The year is young but we've already had the pleasure of welcoming two gruelling tactical slaughterfests into the world: XCOM 2 [official site] and Darkest Dungeon [official site]. We've written a great deal about Firaxis' latest already and our ongoing diary has just hit the point where the alien threat starts to chip away at our beloved squadmates. Darkest Dungeon is more obviously punishing, every element built to communicate a sense of hopelessness and despair.
But how do the games compare, in their treatment of failure and death, both mechanically and thematically?
My first ten hours in XCOM 2 were some of the hardest I've ever muscled through in a video game. No, it wasn't that my alien adversaries were willing to punish my every move with a barrage of laser fire that cut down every single member of my squad who I had, in a moment I now severely regret, named after the people in my family (sorry, Dad). It wasn't the harrowing struggle of winning back Earth from an overwhelming force, either. It was that paralyzing reality that I had no clue what I was doing, let alone if I was even doing it well. When Central Officer Bradford resuscitated me and handed me the keys to the resistance, I desperately wanted to crawl back into the cryotube he found me in while screaming "I'm not who you think I am!"
Admittedly, XCOM isn't a series that I've had much experience with, but after reading such positive praise, I couldn't help but dip my toes into the water. The thing is, while XCOM 2 is an incredible game that I am now loving, getting started was a vicious cycle of anxiety, indecision, and then shameful 'save scumming' as I desperately tried to save my father, Jim, from being disemboweled. I couldn't. And when I reloaded an even older save that generated a new mission altogether, he still died. It would seem that, no matter what alternate future I created for my father, his fate was sealed.
Coming fresh from Darkest Dungeon, a game that wears its brutality on its sleeve, this sudden shift in my composure was puzzling. In Darkest Dungeon, I was a calculating mastermind, efficiently increasing my bottom line while handling the chaos and its needling effect on my adventurers in a calm and decisive manner. In Darkest Dungeon, Jim is alive and well (that is, if you ignore his fascination with corpses), but in XCOM 2 he's a plaque on a wall that I can't bear to look at.
On the surface, XCOM 2 and Darkest Dungeon are incredibly similar games. Both feature turned-based combat with a big emphasis on positioning, both frequently force decisions to be made that can permanently kill your soldiers, and both have base-building systems that punctuate their combat. So why was it that I felt like such a badass in Darkest Dungeon while XCOM 2 turned me into a quivering puddle of anxiety?
The easiest distinction to make is that Darkest Dungeon is much less shy about what it expects of you. Every time I booted up the game, the same message always appears to somberly remind me that failure is to be expected. "Heroes will die", the screen reads. "And they will stay dead."
That message is much more than an intimidation tactic; it defined my expectations from the very first step I took. I knew from the outset that losing a valued soldier is unavoidable, something to be treated much like a restaurant manager would handle a broken plate. But XCOM 2 makes no such claims. Though the dire struggle to win back Earth sets a similar tone, XCOM 2 is a game that never seems to give that kind of clarity. It places you in command and then corners you by introducing uncertainty and indecision.
Where most strategy games attempt to arm you with everything you might need, not only walking you through how to play the game but also showing you the proper way to play it, XCOM 2 is more than happy to drop you into the commander's seat with only a loose idea of what you're up against. Larger objectives, such as the need to build a specific facility in your ship, might provide you with a general sense of direction, but getting from point A to B is all up to you. Just about every decision doesn't just risk serious consequences, it also closes doors to viable alternatives. Nothing is binary. Instead, you always feel forced to choose from one of many possible paths or ignore the decision altogether.
Contrasted with how Darkest Dungeon approaches its problems, the two couldn't be more different. Darkest Dungeon pushes you forward whether you would like it or not, and in doing so, removes a large sense of responsibility over those decisions. Each week, you send four of your adventurers into the dungeons for some inexplicable reason. The prevalence of random chance in every action you make also works to divorce you of the responsibility of making a decision.
When I asked Jim to scavenge a corpse, thus triggering his life-long obsession with dead people, the outcome of that choice felt independent of the fact that I had made it. XCOM 2's soldiers are tools that I use, agents for my plans, while the recruits of Darkest Dungeon often seem to be doomed thanks to their own weaknesses rather than the orders I give.
But the bigger difference is that, in Darkest Dungeon, it is impossible to lose. There's no true failure state, and, at worst, all you can suffer is a major setback. Even if you manage your estate and heroes terribly, at best you will just tread water before quitting the game or learning how to play better. There's a sense of safety behind this and the fact that, as imposing as the denizens of each dungeon may be, they'll never crawl from their desecrated homes to wage war on yours.
Your heroes might represent a serious time investment, but when they die new ones are always ready to pick up where they left off. In fact, the only real sense of overarching consequence in Darkest Dungeon is seen in the mental and physical well-being of your heroes. In the end, Darkest Dungeon is a game that preaches the severity of its consequences but then shields you from the most fatal blows. Heroes may die but they can be replaced, and the estate is moving from ruin to a state of quiet efficiency.
As a result, I was well aware that the only true currency was my time. Consider how different that is from XCOM 2, where every decision represents a potential loss of valuable and finite resources. Darkest Dungeon is about maximizing efficiency, while XCOM 2 is about spending wisely.
As someone who obviously struggles with this type of decision making, XCOM 2 was total hell for me. I would stare at the screen, contemplating the best allocation of resources for minutes at a time, and there was always that 'ignore' option tempting me. When a soldier died, there wasn't any pre-game warning for me to hide behind while I washed my hands of the matter and said "that's just the way it is!"
I'm not saying Darkest Dungeon isn't a great game — it is - but next to XCOM 2 there's a definite lack of responsibility behind the decisions it forces upon you. It compensates for that by creating characters who feel human, so we sympathize when they suffer from their various afflictions. But compared to the decisions in XCOM 2, which are all framed by the looming threat of total defeat, there's no washing your hands of the consequences of your actions. Each one is etched into the story you create of humanity's crucial final moments.
And in some small way, XCOM 2 made me come to terms with the indecisiveness I've struggled with for years. The decision to reload a previous save might tempt me when things go badly out in the field, but it doesn't save me from all the decisions that contributed to the moment when Jim was flanked by an unseen turret and literally spilled his guts.
There is no scaffolding to support you in XCOM 2: just you, the decisions you're making, and the tortuous lack of foresight as to what end those decisions might lead. And as I learned to accept this, feeling the sting of defeat again and again, I also learned how to trust in my ability to make and learn from them.
Sometimes it's not about making the right decision. Sometimes it's just the fact that you made one in the first place.
For more on XCOM 2, visit our XCOM 2 guide hub.