Darkest Dungeon Review

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Eschalon: Book II

Developer:Red Hook Studios
Release Date:2016-01-19
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Buy this Game: Amazon ebay

Darkest Dungeon is a turn-based role-playing game from Red Hook Studios.  It's unusual in that while it has a random campaign filled with random quests, it's not really a roguelike, and while it contains all the combat one could possibly want, its focus is more on the punishing aspects of adventuring rather than the glory.  So Darkest Dungeon provides an unusual mix of ideas, which is always nice to see in these days of increasingly vanilla games.

When Darkest Dungeon starts up, you're given a pair of heroes, and you're tasked with making your way to the hamlet where your family estate is located.  This tutorial trip isn't easy -- you might lose one or both of your heroes before it ends -- but it's a sign of things to come.  Heroes in the game take damage and get stressed, contract diseases and quirks, starve if they're not properly fed, and have heart attacks if they're pushed too far.  Keeping your heroes in working order is just as important as gaining them levels and equipping them with the best loot.

Heroes in Darkest Dungeon can be one of 15 classes, including Crusader (melee tank), Vestal (healer), Grave Robber (knife thrower), and Antiquarian (gold finder).  You don't get to pick the class for your heroes; they just show up once a week on a stagecoach, and you select the ones you want to add to your roster.  Heroes automatically receive a weapon and armor, they have seven possible combat skills they can use (only four of which can be active at once), and they can wear a pair of trinkets.  The weapons, armor and skills are fixed, although you can upgrade them by spending gold.  You only get to choose your heroes' skill loadout and the trinkets they wear.

As an example, the Grave Robber's seven skills are Flashing Daggers (double knife throw), Lunge (melee attack with movement), Pick to the Face (melee attack), Poison Dart (damage over time attack), Shadow Fade (stunning attack with movement), and Thrown Dagger (single knife throw).  So you have to decide things like if you want your Grave Robber to be melee or ranged, how much you want her to move around, and what types of attacks you want her to make -- and then equip her with trinkets that hopefully complement those decisions.

The skills are actually more complicated than they look.  When you pick four heroes to go out adventuring together, each one is placed in a certain position in the group, and that ends up being important because skills can only be used in certain positions, and they can only hit certain positions in the enemy's ranks.  So along with everything else, you have to make sure that your heroes are useful in the position you're putting them in, and that they can do useful things against a variety of enemy positions.  One of the more annoying attacks enemies can make is to shuffle your adventuring group around so everybody is in the wrong place (which is why movement skills can be important; otherwise heroes have to waste a turn in combat changing their position).

You start off each week in the hamlet with your estate.  You can send four of your heroes off to complete a quest while the rest of your heroes kick back and recuperate.  Two of the buildings in the hamlet (the tavern and the abbey) reduce stress, while another (the sanitarium) deals with diseases and quirks.  You also have buildings that sell trinkets, improve your heroes' weapons and armor, and add / upgrade skills.  The buildings start out very basic, but you can improve them as you play by spending heirlooms (found during quests) on them.  Any hero who isn't sent to a building simply relaxes and eliminates a bit of stress for free.

Quests come in a variety of shapes and sizes.  The length can be short, medium, or long.  The difficulty can be apprentice, veteran, or champion.  The theme can be the ruins, the warrens, the cove, or the weald.  The objective can be to kill things, find things, activate things, or simply explore.  Quests reward gold (for purchasing upgrades and trinkets), heirlooms (for upgrading the hamlet), a trinket, and experience (but only for the heroes who go on the quest).

Each quest puts your party of heroes into a dungeon-like setting, where they travel down hallways and move from room to room.  While exploring these locations, they sometimes encounter enemies, and they sometimes find "curios" (aka interactive objects).  Enemies always attack, but curios can sometimes be good or bad.  For example, a treasure chest is a curio, and it can either give you loot, or it can activate a trap, damaging you and giving you nothing.  There are also confessionals, torch stands, dinner carts, spiderwebs, and more.  Nicely, some items -- like a key for the treasure chest -- guarantee you a "good" result for a curio, and part of the game is learning how the curios work.

Quests also require your heroes to carry torches and food.  The brighter the environment is, the easier your explorations are, but the worse the loot is, so you have to balance how dark you can make things and still survive.  Meanwhile, every so often your heroes get hungry, and if they don't receive food then they get stressed and take damage.  Longer quests allow you to camp to heal damage and stress, but camping requires food as well, so you have to carry a lot of it to be safe.

Complicating matters is that your party of heroes has limited inventory space.  They only get 16 slots total for items, and this includes basic supplies (like food and torches), healing supplies (like bandages and medicinal herbs), and the loot you find.  So you have to be careful when outfitting your heroes for a quest so you don't waste space on supplies you're not going to use.  And even if you are careful, you're almost guaranteed to find more loot than you can carry, so you have to make decisions between gold, heirlooms, and trinkets all the time.

When your heroes are exploring, the game proceeds at your pace.  That is, your light level only dims, your heroes only get hungry, and enemies only appear when you move.  If you don't do anything, then nothing happens.  Then when a fight starts up, the game switches to turn-based combat, where each participant gets one action per round (except for bosses, who can usually do more than that).

