Darkest Dungeon Hands-on

Darkest Dungeon Hands-onI lost a Grave Robber earlier today because she had a pity party and refused all healing.

Yes you read that correctly. I had a party member that was so despondent that they refused the very healing that would have saved their life. They kept saying “woe is me” right up until the moment a skeletal warrior very literally put them out of their misery. Pretty much all that is Darkest Dungeon can be summed up in that observation. If that sounds intriguing to then you might enjoy what the game has in store for you. But be warned…Darkest Dungeon is not for the gaming faint of heart.

Darkest Dungeon from Red Hook Studios (and currently in backer early access testing) is a brutal and oft unforgiving rogue-like RPG that can seem to border on being downright unfair at times. From the very moment you launch the game, Darkest Dungeon is upfront with its intentions. Difficult choices will be required, sacrifices made, and heroes lost. And it makes no apology for this.

At its heart, Darkest Dungeon is a dungeon crawler that requires a lot of hero management, both inside and outside of the dungeon. Most of this management is due to the stress system built into the game, and taking care of hero stress levels whenever possible is critical. Oh, you will have to upgrade their skills and improve their equipment as well, but ultimately it is their stress that can all too often spell disaster during quests.

In fact, Darkest Dungeon is really all about increasing your stress as the player by increasing the stress of your heroes. Don’t get me wrong, the game is a lot of fun, but I assure you that you will feel no small amount of tension and frustration as you play. Keep this in mind, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Gameplay in Darkest Dungeon is split into two phases. During the town phase you can care for and upgrade yours current heroes. You can also upgrade the various buildings around the town, allowing you to access to better training, upgrades, and stress management. It is also in town where you can recruit new heroes to flesh out your ranks, and given that permadeath is a very VERY real thing in Darkest Dungeon, you can expect to be doing a lot of recruiting. In fact, I would give any new player of Darkest Dungeon the same advice I would give someone who is just starting to read The Game of Thrones novels: don’t get attached to anyone!

Darkest Dungeon Heroes

The other phase of phase of the game is the randomized dungeon crawling. It is here that you will spend most of your time exploring and, most importantly, fighting. The combat is the meat and potatoes of Darkest Dungeon – no surprise there – and it can be as thrilling as often as it is frustrating.

On the surface, combat in Darkest Dungeon appears fairly straight forward, but once you dig into it you realize that there is a number of mechanics at play. These elements all combine to determine success or failure, with the latter being all too common. It is amazing just how fast a fight can go from what appears to be a raging success to utter disaster in a matter of moments. Here is a quick summary of the different mechanics that you must be aware of at all times while your heroes fight for their lives:

Hero stats: each hero has a series of stats such as damage, accuracy, dodge, critical chance, and speed. Nothing really unique here, although these stats can change in a heartbeat depending on things like buffs, debuffs, and stress factors. Heroes also have a series of quirks, some positive and some negative, each of which can affect their stats. New quirks can be gained during and after completing missions, and negative quirks can be removed in town for a price.

Health: nothing surprising at this, but I bring it up in order to point out that there are precious few ways to recover health in Darkest Dungeon. You can’t heal out of combat except by setting up camp (with very few opportunities to do so), and in-combat healing really feels underpowered. Bringing two healers along in every party is highly recommended, and even then success isn’t assured.

I should also mention how dying works in Darkest Dungeon, because heroes don’t actually drop the moment their hit points reach zero. Instead they enter a “Death’s Door” mode whereby every hit after that has a chance to kill them, with each hero having a different resistance to deathblows. Heroes can actually last a long time at Death’s Door, but eventually they will go down at the hands of the random number generator. Thankfully, even healing them for a single hit point will bring them out of Death’s Door mode and prevent a deathblow for at least one more hit. It can be a nail biting situation with you praying that your heroes resist every deathblow until you can heal them somehow.

