Has Darkest Dungeon been improved by its updates?

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Update Night is a fortnightly column in which Rich McCormick revisits games to find out whether they’ve been changed for better or worse.

Down a dark, dark road, through a dark, dark forest, under a dark, dark town, in a dark, dark — darkest — dungeon, there’s a new easy mode.

Darkest Dungeon developer Red Hook Studios introduced “Radiant” difficulty to their infamously tough sidescrolling slog ‘em up early last year, making it quicker and cheaper for the game’s gang of highwaymen, lepers, grave robbers, and other playable miscreants to gain new skills. The new mode reduces gold costs for upgrades, provides more cash for dungeon visits, and bumps experience gains, with the effect of dragging the time of a playthrough down from the 80 hours quoted by its developers to a more manageable 40 hours. But in a game renowned for its punishing difficulty and mind-shattering horrors, how does an easy mode even work?

Well, with this being Darkest Dungeon, Radiant difficulty is still not what a sensible person would call easy.

“Easy” is not having your first party chewed apart by Cthulhu-humping fishmen before they even got to level up their abilities. “Easy” isn’t giving your best dungeon-crawler a crippling fear of confined spaces and gleefully convincing him that he’s a lion when he’s meant to be fighting a squad of vomiting pig people. “Easy” isn’t springing a cage-headed skeleton daddy who can summon a veritable bones brigade to battle your band of least-experienced adventurers during their first foray under the earth.

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It’s also not easy fighting an enemy when your enemy is entropy itself. Darkest Dungeon’s playable characters — from the jester to the crusader via the abomination — get tougher and unlock new skills as they delve into the depths, but they’re also very like to develop negative quirks the more time they spend down in the dark or out in the wilds. At first, these quirks are minor inconveniences, but once an adventurer has faced death and horror a few times, the quirks start to pile up, turning your stalwart champion into a stupid liability.

Vestals, for example, should be super-useful pseudo-nuns, ideal for propping your party up with healing spells, while keeping themselves alive through lifesteal attacks. My highest-level vestal, however, is absolutely obsessed with fountains. She can’t walk past one without sticking her hands in — ostensibly to wash them — even if it means she ends up contracting some eldritch malady. That’s how she ended up with two other quirks: “sickly,” and “anemic,” giving her an increased chance of catching diseases or suffering bleed damage during battle.

If I wanted to cure best vestal (bestal) of her fountainophilia then I’d need to commit about 5,000 gold to her treatment, and take her out of my rotation for a full week of game time. That’s about as much gold as I can hope to earn in an early game dungeon run, and the treatment (likely) wouldn’t do anything about her sickly nature and anemia, which would cost me another 10 grand to fix. In the meantime, I’d have to use backup characters, each of whom are just as likely to come out of the gloom with their own weird predilections — fascinations with corpses and alcohol addictions racking up faster than I can knock them down.

Leave these too long and they’ll get worse, degrading your character’s chances of staying alive just as they’re finally becoming tough enough to withstand some of the harder dungeons on offer. Quirks that negatively affect a champion’s stress level can be particularly painful. Characters have a good chance of earning an “affliction” when their stress tips over 100 during a dungeon run, making them act weirdly and increasing their partymates’ stress level in turn. Of these afflictions, I learned to dread “irrational” the most, a condition that meant my champions would regularly refuse healing even when they were knocking on death’s door.

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Stress can — and should — be managed by successful teams, either through abilities that directly remove its buildup from party members, or by bringing hardened warriors that need more than the sight of a spooky skellington to turn their stomachs. Stress removal is particularly important when you’re partying with the abomination: a class developer Red Hook released as a free update ahead of the game’s official launch. The abomination can fight as a scarred human or turn into a werewolf-ish beast, giving him access to a wider suite of attacks than most of his peers, but battling alongside him as he goes all American Werewolf in London-ey is guaranteed to freak out your other party members, ensuring that at least some of them will end up afflicted on longer journeys.

Nothing freaked me out more, however, than taking an Antiquarian on my travels below. Introduced in early 2016, the Antiquarian is no fighter — at least, not a very good one. Instead, she acts primarily as a loot multiplier, increasing the amount of gold that can be carried and snuffling out antiques from dungeons that can then be sold for reasonable profit. She can be specced for some battle utility, tossing toxin-filled capsules to poison enemies, but she’s unlikely to be part of the team on any tougher missions. More useful is the shieldbreaker, introduced late last year in Darkest Dungeon’s second paid DLC pack, who can crack through armour easily but only has a small health pool, necessitating babysitting in order for her to see real success.