The combat in Darkest Dungeon is surprisingly varied and effective.  Your party of four heroes always faces off against four or fewer enemies, making each battle "even," but your heroes are only allowed to do a handful of things on their turn: they can use as many supplies as they want for free (which isn't as powerful as it sounds since none of the supplies do any healing), but after that they only get one action: they can change their position, they can pass their turn (and take stress), or they can use one of their four combat skills.  That's it.

The reason combat works so well is because there is a lot of variety to the enemies that you face and how they attack you, there is enough randomness so you can't take any battle for granted, and the high level fights are consistently challenging, even when your heroes are as powerful as possible.  There are also numerous ways to attack and defend, and you have to keep changing your tactics based on what you're facing and how the battle is going.  So nothing about combat becomes rote.  You have to pay attention and think about what you're doing.

As an example, the game gives characters defensive stats against everything.  Dodge allows you to avoid attacks if you can beat your opponent's Accuracy.  Protection reduces the amount of damage that you take, unless you're taking poison or bleed damage, and then it doesn't do anything.  There are also specific defenses against bleed, poison, debuff, stun, and movement attacks.  So if you face an enemy with a high Protection, then maybe you try bleed or poison damage against it, or maybe you try to keep stunning it while you wear it down, or maybe you debuff its damage and accuracy so it doesn't hurt you much if it's even able to hit you at all.  Or maybe you ignore it if its friends are causing you more problems than it is, or if you can simply kill them more quickly.  The variety to the available strategies is excellent.  There's always something to try, and no single strategy is the best answer for everything.

Of course, not all battles go well, and since the game auto-saves after everything, you can't simply load and try again.  When your heroes lose all of their health, they move to "death's door," and any subsequent damage (including bleed or poison effects) can kill them, which permanently removes them from the game.  If a hero dies but you win the battle, then you get their trinkets back, but if you have to flee (which causes a lot of stress), then you lose the items.  And if your entire party wipes, then you lose everything.  Luckily, if your heroes die, then it's annoying but it doesn't end the game (which is why I wouldn't characterize Darkest Dungeon as a roguelike).  You just have to recruit and build up other heroes to replace them, which costs time and money but nothing else.

Along with regular quests, there are also special boss quests where you're required to defeat a very powerful creature.  Each of the game's four regions has two bosses that come in three difficulties (for 24 boss fights total), and there are also four random-ish bosses who can appear during regular quests, or who can show up during special hamlet events, like a giant bird who steals some of your trinkets, and you have to defeat it to get your stuff back.  Boss fights tend to be difficult, and they often require hero parties that are tuned for the task.  For example, to defeat the bird boss, you have to kill it within four rounds of combat, which means you have to focus way more on offense than defense.

Because heroes take a lot of stress during quests -- just exploring causes stress, and enemies can deal stress damage as well -- they frequently have to rest for a week after completing a quest.  And if they pick up a negative quirk or a disease you don't like, then they might have to sit out for multiple weeks while those are removed as well.  That means Darkest Dungeon isn't one of those games where you just pick your four favorite heroes and have them do everything.  You have to build up a large number of heroes and then rotate them into and out of your active party as their health and your quest objectives dictate.

To win a game of Darkest Dungeon, you have to beat four special high-level quests (which are about the only fixed parts of the game).  These quests require you to sacrifice a hero if you want to flee from them, and the final quest can't be aborted at all, meaning it's easy to lose some of your heroes when you try them out.  Annoyingly, heroes who beat one of the final quests aren't allowed to go on any of the others, and this means you need to build up at least 16 maxed-out heroes -- and realistically several more -- to finish the game.  This "no repeat" rule turns Darkest Dungeon from being sort of grindy into being excessively grindy, which is unfortunate since otherwise it works so well.

When I played Darkest Dungeon, I chose the "radiant" difficulty setting, which is supposed to be the quickest version of the game.  This ended up being a lucky mistake for me.  I thought Darkest Dungeon was going to be like other roguelikes, where you fail multiple times before eventually succeeding, and so my initial plan was to start with the easiest setting and then make things more difficult as I went along.  But even playing on the "radiant" setting, the campaign took me over 130 game weeks and 70 real life hours to complete, and I can't imagine what it might be like playing on the "darkest" (default) or "stygian" (extra hard) settings.

As it is, I really liked Darkest Dungeon when I first started playing it, but then all of the grinding required to build up my heroes started wearing me down, and by the end almost all of my goodwill had eroded away.  The main culprit was the "no repeat" rule, which added somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-20 hours to my playing time, where nothing I did or saw during that time was new or interesting or fun.  It just added unnecessary padding.

Still, Darkest Dungeon has a lot of redeeming features going for it, especially if long, grindy games don't bother you much.  The variety to the heroes and enemies is great, the battles stay interesting and challenging from start to finish, and while the art style isn't fancy (or even 3D), it is effective in channeling the mood of the game and portraying events in a graphic novel sort of way.  Plus, I didn't encounter a single bug during my playthorugh, and the game is relatively cheap at its $25 asking price.  So while I didn't always enjoy my time with Darkest Dungeon, it has enough quality to it that I don't mind recommending it anyway.  It's a game that's worthwhile to play at least once just to try it out.