorry for enjoying it, Stevostin was right”.

        • Imbecile says:

          Well! Thats Just. Not. Good. Enough! We need Stevostin writing all the reviews – hes sees to the truth much quicker. Instead of Alice-Pip chats we need Stevostin-Stevostin chats! RPS discuss need to become Stevostin discuss.

          • frightlever says:

            “Instead of Alice-Pip chats we need Stevostin-Stevostin chats!”

            I’d be prepared to at least give it a try.

  15. Premium User Badge

    Jekadu says:

    The game certainly outstays its welcome. My current save file has 60 hours invested in it, and keeping a healthy roster of high-level heroes available has become a chore. Entering the Darkest Dungeon is such a risky proposition that I feel almost no incentive to go there with less than a fully equipped and class-optimized retinue. There are a couple of issues here:

    First, the player goes in blind. There is no way of knowing what kind of opposition to expect. This means that the player essentially has to sacrifice at least one randomly chosen hero just to get a feeling for what to expect in the final dungeon. This is very frustrating as sending in cannon fodder doesn’t tell the player very much, and Champion-level heroes dying means hours of wasted time.

    Second, heroes are too fragile at higher levels. Although a higher level does increase resistances and in some cases makes a hero more or less immune to a particular negative effect, the incoming health to damage ratio is the same as for low-level heroes. This means that it is entirely possible to lose a key hero to a fluke. I’ve had several Champion-level heroes — including a Man-at-Arms — die on me after one unlucky critical hit reduced them to Death’s Door from near-full health followed by a much weaker attack. Sometimes I’ve even managed to get a heal in, only to watch the AI pile on the dying hero.

    Third, heroes are simply too precious to waste. Upgrading them to the point where they stand a chance of surviving in the Darkest Dungeon requires a hefty investment, both in gold and in heirlooms.

    In my opinion, high-level heroes need to be less fragile or the catch-up mechanics need to be more forgiving. The Darkest Dungeon is such an intimidating challenge that it’s entirely possible for the player to wear themself down trying to prepare for it. This is a game that is too long for its own good.

    • frightlever says:

      “Third, heroes are simply too precious to waste.”

      I don’t play it but I think you’re misunderstanding how the game works. None of your heroes are precious, they’re all infinitely replaceable. The only currency is your time.

      • Premium User Badge

        Jekadu says:

        If you haven’t played it then how can you know that my third point is incorrect? Note that I said that heroes are too precious to waste, not too precious to use. Here’s what a high-level hero dying costs:

        1. About two to eight dungeon runs’ worth of gold in equipment and skills.
        2. About half a dozen runs’ worth of experience.
        3. At least a dozen runs’ worth of time due to the need to manage stress for your entire roster by rotating heroes.
        4. Most importantly, the game doesn’t let high-level heroes do low-level content. If a high-level hero is killed, the bracket they were in might suddenly not be able to form a viable party each week, or at all.

        Darkest Dungeon is not a meat grinder. It’s like a marathon with land mines.

  16. slerbal says:

    Yup agree with this. Liked the theme but I don’t have time in my life any more for pointless grind. Grinding is the antithesis of fun for me these days, no matter how good the theme.

  17. MisterFurious says:

    “I think different.” differently
    “That’s strange, isn’t it.” isn’t it?
    “you must make a compact with RNGesus.” Is that supposed to be ‘contract’?

    • Hasslmaster says:

      And, not knowing what a compact is, your false superiority suddenly went “puff” and away.
      Too bad. I bet you’re furious.

  18. stringerdell says:

    Great article, sums up pretty well how Im starting to feel about the game.

  19. Velox says:

    This describes my own experiences with the game so well. And it’s kind of sad. I love the art, the music, the whole dark and gritty athomsphere and I may come back to the game just to enjoy that for a while, but I’m no longer motivated enough to beat it.

  20. Skeletor68 says:

    Give me an option to save scum and I’ll keep playing. I can’t risk the lost hours of death unfortunately! Great game with lots of atmosphere but I will likely quit once I lose my best characters.

    • Rince says:

      As a shameless save-scummer, I must agree with that.

    • Jeremy says:

      The way the game plays out, generally speaking you don’t get to pick one favorite party of 4. This is as a result of stress, group combinations, and various strategies for dungeons / bosses. I’m on a 3rd play through with the full release, and generally by the time you’re getting to veteran dungeons, you’ll have 12 to 16 heroes that you could consider as prime rotation. That ends up being a good thing since successful DD runs leave a group unable to return.