The inclusion of these esoteric classes can lead to fun tactical choices, with the Abomination in particular pairing well with fellow weirdboy, the Jester. The Jester can flip through your four-person lineup, buffing teammates and building up power to his “finale” attack before leaping to the front and delivering a powerful killing blow. The move used to be particularly powerful — until a patch last year defanged it somewhat — but to use it effectively now requires finesse and a certain amount of luck. Instead, with death and the potential loss of powerful characters just a few unlucky behind-the-scenes rolls away, I usually found myself just picking safer party compositions. I ignored high risk classes like the Abomination and Jester in favour of healers, tanks, and solid damage dealers who stayed in place, played reliable roles, and came back to the surface without quite as much psychic trauma.

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Not that I could avoid stress altogether, even on Radiant difficulty. Runaway stress levels killed my first two parties outright on my first run, and my third only made it out because I ran away from a fight, ditched the dungeon before it was done, and instantly sent all three survivors to the tavern to drink/gamble/sex their way through their trauma.

It’s after runs like these that Darkest Dungeon feels the least rewarding. The new mode offers more in the way of rewards but a failed mission still doesn’t just take me back to square one; it takes me way back past square one to square minus 10, grinding my nose into every single square along the way. With stressed heroes, no cash, and no items to make the next dungeon dive palatable, I got myself stuck performing either super-simple or suicide runs to scrape together the cash and experience needed to one day build a decent team. The Crimson Court — Darkest Dungeon’s first paid DLC expansion — can ramp up this despair by reducing safe areas, flinging you into an untenable situation early and not giving you the time or space to battle back before the darkness closes in.

Dig through these dark times, though, and the treasure at the heart of Darkest Dungeon starts to crystallise. Radiant mode doesn’t feel easier than the original difficulty setting, but get on a good streak and the process does start to feel quicker. After five hours of preparation work, and with a rejuvenated bestal and a beefed up offensive team around her, I was able to take down the game’s first three bosses in quick succession. Granted, I’d left a trail of dead champions in my wake, but the process started to feel more manageable — and less miserable — than Darkest Dungeon regularly felt at launch. With another DLC pack on the horizon and a mode that makes an effort to respect the player’s time, a trip into Darkest Dungeon’s depths doesn’t feel like a wasted journey.

46 Comments

  1. TheBetterStory says:

    Huzzah, a reasonable difficulty mode!

    This is my first time stumbling across this column, and I love the idea behind it. Some games change drastically between updates, to the point where a review might very well go in the opposite direction if the same writer returned to them. Tumbleseed is a great example.

  2. Disgruntled Goat says:

    “…a certain amount of luck.” This describes the entire game, essentially.

    I admit that Darkest Dungeon drew me in for a couple dozen hours with its gorgeous visuals and wonderfully Gothic dungeon-crawling, but after getting beaten down with the RNG stick way too many times, I gave up.

    I felt particularly demoralized by the quirks system. Do I spend thousands of gold curing these quirks from my high-level characters, or ditch them and spend thousands of gold leveling up new ones? Either way, they are just going to acquire more awful quirks, so really, what’s the point of doing either?

    • anHorse says:

      Or y’know just take them to the cove and use the interactions that remove negative quirks

      • drewski says:

        What? *Learn* how to play? Nah, press A to win or bad game.

        To be less unreasonably snarky, the best thing you can do in Darkest Dungeon is realise that 90% of negative quirks don’t actually matter at all. Basically the only ones you need to bother about are some of the fears and anything that’s a compulsory interaction, and even then you can mitigate them by cleansing curios before interaction.

        But all of these things need to be learned. The game never makes anything obvious.

        • mitthrawnuruodo says:

          “90% of negative quirks don’t actually matter at all” does not really help your case of trying to make the game look better.

          • drewski says:

            I’m not really trying to do anything of the sort.

            Quirks are exactly that – minor character details, some of them are annoying, some of them are funny, mostly they just are. You may as well complain about a jetpack in Spelunky being stuck in a wall before you get sticky bombs, it’s Just A Thing That Happened that run.

    • LacSlyer says:

      Think of it this way, without the negative quirks you really wouldn’t have anything to do with your characters in the long term that was different from any play through. With them, it not only adds strategic depth in how they interact with positive quirks and the class they’re on, but also in how you play the game entirely to the point of providing different experiences with each play through.

      So while I can understand the frustration with them, without it the game would be a much simpler and less interesting experience.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      The crucial innovation of modern tabletop RPGs (most of which involve highly random skill checks) is that failure should lead to interesting outcomes. This has carried over to approximately zero CRPGs.

