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The RPS 2016 Advent Calendar, Dec 10th – Darkest Dungeon

way down in the hole

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You can’t write for a website about PC games without spending a fair bit of time down in the dungeons, crawling and looting. We do find some wonderful things in the depths of the earth though. Welcome to day ten of The RPS Advent Calendar, which highlights our favourite games of the year, daily. Behind today’s door is…

The year’s best dungeon crawler: grab your lanterns before continuing, it’s Darkest Dungeon [official site].

Adam: Sometimes Darkest Dungeon makes me want to scream and ragequit. I don’t use that term very often, ‘ragequit’, because it doesn’t relate to my experience of games. That’s probably because I don’t play multiplayer beat ‘em ups or hard-as-nails platformers, though I’m guessing Dark Souls, which is one of my favourites, has caused more than a few people to blink at their desktop wallpaper in astonishment, having instinctively dumped themselves there.

Darkest Dungeon sometimes feels like it’s punishing me in ways that I understand but don’t appreciate. The actual experience of losing a character is almost always full of tension, horror and tactical fuck-ups, but the aftermath can feel hollow. It’s a Sisyphean game – you push your characters deeper and darker, and then they die and…you start again with a new bunch?

Structurally, I struggle with its imperfections, but Darkest Dungeon does everything else exactly right. The atmosphere is never overtly comical but it’s so committed to its gothic bleakness that it’s as amusing as it is superbly grim and full of dread. And the combat is the best turn-based RPG system I can think of. That Red Hook have managed to simulate movement around a battlefield in a gorgeous 2D side-on view is so smart that it almost seems effortless. Positioning is more important here than it is in a lot of games that simulate an entire, complex 3D space, and as in the aforementioned Dark Souls, fighting against even the least terrifying enemies can be fatal if you don’t concentrate.

And that brings me to the theme. It’s a dungeon crawler and the original pitch, as I remember it, was to look at the actual business of dungeon-crawling through a different lens. Though there’s plenty of insanity checks and tentacles, this isn’t a Lovecraftian game, no more so than Dungeons and Dragons itself is (which is to say, there’s some Lovecraft in there; he gets everywhere).

What Red Hook created is a game that asks what the mental and emotional cost of the adventuring life might be, if these dark spaces under our feet really did exist, and really were infested with monsters. And it answers with blood, dirt and madness.

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