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Early Access Impressions: Darkest Dungeon

Nymphomaniac leper

First favourite game of the year alert!

You know, Steam is so over-populated with roguelikes and roguelites and roguelikelikes and, indeed, all manner of other games about getting killed and losing everything that I can't help but look upon a new addition to this rogue's gallery with bleary eyes. So many, so quickly, so much death. Then once in a while one turns up that makes me fall deeply in love with adventuring through deadly places all over again. Last year it was Sunless Sea, but this time it's Darkest Dungeon. Elevator pitch: XCOM as fantasy RPG, plus a bit of The Sims.

Darkest Dungeon is about sending a squad of heroes in to do your dirty work for you, growing attached to them as their skills improve (or, at least, as they survive a few dungeon runs) and suffering the requisite heartbreak when they perish on the battlefield. Darkest Dungeon asks for a new level of care for them, however - they'll suffer from mounting stress while out stabbing skeletons and crawling through pitch-black mansions, and if left unchecked this will eventually escalate into major afflictions that will handicap them in battle.

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Add to that each hero's traits, more of which are gained at the end of any dungeon run they survive, which can be beneficial but more often than not make them either vulnerable or a liability. Maybe they freak out if it's too dark, maybe they freak out if it's too light, maybe they're more prone to bleeding, maybe the only way they can de-stress in the town - the base mode between missions - is at the brothel or with self-flagellation.

All these deficiencies and obsessions combine into characters who are entertainingly awkward to manage. I've got a lady on my team who's afraid of both darkness and light. I've got a guy who's a nymphomaniac but is barred from the brothel. Another lady likes stealing half the gold for herself. Someone else has got a creeping cough. Everyone has a thing, most of them have multiple things, and all of them will develop more things the more times you send them off to fight for you. Darkest Dungeon reflects that a career spent fighting ungodly monsters in dark places, seeing your friends die and regularly getting horribly wounded is clearly going to take a heavy mental toll.

As a result of not being the perfect shining ciphers of most other dungeoneering games, my heroes are a pain in the bloody arse. They'll even occasionally disappear, lost for a time in some den of iniquity because they just can't face any more horror. Well you would, wouldn't you? Much as I sympathise with their breakdowns and coping mechanisms, sometimes I'm glad when a particularly messed-up character kicks the bucket mid-quest.

Where Rogue Legacy played with similar ideas, this isn't anything like so gimmicky. One of the core challenges of Darkest Dungeon is working out how to take care of this collection of maniacs, freaks and phobics, and how to make them most useful. Negative traits can be got rid of in the Sanatorium, but this is both costly and means you can neither take the hero questing or de-stress them until they've been violently cured of their impairment.

Near the start of the game, you have this long list of healthy fresh meat to pick from for each mission (you can take a maximum of four out at a time), but not much latter whoever's not in the graveyard is stressed out, messed up and angrily objecting to the idea of going back out there. In other words, the twist on the XCOM recruitment formula is that old soldiers are essentially as problematic as rookies. Even if someone's not totally messed up, they can be conceptually preposterous - for instance, one character was both a leper and a nymphomaniac. 'Safe sex' probably doesn't begin to cover it.

As for the adventuring/fighting itself, you're off on a trip through monster and trapped-filled rooms and linking corridors, with the threat of starvation and insanity dogging you as much as sudden death does. Darkest Dungeon doesn't offer much opportunity for healing, so it's a real endurance test for your heroes. And, sometimes, for you. Clearly I've got lots to learn about the game, but I'm finding I'm spending a little too much time with my party all on rock-bottom hitpoints and maxed-out stress and not a lot I can do about it except wait for death or bail out early. It's a thin line between hope and despair, but increasingly I'm falling on the latter side of it.

The combat is beautifully presented, all sudden zooms onto paper cutout-esque characters performing simple but big, characterful animations, but it's perhaps the least successful aspect of the game. It's a little too long-winded, especially once your characters go a bit bonkers and have to say some doomy bon mot between each action. E.g. someone who's turned Abusive insults his companions' fighting prowess every time they take a turn, so you have to wait a few seconds for him to say his piece, then a few more seconds for the bubble which shows how stressed out the insulted party became as a result.

Across the course of a fight, you're spending far more time waiting for that to happen than you are actually clobbering stuff (or being clobbered), and it's damned frustrating. Even when your characters have a clean bill of mental health so you can get on with the walloping that much more, it's just a bit repetitious. It's built around a Final Fantasy-style random encounter model, and while nothing like as egregious as many of those games' interruptions, fights are just that bit too long for my tastes. They're 4v4 (unless you've lost any of your guys in an earlier fight), so there's a lot to plough through. On the other hand, you're usually on your last legs and praying for relief, so getting pulled into a long and dangerous fight ups the stress levels. Sympathy for your characters, basically.

Sometimes frustrated I may be, but I'm also absolutely hooked. This is a complex and malevolent game, and I'm really enjoying having to juggle quite so many balls. Surviving quests is one thing, maintaining an effective team as fatalities and insanities mount is another. So many elements, but they come together so well.

There's a whole bunch of stuff I've not mentioned, such as upgrading buildings in town in order to better deal with your heroes' deficiencies, or the importance of placement on the battlefield (each hero can do different stuff depending whether he's at the front, back or middle of the stack), or how the very infrequent gear you find in the dungeons always has a negative effect as well as a positive one. It is a deeply cruel game, but at the same time it's an entirely manageable one, because you can always draft in more heroes. Those who die are gone forever, but you get to try, try again.

As for its early access status, this is an unfinished release in excellent shape. There isn't an ending yet, and more monsters and heroes are still to be added, but it's slick, stable and full of stuff. You probably wouldn't know it was unfinished, at least not until a dozen or so hours in with no endgame in sight. I know Early Access is a moral matter for some of you, but in this instance you're definitely not buying a rickety, fractional game if you had a look at this now. It's also rather beautiful, in its gothic comic art, and with a wonderful doomy narration as you fight too.

Slightly ponderous combat aside, Darkest Dungeon is the best time I've had with a new game this year so far.

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