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Wot I Think: Darkest Dungeon - The Crimson Court

A turducken of cruelty

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The Crimson Court [official site] has transformed Darkest Dungeon into a turducken of cruelty. Every layer of the tactical RPG is now laced with poison and jam-packed with barbs that pierce and tear with every bite. What was already an extremely challenging game has become considerably harsher and unyielding, so much so that even gluttons for punishment may balk at the prospect of fighting the new vampiric menace.

My ill-fated first attempt to tackle The Crimson Court started going downhill during week three of the campaign. That’s when the DLC first rears its head. Nasty buzzing insects appear in Hamlet, the game’s safe haven, unveiling the expansion’s first wrinkle. See, these horrible beasties are such a menace that stress-reducing activities like praying or snuggling up to a new friend in the brothel lose their effectiveness. That can be a bit troublesome.

Conveniently, a solution is immediately introduced: head into a new area, the Courtyard, and deal with the source of these blood-hungry pests. This represents a dramatic shift in Darkest Dungeon’s philosophy. Prior to the expansion, Hamlet is a sanctuary. It’s the one place you get to feel safe. And from there, you’re free to go anywhere in the eponymous dungeon. It’s the one place there’s almost never any pressure. In hardly any time at all, The Crimson Court sets fire to that safety net and sense of self-determination.

At first, I welcomed this new layer of tension. It’s a smart way to get everyone experiencing the DLC right off the bat. If you want to feel safe again, you have to go to the new part of the dungeon and murder – or be murdered – by its hideous denizens. Immediately, all the new stuff rises to the surface. Naturally, I headed straight to the Courtyard. And that’s when everything fell apart.

Darkest Dungeon’s reliance on RNG sometimes gets it labelled as unfair. When things are going badly, it’s easy to forget those moments when the game favoured you. But there’s always the hope that good fortune is just around the corner. The Crimson Court is far more deserving of that label, and it has bugger all to do with RNG.

The first mission seems innocuous initially. On the selection screen it’s described as ‘short’ and for a level 1 party – the same sort of mission you’ll probably have done a couple of times already. It’s not. It’s around double the size of those other dungeons and bloated with dangerous curios that’ll make your party stressed and bleeding. And if you do manage to make it to the end, as I somehow did, with a low level party, you’ll be rewarded with a surprise boss encounter. Essentially, the Crimson Court pushes you into accepting the mission before you’re ready and then punishes you for it.

From this inauspicious start, it’s very easy to get stuck in a downward spiral. The grotesque insectoid vampires can randomly poison party members with the Crimson Curse, a sickness that, without a constant supply of blood, will kill them. And the curse doesn’t end after a mission. It can even spread to other characters in town through the tavern and chapel. It’s manageable if you’ve gathered enough blood vials, and the drop rate has increased since launch, but the earlier you get the curse, the less likely you’ll have a large enough supply.

And this is why my first campaign ended after only a few weeks. Between the curse, the stress, and the decreased effectiveness of the stress relief activities, I couldn’t really see a way out of the hole Darkest Dungeon had dug for me. I gave up and started again.

Armed with foreknowledge and a healthy amount of distrust, attempt number two was significantly more successful. But the one thing that didn’t change was that the early game continued to be awful. Trying to get a party of level 2 heroes is infinitely more exhausting when it takes twice as long to remove stress. It’s a slog, frankly. But it’s also worth persevering.

Make it over that huge hurdle and The Crimson Court starts to become more than just a terrible pain in the arse. The new blood-sucking faction and its bosses, some vampires and some not, are all brilliantly designed, as creative and blood-curdling as they are dangerous. They run the gamut from the wandering vampire slayer known as the Fanatic, to giant human-mosquito hybrids, and all of them hold a special place in my worst nightmares.

And the dungeon itself is a properly epic location, offering up gargantuan missions that reiterate the necessity of retreat, especially since stress is gained with every step thanks to the Bloodlight, which replaces the torch and darkness mechanics found in other dungeons. Murdering your way through it feels like a meaty RPG quest in a way that most of the other areas don’t quite match. And balancing the scale out is the ability to pick up where you left off after retreating, rather than starting from scratch.

There’s plenty going on beyond the sprawling Courtyard, too. There are some nifty new trinkets that have been created for specific heroes, and sets that confer powerful bonuses, which have on more than one occasion inspired me to dust off a shelved hero and throw them back into the fray. And there’s the new hero class: the Flagellant. It’s… well it’s pretty weird.

Despite his absolutely pitiful starting stats, the Flagellant is an utter badass. Indeed, his low health is actually a boon because the closer he is to death, the more powerful he becomes. The trick to using him properly is to ensure that he’s taking negative effects like bleed, blight or stress from other characters, helping them and empowering himself. It’s risky, of course, but he’s also blessed with a very high Death’s Door resistance, making him very hard to finish off. As long as you’ve got food or a healer to occasionally bring him back from the brink and give him 1HP, he’s close to invincible.

If any individual hero could encapsulate Darkest Dungeon, it would the Flagellant. Making the best out of a bad situation is at the heart of the game, and nothing captures that better than the pain-loving masochist. And for all his strengths, he’s always teetering on the edge of annihilation. One tiny mistake or spot of bad luck and he can go from your most important party member to another useless corpse in Hamlet’s graveyard.

On the subject of Hamlet, the dreary old village has had new life breathed into it as well. It can now be expanded with new Districts. Well, they’re called Districts, but really they’re just a collection of ramshackle buildings that can be reconstructed at great cost. It’s worth saving up cash and heirlooms, however, because their benefits are myriad, including extra food, better torches, more gold, and class-specific improvements.

Most of the buildings are late-game goals to work towards and finally give some purpose to grinding in locations you’ve already slaughtered your way through several times. It’s meaningful, permanent progress in a game where most progress is fleeting or at least vulnerable. Heroes might die, but those buildings will stay standing. They’re stalwart monuments to success.

It can be hard to enjoy the fruits of my labour though. Yes, I’ve got some handy buildings and powerful trinkets, but I don’t have time to appreciate them when my entire team is afflicted with the Crimson Curse. It actually becomes a bigger problem once the DLC’s first mission is completed, as the creatures that spread the disease make their way into other areas beyond the Courtyard. More than a few times, I’ve finished a mission with all four of my heroes afflicted.

So it’s an issue of frequency. The curse itself isn’t completely debilitating, and it can actually be beneficial, as heroes who have recently quenched their thirst become empowered, but it loses its impact when everyone’s cursed. Worse is the constant micromanagement and the incessant need to keep everyone topped up.

I’m conflicted. Conceptually, The Crimson Court is very much my cup of blood, but the execution, particularly when it comes to the first mission and the curse, sometimes feels off. That said, Red Hook has clearly been taking feedback seriously, and changes have already been made to make things a little less punishing.

And as annoying as it may be, trying to force my way through brutal dungeons when all of my heroes are either blood-mad vampires or simply wasting away from disease, the expansion introduces a lot of things I can no longer live without. The Flagellant, the Districts, the new trinkets – they’re all brilliant additions. And it’s worth noting that this is a modular expansion. You can pick the parts that end up in your game. If you only want the new class, you can play with that and nothing else.

The Crimson Court is out now on Windows, Mac and Linux for £7/$10/€10 via Steam, GOG and Humble. It requires the base game.

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Fraser Brown

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Premature Evaluation caretaker. Likes strategy games almost as much as he likes labradoodles.

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