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

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.


  1. Abacus says:

    I loved the atmosphere so much, but I couldn’t handle the RNG. I mean I was struggling to make progress whilst playing with bright torches so after hearing suggestions to play with less brightness from the torches I made some solid progress. But there are too many times where it feels like your fate is out of your hands and you’re going mad. I think a writer hear mentioned that thematically that’s great but from a gameplay standpoint it’s not very enjoyable when you’re against it.

    The grind once you hit a losing streak is overwhelmingly Sisyphean…

  2. Wrth says:

    “You will arrive along the old road. It winds with a troubling, serpent-like suggestion through the corrupted countryside. Leading only, I fear to ever more tenebrous places. There is a sickness in the ancient pitted cobbles of the old road and on its writhing path you will face viciousness, violence, and perhaps other damnably transcendent terrors. So steel yourself and remember: there can be no bravery without madness. The old road will take you to hell, but in that gaping abyss we will find our redemption.” – 5/5, Would go mad again

  3. DelrueOfDetroit says:

    The link for the Darkest Dungeon tag is broken.

  4. Torgen says:

    Should I run the earliest dungeons a few times to get my adventurers leveled up a bit, or just let subterranean Darwinism take its course?

    • King in Winter says:

      Dungeon Darwinism is a word in this game, but entering dungeons outside your batting range is mostly just suicidal. Since self-inflicted difficulty has no bearing on levelling, courting death mostly comes from really wanting that trinket you receive from a clear. And of course, characters refuse to enter dungeons way beyond their league.

    • batraz says:

      I wouldnt call it darwinism down there : it’s a slaughterhouse. You can’t call it selection when there is no one left.

    • porpoise says:

      Heroes are disposable. This is a lesson the game keeps trying to teach me, but as a sentimental fool who refuses to learn I get punished often.

      Levelling them up actually gets you very little unless you have the money and the facilities for the new upgrades they qualify for. Hunt for heirlooms and upgrade your hamlet instead.

    • shde2e says:

      One of the recommended strategies is the “cannon fodder” approach.
      Basically, you have an A-team you actually try to keep alive and level, and fill the rest of your slots with disposable level 1 heroes fresh from the coach.

      Then you send those heroes into the dungeon with little to no items and try to get as much stuff as possible, ignoring any damage, afflictions or deaths you suffer. This gets you a pretty good reward for little investment and a squad of broken, mad and probably half-dead adventurers. Dismiss the adventurers, hire a new batch, and voila: Profitable dungeoneering with no risks whatsoever (for the heroes you care about anyway).

      • Disgruntled Goat says:

        The “cannon fodder” approach does work well … until your level 6 Vestal get critted twice and killed before she even gets her first turn in combat.

        This happened to me and it’s why I quit this game forever.

        • Fishslap says:

          Rather than make you quit the game forever this should have taught you that cheese is bad and that it will be punished. This is precisely why stage coach zerging is a bad strategy. No matter what you do, level six heroes are not invincible in champion dungeons. Occasionally they will die and you will have to train a replacement.
          Therefore having a full roster of 28 geared and trained heroes should be the goal. Much easier then to replace casualties as needed, and level them up when you have four replacements ready at the bottom of the roster.

  5. Saul says:

    Game of the year. And last year. In fact I don’t really bother to play video games since I finished it – nothing holds a candle.

  6. Riaktion says:

    I never got along with Darkest Dungeon, probably because I play games for the adventure, the experience, for the casual fun and rarely for the challenge. As such I just didn’t feel like I was ever going to properly enjoy it. I loved everything about it, the art style, the grim theme, the madness, the turn based combat.. everything.. except the difficulty and feeling of taking one step forward but two steps back a lot. Now I know that is what the game is and I am not complaining that the game isn’t what I want it to be and therefore is a bad game, I can recognise a good game when I play it… I just really wish it was more forgiving because in a lot ways it is a joy. I’d be one of the people asking for an easy mode, where I could more or less breeze through it, enjoying the ride as I go, I really wouldn’t be interested in missing out on the “real DD experience” or not playing “how it was meant to be played”, I’d enjoy it all the same, I know I would. That all said, I haven’t condemned DD to the pit of eternal unfinished-ness just yet, as I do plan to return to it one day, maybe read a guide or two and give it a real go again… but in my heart of hearts I think I already fear that like an angry cat it is a game I want to love, but it will forever spit in my face and say “this isn’t for you”. If anyone can reassure me this isn’t the case, then I’d be happy to hear your thoughts :D.

    • Fishslap says:

      I don’t know exactly what you mean by challenging here, but with some planning Darkest Dungeon isn’t as hard as it seems at first. You do have to learn how the game works obviously, but don’t you have to do that with casual games as well?
      Personally I have some simple rules I try to follow in the game, and I guess some simple tips for beginners too.

      1: Heroes will die. it is inevitable. This was very hard for me to get used to, but once I did the game got easier. You’re not supposed to have everyone survive all the time. Know when to spend money on a hero and it’ll save you a lot of aggravation.

      2: Learn where to use which supply items and what all the curios in the game can do. This might be a bit like homework until you have it memorized, but it doesn’t exactly qualify as hard. And when you have learned it you will get more out of each dungeon. Your heroes will improve as well, because you can get negative quirks removed.

      3: Upgrade the stage coach first, then the guild (portraits), blacksmith (deeds) and cloister (statues). Don’t upgrade the sanitarium, inn, survivalist or trinket vendor at all until these three are fully done. Or I guess if you have an enormous surplus of crests, which can happen sometimes.

      4: Use the retreat button if there’s a fight you’re not interested in or don’t think you can win without casualties.

      • Riaktion says:

        Thanks for your reply, I’ve copied and pasted your thoughts for later reference when I decide to start the game again one day. That said, I was happy to hear about the the new shortened / easier mode they are planning on adding, so I’ll probably pick it up again when that is implemented.

  7. Barts says:

    Haven’t finished this one yet, despite sinking tens of hours already. But boy oh boy, do I love it. Great, great game, made even better by constant tweaks, additions and being available on Sony platforms.

    For me Darkest Dugeon is my game of 2016 and frankly, what year it has been.

  8. Crimson says:

    “The actual experience of losing a character is almost always full of tension, horror and tactical fuck-ups, but the aftermath can feel hollow.”

    Except that’s the problem: “tactical fuck-ups”. There is no tactics in this game to ‘fuck up’. Its not the difficulty or the RNG, its the entire lack of strategy/tactics. For all the abilities/heros/trinkets/etc… there’s very little actual thinking involved.

    The game feels ‘Sisyphean’ because when bad things do happen, you don’t feel as if there was any reason for them to occur apart from RNG, there was nothing you could do to prevent or predict it, and there’s nothing you can do to avoid the outcome.

    This game is pretty much a gothic clicker heros.

  9. Fishslap says:

    I have ragequit over Darkest Dungeon exactly once. One of the bosses in th Cove traps one of your guys with an anchor chain and then heals a little every turn. I had the boss at twelve HP and decided to damage the boss instead of freeing my trapped hellion. Six times in a row I got him down to exactly 1 HP, and every time he burped a heal so he could stay alive. The seventh attack finally killed him, but at the same time as my hellion died of a heart attack. Just one crit or one more point of damage at any point would have saved her. AARGH!!!

    I don’t throw things at my monitor often but that was tough to swallow.