Jiffies exist. You probably thought saying “in a jiffy” was just hip slang, daddio. But it’s science, ya dig? A “jiffy” measures the time it takes light to travel one centimeter.
It’s infinitesimal, really, measuring something so fast across a distance so small. But sometimes you need a jiffy, just one, before the lights go out. Especially if you’re traversing the ruins beneath a cursed ancestral estate, where the distance between light and dark is measured in life and death.
Such is the premise for Darkest Dungeon. Released in 2016 from Red Hook Studios, Darkest Dungeon is one of those scrummy indie mouthfuls: a turn-based, side-scrolling, gothic, roguelite, dungeon-crawler RPG. But these obtuse labels capture one thing that’s true about this game — it’s good, and it’s complicated.
Darkest Dungeon begins with a simple preamble. Players assume the role of a caretaker for a once-prominent estate that fell victim to dark, malevolent forces after the discovery of a demonic gateway deep below the ground. The result is that the grounds are now chock full of traps, monsters, brigands and netherworld horrors and it's up to you to hire some adventurers who can vanquish evil once and for all.
And you’ll hire a lot of them, because Darkest Dungeon isn’t some hero’s journey. The core gameplay centers on recruiting an ever-changing roster of intrepid adventurers, training them and, most interestingly, helping them recover from their trauma.
In addition to your standard health and experience points, your heroes will accrue stress. Too much mental trauma can result in one of dozens of negative effects, like a debilitating fear of animals that reduces combat effectiveness or an abusive personality that brings the whole team down. Most of your new recruits end up dead, and even your precious few veterans can fall victim to bad circumstances as challenges increase.
Then there’s the light. Darkest Dungeon takes its name literally, and every foray into coves, wealds and warrens requires a steady supply of torches. The brighter your light, the easier your journey. But you don’t get the good loot by being easy. Let the lights go all the way out and you’re in for the fight of your life, but the spoils are ludicrous. And don’t worry if you get in over your head. You can always retreat from an adventure, but this incurs some high stress penalties. Some parties are worth saving, some aren’t. The underlying strategy is in quite literally picking your battles.
The battles themselves are fantastic. The heartbeat of this game is in how well it delivers the “easy to learn, hard to master” curve of a great turn-based RPG. Parties are a mix of standard classes (support, DPS, tank, etc) but the devil is in the details when it comes to the environments and challenges ahead. You eventually unlock the ability to camp on longer journeys, opening up a secondary system for healing and recovery that adds another dimension of skills to your heroes.
There are lots of other RPG goodness you’d expect, too. Items and equipment for days, perilous decision points (should you open that spooky chest?) buildings you can upgrade to better serve your expeditions, and a veneer of gothic aesthetics that makes it feel like you’re deep in a Victorian-era horror story.
And did I mention it’s on a massive discount ($3.74!) in the Steam store until January 5? It’s also available on Game Pass and for sale on PlayStation and Switch, too. So if you’re in the mood for something tactical and terrifying, check it out ASAP.