      The loss of a single hero IS a pain though, especially if that hero was the final piece of a solid 4 hero combination. Having to free up space to hire a bunch of low level bums so you can level up one Vestal does create some frustrations.

  21. SirRoderick says:

    I would just like to say that reading this in the narrator’s voice is actually wonderful. ^_^

  22. Rince says:

    I guess that the game isn’t my cup of tea. I play mostly to get rid of the stress, not to get more stressed.

    • Jeremy says:

      This is my general rule for all media, including movies, but for some reason DD just got a hold of me.

  23. Unsheep says:

    For me this game has the same problem as rogue-likes and similar games: it quickly gets far too repetitive, destroying the long-term gameplay.

    The main issue is that these games usually have extremely boring level design, with little to no variation. Its the same level, over and over again.

  24. Saul says:

    Never before has this style of game hooked me, and hooked me so completely. I’ve been playing for nearly 200 hours, and just this morning I beat the first of the four endgame levels. I still love everything about it. Xcom left me cold, FTL and Spelunky kept me interested for a very short time. But this game got me. And it easily makes my top five favourite games of all time.

  25. grimmeld says:

    This is not a roguelike game. It may have some roguelike elements, but it is not the case that:

    – It is viewed top-down or isometric
    – Movement around the world happens tile-based in such a way that:
    — Line of sight being a mechanic regarding looking around corners
    — for each step you or your party takes, the enemies take a step, lending into tactical maneuvering (should you be able to spot the enemies in time)
    – Combat happens through the same mechanic as movement does in that
    — For each step or attack action you do, an enemy can attack you
    — This counts for spell casting as well.

    Note: take into account speed modifiers, for example: monsters taking 2 steps for every step you take, or 1 step for every 2 steps you take.

    This game is perhaps, if you grade and count the game-mechanics in how they resemble that of a true roguelike, closer to it than let’s say Don’t starve, but that’s only because whoever started calling that a roguelike is an idiot.

    Call it a rogue-lite or whatever else of a bastardized variant of the original genre you want, but a roguelike game this is not. Heck, this is closer to being a c-rpg (for example: Divinity – Original Sin) than it is to being a roguelike.

    If you want a true modern roguelike, I suggest looking at Dungeons of Dredmor.

    It’s definitely a good game though.

    • Chaoslord AJ says:

      Just the problem I have with all the folks recently bashing “boring” roguelikes. There aren’t all that many roguelikes, really.
      It usually means they have very few assets and repeat them randomly.
      Compare this to the wealth of ADOM (fixed overworld), TOME (both old and current relase), Zangband or sandboxes like Dwarf Fortress or Minecraft (no permadeath).
      The landscape itself is shaped by a complicated algorithm. A black potion or a crumpled scroll is different in any other walkthrough.
      The incentive to play again is extremely high even though it’s a grind and you might lose everything on one error. You will be fed up eventually but never bored.

      • Chaoslord AJ says:

        Also custom equipment which is now attributed to roguelike-successor Diablo as “diablo-style” loot.

      • Celerity says:

        “Roguelike” is a buzzword that is abused by certain indie devs for sales including this one. True modern Roguelikes are almost nonexistent. If you’re lucky you get a Roguelite, then I have “the talk” with someone who complains about real Roguelikes because they’re longer than FTL or Isaac. If you’re not lucky you get neither, like this grindfest.

    • Kitsunin says:

      Calling this a roguelike makes absolutely no sense. I mean what next, the Fire Emblem games become roguelikes because your characters can die permanently?

      It’s extra dumb because it fits into a genre. It’s a plain ol’ RPG, with management elements. As a management game, the major focus is on managing resources, it’s just obfuscated somewhat because your biggest resource is heroes who delve into traditional RPG style dungeons.

  26. NathanH says:

    I can’t decide whether I enjoy the experience of playing Darkest Dungeon. I suppose that is consistent with the theme and atmosphere, but it does mean that I only do short sessions and therefore the thought of reaching anywhere near the end is absurd.

  27. LennyLeonardo says:

    Much like Mr Lovecraft’s fiction, the feeling of dread and lonliness, and the pulpy vernacular eventually wear off, replaced by fatigue and squirmy distaste for the creators’ apparent dislike of their audience. But still, it lurks in the tangled backwoods of my mind, breathing.

  28. Celerity says:

    Ah, the illusion is breaking. Excellent.

    Make no mistake. This has always been a game about substituting grind for both difficulty and content. This has always been an incredibly unbalanced game, resulting in people taking the noob trap classes and skills, then constantly dying as a result and regrinding back (or alternately, identifying the noob traps and spamming degenerate, one dimensional, samey “strategies” everywhere, in every situation, at every time). This has always been a game whose primary induced emotion is apathy, while being entirely devoid of challenge (assuming, again that you do not fall for the noob traps, in which case you’re dying because your abilities are not mathematically viable).