      If you’re going to make a highly random game, it’s gotta do more than pass/fail. Otherwise it’s just a substitute for a lack of genuine challenge. Darkest Dungeon does plenty of interesting things, but it ultimately fails to come together as a great game because of this.

      • drewski says:

        I sort of broadly disagree with this philosophy and applying it to this game specifically.

        Firstly, DD isn’t a “highly random” game. It’s a very controllable RNG game that happens to be deliberately obtuse about teaching you control. That’s certainly a valid design criticism, but it’s what the developer wanted.

        More broadly, there is more point to failure than simply creating interesting outcomes. Failure is a fantastic learning tool, for example, and probably the biggest criticism of DD that I agree with is that it almost always has a lesson in failure but it is very bad at teaching that lesson.

        Secondly, failure is emotionally impactful. DD aims to skirt the fine line between barely succeeding, which is exhilarating, and failing, which is crushing. At it’s best it pushes you to the limit of your skill but you succeed, and this is immensely satisfying.

        However the design flipside to this is that if you did fail instead of succeed, the “punishment” is essentially starting again, which tends to be boring. And if you didn’t learn the lesson of your failure, not only are you bored but also frustrated when you fail again.

        Anyway, there is more to failure than interesting outcomes. Darkest Dungeon doesn’t fail because failure is uninteresting, although it is – it fails because when you fail, the other outcomes of failure are insufficient to justify the lack of interest created in begrudgingly rolling another (set of) character(s).

        • Stillquest says:

          This is the old, old problem of reward vs. punishment in video games. The more stringent the penalty for failure, the more likely said failure is, the greater the feeling of accomplishment when one succeeds. On the flip side, people play games to have fun, not suffer.

          I don’t think there’s a “correct” course of action here. There’s no sweet-spot. Player preferences run the gamut from those sticking with Nethack for 20 years without ascending once, to those that like setting shooter difficulty to minimum across board so they could watch the pretty cutscenes.

          Fortunately the game market niche-ified to the point it can support all kinds.

          • Morat Gurgeh says:

            I’ve been playing nethack for 20 years (started on Amiga) and never ascended once! Came close a couple of times. TBH when I fail it’s usually my fault.

            Time for my biannual session soon. Graphics aren’t everything, gameplay is king.

        • Coming Second says:

          This is one of the best critiques of DD I’ve read here.

          One of the most pointlessly cruel aspects of the game for me, that I’ve never seen mentioned elsewhere, is that it fudges the rolls of quirks if you fold/lose a quest so that you’re almost guaranteed to get negative ones. So I lost a hero – that hurts, but alright – my progress has been stalled and I will have to spend lots to cure the survivors of stress – that’s aggravating – but on the top of that you’ve got to give me the ultimate fuck you of Kleptomania and the Runs?

          There’s nothing I could learn about the game that could prevent that, no intelligent strategy that I could deploy that, if I happen to take a bunch of crits and have to bail, is going to prevent me drearily have to run 3-4 standard quests to get me back to where I was before. That’s the real downside of DD, that it doesn’t value your time and punishes you by actively removing it.

          • Barts says:

            If the idea of kleptomaniac with diarrhea doesn’t amuse you in the slightest, then I think you’re taking this game too seriously.

          • sosolidshoe says:

            Games that use a relentless grind as the core gameplay loop – especially ones that last tens of hours – don’t get to spout the “lul totes random yeh brah, stop taking things so seeeeeeerrrioussly nyeeeeh” style of line. Taking things seriously, often overly so, is literally the whole point of grind-games.

  3. MikoSquiz says:

    I don’t think there’s any fixing Darkest Dungeon. It’s initially dreadful and sinister, but that soon becomes dispiriting and gloomy, and by the twenty-eighth year of playing it (of the two centuries it takes to finish) it’s just a tiresome and unpleasant grind.

    • mitthrawnuruodo says:

      Amen!

    • sosolidshoe says:

      Yup. DD is a stunning art style and excellent sound design detailing a fantastic setting, all wrapped around some really depressing, frustrating, and eventually just plain boring mechanics.

      I get what they were going for, but it just absolutely isn’t my kind of thing, and I think the reason so many folk in a similar situation find DD so irritating rather than merely being one of countless games we don’t like is we *want* to like it because the setting, aesthetic, and basic concept of an RPG that focus on the psychological impact of dealing with eldritch horrors all the time are really compelling.

  4. fuzzyfuzzyfungus says:

    “Suffer not the lame horse… or the broken man.”

  5. Railway Rifle says:

    If the first paragraph is correct, the next update should take us up Spook Hill!

