"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 aren'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.
Combat and exploration are where Darkest Dungeon shines even more. Gritty but beautiful and detailed hand-drawn art makes up every room and battle, and the narrator's booming voice chimes in at all the right moments with memorable lines. Sometimes the narrator criticizes; other times, he is hopeful or simply observant. The sound design and animations are flawless. I would cringe when an enemy applied bleed or poison to my character because the effects made the destruction so convincing. As the party's torch starts to dwindle, torturous screams and unspeakable sounds can be heard and are genuinely unsettling. When stress is running high, it's palpable, and the narrator won't hesitate to criticize failure. At the same time, the narrator's omniscient commentary on the player's successes makes victory taste that much sweeter.
Back at the Home Estate, which is the player's hub, the town can be restored to greatness with heirlooms discovered during exploration. Upgrading the town has positive impacts on attracting higher level heroes and keeping them in good health and well-equipped, so it's beneficial to do so. But as was alluded to earlier, players are working with a limited inventory space. Between torches — darkness stresses out adventurers, but more loot is awarded in the dark — food, antivenom, bandages, keys for unlocking chests, tonics, quest objects and more, sacrifices must be made to make room for loot. Many times, I begrudgingly threw out bandages or even food to take home shiny treasures. Sometimes, I paid for that mistake in blood. The ability to make the choice and there to be repercussions is part of the beauty of Darkest Dungeon.
There are many other mechanics that there simply is not ample time or words to discuss: camping, positioning, torch levels, Death's Door and Deathblow, bleeding, blighting, buffing and debuffing, guarding, locking in quirks, the stagecoach, moving, traps, curios and more. Just know this: Darkest Dungeon is incredibly deep, and there are constantly new things to learn and master. Combined with the memorable narration and stunning presentation of visuals and sound makes for one addictive and satisfying experience. The only minor complaint is that with such a huge amount of options and information, some controls, as well as navigating the menus, aren't ideal.
With the game's depth comes a fair bit of difficulty, though it is lessened as players learn and master Darkest Dungeon's systems. It's understandable that one may fail the first few missions or have heroes die outright and become discouraged, but those who walk away so soon are missing out one of the best experiences to come to Xbox One in a long time. Once players are more adept — perhaps they started out on Radiant Mode, Darkest Dungeon's introductory difficulty — they can try their hand at the more advanced Darkest and Stygian Mode, the latter of which has conditions that will result in instant game overs. The presence of multiple difficulties brings replay value as each difficulty feels like a different game, and players seeking all manners of challenge can find their niche.
For achievement hunters, Darkest Dungeon already has 1,170 gamerscore because of its Crimson Court launch DLC (since the game has already been out for some time on PC, PS4 and mobile devices). Many can be obtained through regular play, completing tasks, beating the main storyline and fully upgrading the town. There are three achievements related to the harder difficulties, which are the toughest and most time consuming of the bunch and will be the only achievements standing in the way of a 100% completion for most players: beating the game with default difficulty options, beating the game on Darkest and beating the game on Stygian. The failure conditions for Stygian will pose a test to players' patience.
SummaryTo say Darkest Dungeon is a challenging and satisfying RPG doesn't seem like nearly enough praise. The sheer amount of customization — 15+ different classes, seven abilities per character to choose from, equippable trinkets, and much more besides — makes for a highly involved, appetizingly deep adventure that can be approached with many different play styles. The psychological and stress aspects add something unique that is not seen every day. All the while, the roar of the excellent narrator commentates the success and failures of the player as they progress through intricately hand-drawn environments and battles with sound design tailored to perfection. The handling of the game on console feels a little off since the title originated from PC, but don't miss out on Darkest Dungeon's incredible experience just for that reason.
- Deep experience that is both challenging and rewarding
- Fifteen different classes with seven abilities each allow for varied strategies and play styles
- Unique afflictions/stress system
- Striking visuals and impeccable sound design
- Unforgettable narration
- Some controls and menu navigation feel less than ideal on console
EthicsThe author sent heroes into the Darkest Dungeon for over 50 hours. Not everyone made it out alive. In the process, 44 achievements were earned for 720 gamerscore. An Xbox One code was provided by ID@Xbox for the purpose of this review.
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