After more than a week with Darkest Dungeon, I'm still not sure what to make of Red Hook Studios' psychological dungeon crawler. It's one of the most interesting games of the young year, and also one of the most frustrating.
The most important thing to understand about Darkest Dungeon, which became available via Early Access earlier this month, is that your party members are only a means to an end. At the end of the day they're cannon fodder perfectly worth discarding if it accomplishes a larger objective. They're not assets to throw away lightly, but even the highest-level heroes are eminently expendable. It is, in many ways, theear opposite of what you would expect from a traditional RPG, discarding the joy of watching your characters grow in favor of bigger picture objectives.
For me, at least, this has required a rather major shift in my thinking. Coming off Suikoden II, where every recruitable character is a special snowflake who has something to add to the group, Darkest Dungeon is jarring. Crusaders, lepers, thieves, and bounty hunters come in by the carriage load—faceless adventurers with only a handful of quirks to distinguish them, and then come out of Darkest Dungeon's myriad mazes as gibbering lunatics. In such an environment, sentiment is a weakness.
And yet, I want to like my heroes. I want to build up the perfect party, all of them armed to the teeth. The satisfaction of raising up a killer team is a large part of why I like RPGs in the first place. And that, perhaps, is why I keep failing.
A New Way of Thinking
In my first attempt at Darkest Dungeon, I lost four heroes almost immediately. This is not a rarity.
Adventuring in Darkest Dungeon is a tricky mix of luck, resource management, and knowing your limits. One of the first things it hammers into you is that discretion is indeed the better part of valor, and that it's often better to call it quits rather than trying to press onward at the risk of losing your entire party. As I inferred earlier, death in Darkest Dungeon is permanent, and there's no reloading if you lose a party member. Unfortunately for me, that lesson came at a high cost.
Not knowing when to call it a day and beat a hasty retreat is only one of several mistakes that newcomers often make when they first pick up Darkest Dungeon. Other mistakes include wasting money on de-stressing early adventurers, buying too many bandages, torches, and other supplies, and needlessly upgrading new party members. In fact, the only sin worse than squandering an entire party is to spend precious resources on heroes with a relatively short shelf life.
Even XCOM, which you could call its spiritual predecessor, isn't as callous about its adventurers as Darkest Dungeon. It's totally counterintuitive; and yet, there's also a rhyme and a reason to it all. You could call it a perverse version of natural selection. If a hero lives long enough, they will eventually get stronger, but it takes a lot of luck to live in Darkest Dungeon. Even the best characters have a pretty decent chance of suffering multiple critical hits in a row and perishing before a Vestal or Occultist can heal them.
If they don't die, then there's an equally good chance that they will become stressed out to the point that they become difficult to manage. Stress is denoted by a little white bar that rises as characters suffer damage, hunger, and other maladies, culminating in them receiving either a positive or negative buffs. The negative buffs can be extreme, resulting in big stress increases for other party members, an outright refusal to act, or self-damage. Positive buffs are more rare, but the benefits they confer are similarly strong, though it's not exactly worth rolling the dice trying to get them. Relieving stress after a dungeon is both time-consuming and expensive, requiring the character to sit out for a full run. It's also necessary though, as negative strength buffs have the potential to derail an entire expedition.
Early on, it's often better to simply dismiss a stressed out hero and rotate in whatever newcomers arrive via stagecoach, though even that strategy comes at the risk of certain classes becoming hard to find (Crusaders are particularly rare, at least for me). As always, you have to be hard-hearted and coldly calculating in Darkest Dungeon, investing your hard-earned money only in your most valuable adventurers and leaving the rest of die or go crazy.
I know all of this now, but it's been a hard path for me to follow. I've always liked to cast myself as sort of a leader of these digital men and women, nurturing them until they become powerful warriors (or in the case of Madden, football players). Watching them die is tough for me; I always flinch a bit when I see the word "Deathblow" appear on my screen and a character fades out of existence. But in the world of Darkest Dungeon, it is often the only way to get ahead.
For all that though, Darkest Dungeon still does its part to put you in the boots of your ill-fated adventurers. Its most effective moments often take place around the campfire, which is an opportunity to heal up wounds, apply buffs, and relieve stress, punctuated by protestations of camaraderie between party members. Adventurers also have their own quirks, whether its a lust for drink, a fear of the dark, or improved attack power in the light, with additional traits developing over time. Dialogue in Darkest Dungeon is used sparingly, but much like scars, the quirks tell their own story, whether they are earned from watching fellow adventurers fall in battle or contracting syphilis from spending too much time in the brothel. It's these moments that make the inevitable sacrifices all the more difficult.
I eventually ended up starting a new game, doing my best to incorporate the lessons I learned. The results so far have been mixed, to put it kindly. Early on, I had a good deal of success with a Highwayman/Highwayman/Plague Doctor/Occultist combo, with the Highwaymen dealing damage, the Occultist providing burst healing, and the Plague Doctor removing status ailments. But then my Occultist died, no replacements arrived on the stagecoach, and my Vestals (surprisingly) proved to be an inadequate replacement. Now I'm stuck in kind of a no man's land with dwindling resources and a roster loaded with stressed out adventurers, and I haven't even defeated the Apprentice Necromancer yet—the game's first boss.
I'm tempted to start from the beginning again, but I also want to put it aside and wait for a few more updates. With Darkest Dungeon still in the first weeks of Early Access, the balance feels out of whack, the ease with which stress is accrued being a particular sticking point. It's also harder than it should be to upgrade my characters. Dutifully saving money is helpful, but with buildings requiring certain heirlooms to unlock, progress quickly bottlenecks, at which point you start to feel as if you're just spinning your wheels as failures begin to pile up.
What Darkest Dungeon has going for it is outstanding art, a real sense of menace (the narrator, though slightly repetitive, adds a lot to the atmosphere), and most importantly, a near-perfect gameplay loop. Whether you succeed or fail, there's always the hope that the next run will be better somehow, and that you'll find the treasure and the party members you need to piece together a lasting run of success. Loot is practically non-existent, but there is a sense of progress to Darkest Dungeon, and it's deeply satisfying to finally knock out a boss and earn a boatload of treasure and money.
In subverting a lot of RPG conventions, Darkest Dungeon walks an extremely tricky line, risking frustration and alienation in the name of creating something unique. But the more I play it, the more I appreciate the nuances of its design, which is deeper than I initially supposed. My next run might not be for a while, but I've enjoyed it enough to want to come back, even after all the frustration of repeatedly watching my heroes suffer and die in the deep places of the earth. Give it a little more time, and Darkest Dungeon may indeed turn out to be something special.