Darkest Dungeon was released over half a year ago and I’ve been playing it off-and-on ever since I got it in the Steam summer sale several months ago, but I don’t have any D&D sessions to write about until this afternoon (and the rest of the weekend), so I’m going to give my thoughts on the game now.
My first thought is that if someone tried to design a game specifically for me, Darkest Dungeon is what they might come up with. It’s got a dark and oppressive mood, but that darkness can be pushed back, one bloody sacrifice at a time.
It’s got a bunch of classes and monsters that are similar enough to standard fantasy fare that I don’t feel like I’m being left adrift in a sea of nonsense proper nouns and made-up jargon (offenders in this category often commit the double sin of leaving me adrift in this sea, and then when I get my bearings it turns out the setting is actually standard fantasy fare anyway, they just renamed all the elves and dwarves and dragons), but moved firmly in a lower-magic and more early 16th century millieu where gunpowder weapons and heavy cavalry exist alongside one another. New enough to be interesting, but not so desperate to carve out an identity for themselves that they’re unwilling to ever rely on classic tropes when they’re appropriate. The swinefolk are vaguely orcish, but their new and gruesome backstory makes them the most interesting take on orcs since Warcraft first made them sympathetic characters clear back in 2002. The fish folk of the Cove are taken straight from Lovecraft’s Deep Ones (and thus have some similarity to standard D&D baddy the sahuagin, who have the same ancestor), but their abduction of the Siren to turn her into “their queen, and their slave” is a new and reasonably unsettling take on the standard Innsmouth plot. The Highwayman, the Vestal, and the Occultist are new takes on the Rogue, Cleric, and Wizard more appropriate to the darker tone and more advanced tech of the pike-and-shot setting (Occultist to Wizard is actually a bit of a stretch, even, because of how different magic is portrayed in Darkest Dungeon as opposed to standard D&D).
Every fight has consequences. When heroes die, they stay dead. At the same time, it’s not the punishing restarts of a Roguelike, where the consequence of failure is that the story is over and you have to start over. This creates an anti-immersive set of incentives, where the fear is “if I lose this battle, I’ll have to start all over” rather than “if I lose this battle, all is lost!” Instead, the permanent deaths but infinite replaceability of heroes presents the feeling of “if I lose this battle, I’ll have lost many powerful minions and it could be a long time before I can replace them,” and that makes as much sense in-character as out.
The combat is a fairly straightforward turn-based system. Each hero can learn up to seven skills and can have four of them equipped for any given battle. Marching order matters, since only the front two positions can engage in melee and some attacks only work from the two ranged positions in the back, or even from the two middle positions, or the front three (including the nearest ranged position, often representing a skirmisher character who’s nimble enough to make melee attacks from the back row). Monsters follow the same rules, and various attacks from heroes and monsters can forcibly rearrange the order of the enemies, bringing weak healers to the front to get mulched by powerful front liners like the Man-at-Arms (Fighter (mostly)), Hellion (Barbarian), and Leper (Awesome) or push powerful enemies to the back rank where they have to resort to making weaker attacks (which usually also push them back to the front of the enemy party, requiring that they be pushed back again).
While in battle, heroes accumulate stress. If their stress reaches 100, they will either break and acquire a negative personality of some kind like “hopeless,” “selfish,” or “masochist” (the latter of which is rather more concerning on a battlefield when you kind of need to be in the best physical condition possible than in the bedroom where you are on the bed right now and can sleep it off as soon as you’re done), or, if you’re lucky, they’ll become something like “resolute.” In the former case, they’ll sometimes refuse to follow instructions and instead use a random attack, switch positions to be closer or farther from the enemy (sometimes disrupting a carefully balanced party formation such that one or two of your party members may not have any effective attacks until they switch back), or refuse healing. In the latter case, they’ll give mid-combat pep talks that will reduce the other party members’ stress by three or four points. At 200 stress, characters suffer a heart attack that reduces HP to 0. At 0 HP, characters are at death’s door. They take a debuff and any time they take damage they have a chance of suffering a deathblow, finishing them for keeps. Even if healed back to normal HP, the debuff persists.