Position: the position of each of your four party members is critical and managing proper placement can be tricky at times, especially since the relative positioning of the enemy also matters. This goes beyond melee in front and ranged in the back. Each hero type has a preferred position within the party, and have preferred positions for targets in the enemy party. Moreover, every hero ability has a REQUIRED position for both the hero and enemy target. This is all fine and dandy until you your party gets shuffled around due to some unforeseen event, such as being surprised by an enemy party or being hit by certain enemy abilities.

The upside is that this also is true for the enemy, and you can often use skills to mess up their order as well. The huge down side is that sometimes your heroes can end up being in a position where they have no useable skills and simply can’t do anything except swap places, which wastes their turn. It can be a really hectic juggling act at times.

Stress: the much touted stress system within Darkest Dungeon adds a very interesting and yet frustrating layer to the game. Heroes will gain stress rather quickly as you explore and fight. During combat, taking a critical hit will add huge stress to your party, and certain enemies can even cast extra stress upon you. Should a hero’s stress hit their maximum tolerance, they will generally start to panic, which can manifest itself as a variety of negative effects such as being abusive or reckless or completely despondent. They can refuse to use abilities or attacke, may refuse to swap places, and even refuse to receive healing (such as my aforementioned Grave Robber…may she rest in peace). Stressed out heroes also tend to cause stress in other party members, meaning things can snowball out of control at any time. I have lost parties simply because they all freaked out and stopped doing anything useful. One interesting aspect is that sometimes, now and then, a hero will respond to stress with a fantastic boost in courage, bolstering their effectiveness and encouraging the other heroes. It doesn’t happen often but when it does it can go a long way to preventing disaster.

The stress system overall is an interesting concept, but as of yet I feel it needs some work. Currently the system is at the mercy of an over harsh random number generator with almost no meaningful ways of managing. When it was first described during the Kickstarter it sounded like an intense balancing act where stress had to be careful managed. Instead it is simply a system that ramps up quickly and you have to hope that it doesn’t mess things up too badly. Generally I have stopped thinking about it and simply play the game as if my party will always be at full stress, and that to me seems like a missed opportunity. However, all is not lost because it is early access and Red Hook has acknowledged that the system needs some work. I would have also have liked to see a similar system for the enemies whereby they could panic and give your party confidence, instead of just vice versa. I think it would make for a much more interesting push and pull system.

So those are the core combat mechanics that are all wrapped together in each battle, with every battle being intense and gritty. What is great about this is that it makes every victory a very sweet reward, and successfully clearing a dungeon or finishing a quest will feel like a huge accomplishment. In Darkest Dungeon, the lows are frequent and numerous, while the highs are intensely gratifying.

Before I close out this hands-on I must give props to the artistic style of Darkest Dungeon. As you can see from the screenshots and gameplay videos, the game uses what I can only describe as simulated paper cutouts with cel-shading. It is simply fantastic, and it works on so many levels within the foreboding and claustrophobic environment that Darkest Dungeon is shooting for. This is paired some great music and sound effects, which includes constant narration from an ever present disembodied voice that also goes a long way to keeping the mood dark and gritty. Everything in Darkest Dungeon screams fear and depression, and it really works well.

So that is Darkest Dungeon in a nut shell. So far the game is very polished, albeit missing some content due to its early access status. Oh, I do have the odd quibble about the game, but they are minor. Besides, the Red Hook devs are very involved in listening to user feedback so that gives me great confidence in the game’s future.  I do worry about whether or not the game will start to feel a bit grindy in the long run, but only time will tell.

Take that!

Darkest Dungeon is not yet available for mass early access, with only Kickstarter backers playing the game right now. It will be up for grabs by everyone soon on Steam, and so the question is whether or not Darkest Dungeon. Well, assuming that you like RPGs and like challenge, I think you should certainly give it some consideration. But make no mistake…you will curse, you will get frustrated, and you will swear that the game is unfair. You will lose countless heroes and fail countless quests. But, if you are anything like me, you will come back countless times simply because finally conquering that boss that has thwarted you over and over is such a glorious feeling. I can’t remember the last time a game made me savour victory this much.

Dungeon Darkest. It will stress you out, kick your ass, laugh at you, then do it all again. I love it.

 

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