  6. Sleepery says:

    Radiant difficulty is actually quite enjoyable, right up the point where you attempt the darkest dungeon itself.

    Then you hate it and never play it again, moreso because it’s led you on with a false sense of fairness for 20 or 30 hours.

    • Coming Second says:

      Oh, it’s not that bad. I can reliably beat all four levels on the first attempt now, and I’m not a master strategist by any means. Good trinkets, and getting a good stunning rhythm going against the bosses, is key.

      • drewski says:

        It’s like any system, you learn how to beat it. Each DD map has a specific cadence, you learn the cadence and it’s pretty straightforward.

        • Sleepery says:

          My issue with it is that it allows you to get to that point without teaching you any of the necessary skills, and then requires you to lose a man for every learning experience.

          It does something a lot of MMOs do – allows you to coast to endgame and then suddenly presents a completely different set of requirements.

      • Waltorious says:

        For some reason I read this as “getting a good stunning rhythm guitar against the bosses.”

        I’d play that game.

    • Hieronymusgoa says:

      I had a similar experience. I nearly arrived at the final four quests of DD with the normal mode and found it too much of a grind. Then I finally reached the second of the four final quests in the DD after restarting everything on Radiant and….it is still a grind, just to get enough high level guys. I love this game but I got to the point where i realised I don’t need to finish it to get out of it what i wanted from it. So i uninstalled it.

      And regarding difficulty: If it feels hard to a majority it is hard. The, in numbers, much smaller amount of people who didn’t have a hard time don’t change the experience from being a hard one for the majority. It is skill based but since some random crits can fuck up an entire dungeon run it is not as skill based as games like Dark Souls (and many others) which simply don’t have that randomness at all.

      • Jeremy says:

        “I love this game but I got to the point where i realised I don’t need to finish it to get out of it what i wanted from it. So i uninstalled it.”

        This quote is my exact experience with this game, and truthfully, most games now. I used to be a completionist, then realized a hobby or free time shouldn’t feel like an obligation.

  7. Relenzo says:

    I didn’t really understand why everyone was so messed up about the difficulty in this game. Even playing my first round on Stygian mode it didn’t seem all that bad. Did I not get the hard part after 30 hours? I’ve only lost 5 heroes, and most of the rest are in pretty good shape. The vast majority of negative quirks are safe enough to leave alone, and many can be played around pretty easily.

    Do people just treat losing a single character as a loss condition, and assume the game is brutal if anyone ever dies? It’s a party roguelite–these bodies are meant to be spent.

    That being said, I’ve decided I’m not going to finish. 80 hours is way too much for a game this repetitive. 40 is too much. It would have been the perfect length at 20. And it feels like a great shame to me.

    • Coming Second says:

      This I agree with. There’s no reason why the game is as long as it is; the mid-game grind is real, and it’s such an unremitting trudge. It’s why I encourage everyone to play Radiant. It’s still too long, but not ridiculously so.

    • ashleys_ears says:

      I couldn’t agree more. The game isn’t difficult so much as unrelentingly tedious, and it goes out of its way to manufacture length in irksome ways – the combination of characters being forever unwilling to return to the Darkest Dungeon after their first pass and ALSO refusing to go on low-level runs because they’re “beneath them” is particularly grating. Perhaps these sorts of things wouldn’t annoy me as much if they didn’t also resort to recycling the same enemies and bosses three times over with different stats.

      So many decisions feel like a product of the devs wracking their brains for ways to tack on more hours of “gameplay” without having to actually create additional content. Find a way to use the same assets over. And over. And OVER. Which sucks, because I really think it would have been a really good 20-hour game. Instead, it’s a game with 20 hours of content that you have to play for 70-80 hours to actually finish.

  8. racccoon says:

    All very well maybe.
    I firmly believe that games need to be FINISHED before release & only have updates for issues. Buying a game that’s complete is the best area for gaming to be.
    This bullshit E A & all the other avenues of deception these devs throw at us now are weak & pathetic excuses for not finishing a game in the first place.
    In this current state of gaming which is mainly caused by STEAM n the now melting kickstarter, brings a very unhealthy gaming world of games which never ever stop, they just go on & on & on updating and dlc’ing their tiny arses off! its just plain stupid & a waste of time. The devs know it they are caught in the whole tangled web of it!
    Make the game finished…end of story..move on..

  9. Fiddlestickz says:

    Darkest Dungeon always was a hardcore game. Despair is part of the experience and if everything fails and you can’t take being back at square -10 after you A-Team falls because you failed, then you just turn off Cloud sync and savescum the shit outta the game (yes it’s possible) instead of embracing the ironman nature of the game.