Health is immediately restored to maximum upon exiting the dungeon, but stress is only reduced down to 100, and further healing requires a visit to the tavern or the church for booze, gambling, or BDSM with a hooker (for the tavern) or meditation, prayer, or BDSM on your own (for the church). Upgrading the town with recovered treasure makes stress recovery cheaper and more effective and also allows for the purchase of upgraded skills and equipment for the heroes, so slowly upgrading your town is a main focus of much of the game (up until the endgame, when you run out of upgrades).
I like all of this. I like that defeat has consequences that don’t interrupt the story with a reload or restart. I like that death lurks around every corner and you have to be cautious. I like that heroes slowly go nuts as they adventure, and how sometimes a hero pushed to their limit actually becomes redoubled against the enemy and gets bonuses instead of penalties (but also that this is rare enough that you can’t count on it).
There is one thing I don’t like about Darkest Dungeon. The heroes you can recruit are randomly selected and they are always (due to building upgrade prerequisites) badly underleveled compared to the strength of the bosses you’re currently tangling with. This means you need to take them leveling to rebuild them up to the point where they can be effective against the current boss you’re trying to clear. I’m glad that defeat has consequences that don’t break the narrative, but God, it is such a chore to rebuild these guys, and doubly so because the hero you get is randomized. My maxed out stagecoach brings me seven heroes a week (weeks being the standard unit of time outside of the dungeon). On average, four are useless level 0 punks I haven’t touched since the midgame (and even then only when desperate). Two are level 1 or 2 yokels who I often resign myself to building up to level 5, which is where I need them to fight the bosses I’m currently facing (not quite the final dungeon, but close – for the final dungeon, I’ll need level 6, the max). Usually I have only one level 3 character, sometimes none, and almost never two or more (brand new recruits are never higher than level 3 no matter how much you’ve upgraded the town).
So let’s say that, for example, I brought a level 6 Leper to fight the Drowned Crew, a boss that requires a powerful front liner to spit out lots of damage to a melee enemy who constantly heals the boss if you don’t hit him hard and often. Let’s also say that due to a gamble that didn’t pan out on the way to the boss, this Leper dies (this example may not be entirely hypothetical). No way of beating a level 5 boss with a three-man party, so I retreat. Fair enough – I made a gamble I shouldn’t have and there have been consequences. I like that. But now in order to recover, I need to:
-Wait until a Leper shows up in the stagecoach. I get seven random heroes each week, and there’s fifteen classes total. The heroes seem to favor coming in batches, i.e. two or three of the same class at once, so it could be another 5+ dungeon crawls before a replacement Leper even shows up.
-Level up the Leper to 5 again (preferably 6). He’ll probably take enough stress to require a week off healing in between each dungeon crawl, so half of the dungeon crawls during this time will be for leveling other, unrelated heroes, who fulfill party roles I don’t especially need for the current crop of bosses and may never need again (maybe I’m just not using them right, but is there any particularly good use for an Antiquarian or an Abomination?). If I’m so lucky as to have had a level 3 Leper, this might be as few as 3 dungeon crawls, with a rest in between each, which means six dungeon crawls (half of them undertaken without the Leper) before I’m ready to go again. No, you cannot forego a dungeon crawl for one week in order to get your heroes rested up while saving more real time, although you can begin a dungeon crawl and immediately retreat (which inflicts stress on the fleeing heroes). It’s more likely that I’ll be facing 8-10 dungeon crawls to get a level 1 or 2 Leper up to 5.
-Now I can finally take a stab at the boss again, but if I mess up and lose another character, I have to start the process over again, and complete an additional dozen-odd dungeon crawls to get back to where I was before.
In the mid-levels, losing a hero meant being forced to make do with someone who could play a similar role for a while. In the late game, the bosses are too nasty to rely on someone with a similar skillset. You need to be optimal, so losing a hero means you need to work on cultivating an exact duplicate (if you’re lucky, another class might be equally good at serving the role you need and have a different secondary role, but this is not always the case) – and you have very little control over how long it takes for someone of the right class to even be available for recruitment.
Despite how sluggish the late game is, though, I think the fact that I’ve sunk fifty-two hours into this thing means I’m pretty much obligated to recommend it. It’s perfectly fun for the early and mid game, and even in the late game it’s a lot of fun when you have your team working. I just need a week-long break to brace myself for 10+ dungeons of slog every time I lose a vital hero.