“More dust, more ashes, more disappointment!” Darkest Dungeon’s haunting narrator bellows as one of my favorite heroes, a maximum level Plague Doctor outfitted with all the best weapons, armor, trinkets and specializations that gold can buy, dies. The hero had been a victim to not only the onslaught of abominations she’d been fighting but rapidly deteriorating sanity that claimed her mind in the end. The boss collapses on the next turn. The mission was a success, but the cost of victory was a life.
Bittersweet moments like this one are standard fare in Red Hook Studios’ Darkest Dungeon. A simple description of the game is that it’s about making tough choices. Whether it’s the permanent character death that makes one think twice about which heroes are sent on quests, the limited inventory system that forces the player to choose between bare necessities or loot, or the fact that using the right or wrong ability in combat can mean certain death, decisions are everything. A more complex definition would be, in Red Hook’s own words, a “challenging gothic roguelike turn-based RPG about the psychological stresses of adventuring.” Whatever it is, Darkest Dungeon is a great game.
The story goes that a distant ancestor released unspeakable horrors into the world, infesting the once-prominent town and tarnishing the good name of the family to which the ancestor belonged. Bits and pieces of the tale are told through Darkest Dungeon’s narrator, excellently voiced by Wayne June. The tone starts rather depressingly, and the ancestor talks often of his “failings.” The player is encouraged to assemble a barracks full of heroes to fight back against the horrors crawling the property.
The word that stands out in Red Hook’s definition is “psychological,” and indeed a stress mechanic is one attribute that makes Darkest Dungeon unique. Though called “heroes,” the characters are human and act like it. Sending parties into damp, unlit dungeons to fight off nightmarish creatures in turn-based combat takes its toll. Heroes become paranoid, abusive, masochistic, irrational, even selfish. They refuse the player’s commands. They claim loot for their own stashes. They develop phobias and addictions or become susceptible to disease and other problems. Others find glory in the face of fear, becoming beacons of hope guiding the party to victory. The stress mechanic makes this RPG much more than just managing health bars, armor or damage numbers. Heroes aren’t just disposable NPCs; they’re people, and it stings when they die.
That’s not to say health, armor, and damage isn’t important in Darkest Dungeon. Delving into dungeons is no small task, especially since roguelike elements keep players from knowing what lies ahead. Organizing a cohesive party and outfitting them accordingly is paramount, and Darkest Dungeon’s 15 different hero classes, each with seven different abilities from which four can be equipped before every battle plus two selectable trinkets, provide for countless strategies and play styles. The classes are varied with different specialties. Some are combat experts. Others are no great shakes with a sword but will find gold and valuables in every nook and cranny. Others are morale boosters, keeping the torch lit and the party in high spirits. Some specialize in bleed, others in blight, and others in buffing their companions. Heroes must relax at the home base after a taxing outing, which is a clever way to prevent the player from slipping into the habit of using the same party every time, forcing new strategies to be forged. Huge amounts of customization and the tweaking of heroes’ attributes invite welcome depth.