  10. mitthrawnuruodo says:

    This game is a pretentious waste of time, made for the “oh failing is so much fun. 10/10 will fail more” crowd.

    It is however a superb artistic achievement as far as the audio-visuals are concerned.

    • Stillquest says:

      Nah, hardly. Hate to sound like part of the “huh, learn to play” crowd, but the game’s basically all about two skills: Fielding effective party/ability combinations, and knowing when to fold ’em. Emphasis on the second. That’s the difference between licking your wounds for a couple of weeks and a disastrous, rage-quit inducing TPK.

      Great game. Too long by half, though.

    • UncleLou says:

      You seem to have a problem that there are gamers with different expectations and abilities than you, may I ask why? It’s not like any review, advertisement or news item about the game ever failed to mention that this is a *hard* game.

      Variety is good.

      Criticizing the game? Fine. Being an ass about people who enjoy other games than you? Makes you look like a nincompoop. A nincompoop who doesn’t know what “pretentious” means, if I may say so.

    • Improper says:

      Calling something “pretentious” often feels like shorthand for “I don’t get this, it doesn’t appeal to me so it’s obviously just shallow crap”. It’s okay to not like games like Darkest Dungeon, just saying that it’s kind of narrow-minded to brush them off as pretentious.

      I also get that there are some insufferable people that typically enjoy difficult games, but I doubt most developers make their games purely to appease a group that usually just serve to drive off other potential customers. There are still good communities on hardcore games that don’t let toxic behavior fly.

  11. pelwl says:

    Radiant mode doesn’t go nearly far enough in reducing the repetition and grind. If a playthrough took 10-20 hours and allowed you to replay applying different strategies I’d have enjoyed it much more and not given up on it.

    The fact that the developers boasted of its original 80 hour length tells you all you need to know. It’s just pandering to the $ cost per hour of gametime = good value crowd, who seem ever prevalent these days.

  12. Barts says:

    I have bought Darkest Dungeon in 2016 and it was my Game of the Year. I have also played it a lot in 2017 and am excited to be getting new DLC in 2018. It’s like strong dry wine with specific flavour – not for everyone, but very rewarding for those who get it.

    I am only leaving this comment here to balance the crowd that seems to have a personal revenge on Darkest Dungeon because that one time they lost a whole team, so the game must be stupid.

    • Coming Second says:

      I love it as well – the conceit, direction, sfx and actual mechanics are all wonderful – but it’s because of those things that I want to point out ways RH could improve their formula. I wouldn’t waste words properly criticising a poor or average game.

      • Barts says:

        Don’t get me wrong, snarkiness in my comment wasn’t aimed at you or anyone who presents a structured argument. But there seems to be a lot of people who apparently got burnt by the game and now flock in comment sections of various websites only to shout “Darkest Dungeon sucks!”

  13. steeltown357 says:

    Irrational….. I’ve been trying to cure my wife of this affliction for years.

  14. ziffel says:

    TL;DR: no.

  15. Caldorosso says:

    Seeing a lot of negative reactions to Darkest Dungeon. A shame, I’m playing through it at my own pace (Radiant Mode, I’m not a masochist)and really enjoying it. I’ve only lost a few of my high ranking heroes, and even negated the early-game need to have a Jester. What everyone needs to remember but often forgets is the game is fair as long as you play within your perimeters. Slowly to make that bigger. You won’t be able to negate all risk, but eventually you’ll learn to analyze what’s worth it and what’s not. I’ll bring Antiquarians, but only if I can have my Highwayman with me for the Guard/Riposte combo. Little stuff like that makes the game a really fun micromanaging game. Sometimes I get my guts punched in and take a break, but I’m in no rush. Victory’s a little sweeter tinged with the bitter wine split by skeletal foes. I think my military dad conditioned me to react to difficult and unfair situations with purpose, making Darkest Dungeon a terrifying joy ride through Hell and back. It’s not perfect (Wanna hear a joke? The Leper.) , but it is my cup of wine.

  16. Sunjammer says:

    I’ve had the same issues with Darkest Dungeon since the first releases: I don’t feel myself improving at it in a way that feels good. I feel like proficiency at DD is in “gaming it” in a way that doesn’t feel as organic as I’d like. XCom2 is another game that frequently throws you a very rotten bone, but at least that game tends to let you recover through conflagrations of mad choices that have you coming out the other end feeling like you somehow pulled off a magic trick. DD just fucks you into the dirt when it feels like it.

    I can’t think of many games I’ve wanted to love more than DD that nonetheless have failed to inspire affection. It’s a huge shame.

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