    The professional reviews have always missed this until recently, both because these facts were less apparent in the past, and because this game looks good for the first few hours which is more time than they gave it. Now though, without that presentation facade, without the Early Access shield, more and more people are seeing this.

    Let me elaborate by telling you the vast majority of the problems with the game are things that got extensive Early Access feedback on, often from the beginning. Yet, this feedback was ignored, or even censored by the developers. In fact, you could hold a far longer conversation about the various instances of censorship the developers have engaged in as a means of covering the fact their “game” is just a grindy walking simulator, not unlike a mobile freemium game with the cashshop removed than you could ever spend explaining its bland, copy paste heavy, one dimensional mechanics in a non pretentious manner.

    Seeing their antics in action is not very difficult, as while they often remain silent, when they do make a statement that statement breaks under even slight scrutiny. For example, introducing “Never Again” which specifically amplifies grind by requiring you grind 4 or more clone teams instead of the 2 you’d otherwise need, then talking of reducing grind in ways that don’t involve removing “Never Again”, then revealing that those ways are giving “Never Again” a party wide experience bonus as an anti grind measure. Except that:

    1: Because level appropriateness is divorced from actual level and instead is a factor of weapon/armor/skill levels, experience is actually a negative stat and getting experience faster actually amplifies grind as the bottleneck is gold and heirlooms… which are still incredibly grindy. Especially you Mr. Three Hundred Sixty Two Deeds in Max Stack Sizes of Six. That’s how many you need for a fully grinded Blacksmith.
    2: Because of the aforementioned heirloom bottleneck, you’ve already grinded several teams by the time you use one of them in the final dungeon since you cannot get level appropriate in time otherwise, so you most likely do not need experience at all at that point.
    3: Even if you somehow did need experience still (say you die, and must regrind replacements), the amount given does not actually reduce the amount of runs required by even 1 because at that point you put a random level 0 nobody in the back of a level 5 Long with 3 other characters, and either they die and you lose nothing because level 0s are infinite or they live and you’ve grinded back in a few runs.

    While the forums are heavily censored with the devs getting touchy about any mention of declining interest in their game citing Steamspy stats, negative feedback about anything other than difficulty or tedium (which are the same in their mind, and that’s the core problem with the game), and any sort of insinuation that the game is going in the wrong direction much less that the devs are somehow at fault here you can still get an accurate picture from the reviews section, provided of course they haven’t been mass downvoted by certain aggressive, toxic supporters.

    Here you’ll see several common threads.

    Grind: Speaks for itself.
    RNG/Difficulty: The result of falling for the noob traps. Useless classes/skills can’t kill, so “difficult”, and long fights means more chances for RNG screwage.
    Samey: Nearly everything past level 1, including bosses is copy pasted, what’s more a lot of enemies are copy pasted cross area despite having different skins, and the game has so few mechanics, most of which don’t even matter you’ll quickly realize there’s only 3 enemy types. Front row: Harmless, filler enemies. Back row: Kill now, stress/disease procs/etc. Boss: Really just a normal enemy that doesn’t die in 1-2 hits.
    Lack of Roguelike elements: No fail state, not unless you grind through the copy paste heavy one dimensional game once then still feel like doing it again but with a crude time limit anyways. Also no randomness that influences the game and decision making (instead the randomness is just there and usually noise), no replayability (as you’ll see all the viable content well before your first run is done), and so on.
    Easy: The natural result of understanding the game’s one dimensional mechanics and planning accordingly. Trash mobs have something like 30 life at Champion level, understanding only damage spam matters means you do 23-44 per character and go first. Yeah… Even bosses die in 2 rounds from that.
    Boring: Regardless of whether you’re running around with one button held down or watching the game practically run itself after your no damage team does not kill the enemies then goes insane and starts yelling at each other, there is really not much engagement from the enduser.

    Good luck telling the devs any of this, they specifically said they regard all criticism as a personal attack even after multiple requests for clarification that that was really what they meant but it’s worth telling all of you that just in case anyone might have otherwise been fooled by this game’s many false promises.

    Indeed, aside from looking good the only thing it did right is scamming the populace by proving any old hackjob can blow their budget on marketing and be called a success without actually doing anything.

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      I think you need to spend a week in the sanitarium.

