Some great games deserve awards because they’re exactly what you wanted. They’re perfect, for their place, in their time. But there are others, the sort of game that’ll show up on “Most Influential” or “Cult Hit” lists ten years later, the sort of game that maybe it’s not quite perfect but it’s what you want the rest of the video game to pay attention to; that you want to say “these people are onto something!”
The latter category best suits Red Hook’s Darkest Dungeon, a game that sure as hell isn’t perfect, but a game that deserves all the attention it can possibly handle for all the things that it does right. Darkest Dungeon was released this week on PC, with a PS4/Vita release expected in the first half of this year.
Darkest Dungeon is at its core a brutal tactical role-playing game — a sort of dark fantasy XCOM — but that’s an insufficient description of exactly what makes this game so special. That specialness comes from three distinct components: its presentation and style, its role-playing depth, and the meta-game that incorporates both.
“Ruin has come to our family…”
The first thing you’ll notice loading in Darkest Dungeon is its narrator, solemnly intoning the occult-induced fall of an aristocratic family. The narrator dominates the initial presentation of DD, his sonorous voice and flowery verbiage detailing the game’s occurrences at every point. Check out this over-the-top example of a phrase that can come up when you run into a trap:
It’s a deliberately overwhelming performance by voice actor Wayne June, reminiscent of Logan Cunningham’s control over indie fave Bastion a few years back.
It would be excessive if the rest of the game wasn’t built to support this style, but the Lovecraftian gothic fantasy of Darkest Dungeon goes all-in on its themes. I was initially put off by the dark visual style and the simplicity of the animation, but in full context, Darkest Dungeon’s aesthetic works at multiple levels, unlike just about any game that’s not a straightforward story-based indie game about feelings. And Darkest Dungeon is certainly not that.
“Their formation is broken! Maintain this offensive.”
In addition to its singular style, Darkest Dungeon is also a deep, rewarding tactical role-playing game. You control a group of adventurers who venture through five different randomized dungeons, then develop a town to support them between dungeon crawls. It’s probably most similar to XCOM, although DD’s tactics take place on a two-dimensional plane.
But every mission turns into a series of interconnected choices. Each of the game’s dozen-plus classes is significantly different, and their skills can alter even those calculations. The classes are an interesting mix of unconventional ideas with classic forms, as befits the game’s setting and style. Some types are straightforward RPG types: a Crusader is a front-line fighter, a Vestal is a back-line healer. But others change the calculations: a Jester dances back and forth along the lines, while Bounty Hunters and Arbalests can mark enemies for bigger damage. These choices are relatively transparent for more casual players, but all of the math is out there for the more intense min-maxers to fiddle with.
Darkest Dungeon also steps back from contemporary RPG orthodoxy and centers the core element of challenge on the dungeon crawl, instead of an individual battle. That is, you’re maintaining your party over the course of several battles, not just one. And crucially, the game is built so that you cannot fully maintain the party — healing magic just isn’t powerful enough to keep everyone going in predictable fashion. So survival, as much as victory, becomes a motive in combat, meaning that there’s significantly more going on in each fight than just “hit the nearest enemy as hard as you can.”
This focus on variety and randomness helps DD conceptually, but it leads to its biggest (and perhaps only) problem: the difficulty doesn’t always work. The combination of increasingly longer dungeons, characters leveling up, boss fights, and enemies getting tougher comes at different speeds, meaning that at times the game suddenly becomes much easier or much harder, and it’s hard to tell if that’s a temporary outlier or a major change in how Darkest Dungeon works.
Yet even with that issue, Darkest Dungeon still has a trick up its sleeve that makes it worth emulating.
“Reeling. Gasping. Taken over the edge, into madness.”
Darkest Dungeon ties its impressive theme and complicated mechanics together with a neat little bow: its stress meter. Adventurers don’t just have their bodily hit points to worry about, they also have mental health. So running into a trap doesn’t just make them bleed a little, it also stresses them out.
When their stress level hits a maximum, characters hit their breaking point. At 100, their sanity level will probably ruin their lives: they’ll probably turn Abusive, or Masochistic, and make all their fellow party members more stressed out, and occasionally ignore player commands, like masochistic characters refusing healing. But the sanity of characters isn’t a simply linear progression: some of the time, high stress will make characters turn Focused or Stalwart, and actually make them better in their adventures. It’s the last part that makes Darkest Dungeon’s treatment of mental health actually work, both conceptually and pragmatically.
And it makes everything in the game work together. The narrator, whose worries are about the stresses of power of privilege and dark magic? He’s most concerned about the mental fortitude of the players’ adventurers. The Cthulu-esque influences are most felt early in enemies like the Cultists, whose attacks damage character sanity as often as they do health. Even character classes like the Abomination, a sort of were-beasts, depends on stress levels. He’s a decent fighter, but if need be, he can also turn into a more powerful beast at the cost of the rest of the party’s sanity.
All of these considerations are tied together, and all of them are directly supported by how the game looks, sounds, and feels. “This is a game about the collapse of good intentions,” says Darkest Dungeon explicitly. But it also says the exact same thing implicitly, every time you try to push too far with characters who aren’t capable. And in the town section of the game, managing stress levels — by sending characters to the bar, brothel, or chapel — becomes both the dominant form of management and the main thing stopping players from just sending their best party into dungeons every time.
This is the key to Darkest Dungeon; what keeps it from being a flawed game with interesting ideas and instead turns it into one of the best and most interesting role-playing games in years. Everything fits together. Darkest Dungeon has the style, has the substance, and has the interconnectivity between the two to make it a must-play game.