      • Celerity says:

        41 minutes. That’s a new record for baseless personal attacks when criticizing the game. Seems as good a time as any for mentioning that the devs also deliberately self selected and cultivated a “community” of very toxic supporters who insult and harass critics and skeptics wherever they can find them. Even cross forum, or random places on the internet. Given some of the strange places I’ve encountered them, sometimes on mediums with no connection with this game I can easily imagine a few of them being full on stalkers.

        • Premium User Badge

          teije says:

          Yes, RPS is just a front for Darkest Dungeon stalkers. They are following you across the internet.

          You seem to be way too invested personally in this game. Did the developers kill your favourite puppy? Steal your code?

          “Indeed, aside from looking good the only thing it did right is scamming the populace by proving any old hackjob can blow their budget on marketing and be called a success without actually doing anything”

          You have the right to disagree profoundly with the direction the developers took but that’s just silly and offensive.

          • BisonHero says:

            This is why I’ve never bothered to get deeply involved in the forums of Early Access games. Too many people who feel personally betrayed when, in their minds, the developers obviously turn to to be devious snake oil salesmen. I agree with a couple of this guy’s complaints, but overall he comes off as completely nuts.

          • Celerity says:

            I never said that. I did say that the toxic supporters stalk critics all over the internet, which they do. I did not say they were in any way affiliated with RPS. Indeed, any article on any medium that I responded on would provoke similar responses.

            Perhaps he wasn’t doing that, but he sure acted like it, and I’ve seen this song and dance enough times that if I hear a quack, I’ll call it a duck.

            As for the “game” itself, well that’s really quite simple. Making this a proper difficult, balanced game is actually veru easy. The devs recieved extensive feedback on the various balance/content/depth problems all throughout the game. They ignored, and later censored all of it in favor of lazy, no effort patches that make the game look shiny, followed by hyper aggressive false advertising because looking good is easier than being good. Not only that, but I personally spent extensive effort on testing this game for them, more than literally any other person likely including the developers themselves. I got nothing but disrespect for my extensive time and effort.

        • LennyLeonardo says:

          Oh dear, I meant no offense – I was just being flippant, and trying to be funny. As you may read above, I’m not a die hard fan, or a stalker or anything; I quite like the game, but got tired of it before being stung by the issues you mention.

  29. WhiteNoise says:

    I also agree with this article – like a lot of people I am taking a break to play XCom 2. I do plan on returning to Darkest Dungeon, but the grind work needed to build up new heroes was something that was starting to bother me.

    It’s not that I mind the game being difficult, just that I’m stuck playing the same levels, against the same monsters I’ve already seen over and over again, which kills the sense of progression. Generally what keeps me playing a game is seeing all the new stuff (monsters, weapons, whatever) and being consistently challenged. I only have a small amount of time to play video games these days and little patience for games that make me jump through hoops.

    I think the designers could have easily made this less of an issue by offering upgrades in the hamlet that would allow your new heroes to start at higher levels with a few skills already upgraded. They kind of did this already – unlocking cheaper upgrades in theory means you can level your characters faster. They just didn’t go far enough with it.

    • Celerity says:

      Honestly, what new enemies? Serious question. The vast majority of enemies and even bosses are literally copy pasted across levels, once you’ve done a level 1 dungeon in each region you’ve literally seen 90% of all unique content so even if you never die (easy, if you avoid the noob traps) you will be in the exact same situation you are in now.

  30. Mandrake42 says:

    Hmmm, I think its worth pointing out that the writer put dozens of hours into the game. For an article seemingly designed to turn people off buying or playing the game I would still say they got their monies worth of gaming on this title. I think you will to if you decide to play it. It’s actually worth it despite the inevitability of failure. You will have compelling journey reaching an ending, even if it’s despair.

  31. quo says:

    There are nice things about this game, especially the art design, and the idea of characters going mad is interesting. In the end tho, this game frustrated me to the point of quitting.

    The game is basically a “one bad roll and you’re dead” type of thing. Getting surprised by monsters can randomly result in party getting shuffled with the healer in front row and no chance to flee. In another game this would be annoying. In this one, with permadeath, it’s so many levels beyond frustrating that thinking about it makes my blood boil. Just not interested in playing this anymore.

  32. Glic2000 says:

    I’ve played over 150 hours now, and I’m convinced the game is impossible* to finish. I love the game and believe it’s extremely well-designed, but like the author of this article, I’ve gone through the stages of excitement, intoxication, despondence and indifference. It’s such a bummer too, because I really would have liked to see it through to the end, but I feel like I’ve already invested an unreasonable amount of time and just don’t have it in me to continue.

    Oh well, it’s a really incredible game, anyway.

    *That is, impossible for me at least.