Darkest Dungeon is absolutely massive and is very complex. As such, I feel like I could not fairly review it until reaching a fair way through the game if not completing it entirely. It might take another week or two before my full review is ready, so I wanted to write a quick article sharing my first impressions of this wonderful yet stressful game.
I started playing Darkest Dungeon a few days ago, and the game did not turn out as I had expected. After seeing the trailer and its similarities to another indie title called Has Been Heroes, I anticipated Darkest Dungeon to be a short, procedurally generated game in which you just start the whole game over when you die. Oh boy, was I wrong in the best way possible.
The individual levels are in fact procedurally generated. You progress by walking forward until you reach a door and then can select a direction with the analog stick point on the map to the next room you would like to go to. You can also touch the screen to select where you would like to go in handheld mode. Yes, this game is fully touch compatible.
Excellent Use Of Touch Controls
As many of you who frequently read my reviews may know, I highly value it when a dev incorporates the special features of the Switch. Here, the use of touch controls in handheld mode perfectly complements this style of RPG. I found it to be extremely convenient to be able to be able to switch between the touch controls and button controls while navigating the complex menus. There are also several locations in the village where simply touching the location you want to visit is far more convenient than scrolling through the buildings with the sticks.
I didn’t really like using the touch controls to move my characters while exploring the dungeons. I very rarely find it to work very well to use touch controls in this manner, and this is the case here as well. However, the option still exists for those times when it simply isn’t convenient to hook up the Joycon while you are on the go.
The touch controls in this game when coupled together with the joycon makes it an absolute joy to play on the Switch. These two features just mesh together perfectly, and when used in this way does not feel in any way like a gimmick. Having the option to play a game like this on the TV for that console experience then getting to play it on the go with the perfect melding of a handheld experience with the smartphone touch screen experience makes the Switch the best system to play this game on in my opinion.
Turn Based Combat
This is through and through a turn-based RPG. You embark on your quests with four recruited characters, and they can be lined up in a row. Each one has a selection of skills with four of which that can be equipped at any one time. These skills each have a series of four circles on the left side and four circles on the right side.
If the left-side circles are filled in, that indicates the attack can be used if the character is in that position in the line up. The circles on the right side indicates which positions on the enemy line up you can attack with that skill. For example, some ranged attacks can only be used by you if your character is in the 3rd or rear position, and they can only attack enemies in the back row as well. There are some melee attacks which can only be performed while your character is in the front two rows and can only attack enemies in the front. You will need to judge the strengths of each character while composing your party so they can support one another while still being able to fight effectively.
Awesome Attacking Animations
I absolutely love the way attacks unfold in Darkest Dungeon. Overall, the art style is really well done and the characters stand out, but walking around isn’t very exciting since the characters don’t have very complex moving animations. However, in combat, this is somewhat different and it perfectly accentuates the art style and depravity of the situation with out being overly complex. This is done simply by having the camera zoom in on the characters involved in the attack quickly and pausing at the moment of impact to emphasize it.
Doing this makes each attack feel satisfying and indicates that this was a case of excellent resource management on the part of the devs. Without needing to make dozens of unique animations on each character to keep the game feeling fresh, they made each attack feel satisfying with this simple trick of the camera. You can also turn this camera effect off in the menu if you don’t like it as well.
Losing Your Sanity
As you progress, you will need to keep your path lit by using torches. If you fail to do this and keep your torch level high enough, the darkness will slowly seep into your sanity breaking your characters psychologically in a variety of ways. This is by far my favorite feature of this game.
If you aren’t careful and your character builds a level of stress up to 100 points, the camera will zoom in on them dramatically and will reveal a new psychological issue. This is referred to in the game as an affliction. These can range from Selfishness by which that character will begin stealing treasures from chests before you can get them to Masochism which means they sure love the feeling of searing pain and will actually damage themselves before every turn.
Each character class also has a variety of phrases they will say and actions they’ll take if they have one of these afflictions. One of my favorite and most stressful situations so far was when my Plague Doctor, Hynde, had all but gone insane. I don’t remember what exactly his affliction was, but he was on his last legs. Nearly dead, I tried to have my Vestal heal him. Then, Hynde responded to her by saying, “Healing is the disease,” and refused to be healed. Then, he proceeded to poison my group leader. Needless to say, I was white knuckling that battle thanks to the permadeath feature Darkest Dungeon employs.
When a character reaches a stress level of 100, they won’t always develop a negative affliction. They can also become heroic which allows them to provide the group with bonuses or become a little more powerful. This seems to be much rarer than developing a negative affliction. I have only had this happen twice, so I don’t know enough about it to elaborate on it further in this article.
As you explore, you will come across a variety of bookshelves, shrines, chests, traps and thing of that nature. By selecting a character, you can have them check it. Occasionally, these will provide that character with a new personality quirk. Sometimes these will be positive such as Slugger which increases all of your melee damage with that character by 10%. There are also negative quirks such as Cave Phobe which increases that character’s stress by 20% while in a cave. If that person goes into a cave, they will lose their minds quickly.
If your characters somehow manage to survive a trip into the wilderness, then they will likely be a shattered mess upon reaching back to base camp. Then, if you try taking them back into a new dungeon, their problems will only compound even worse. If that stress level reaches 200 points, they can even die of heart attacks. However, there are some places you can take them to heal these negative effects and reduce their stress.
The tavern allows one of your teammates to remain behind for a week while your other adventurers go out exploring and will reduce their stress levels. If their stress falls below 100, their affliction will be healed. There are three places to visit in the tavern: the bar, the gambling house and the brothel. The ability to visit these can be affected by your characters quirks and can even leave you with new quirks. For example, I had once left my highwayman character in the tavern, and when I came back he had a new negative quirk called Resolution which prevented him from drinking in town anymore. I have another character who had a quirk called Deviant Tastes when I recruited him. He was “not allowed to visit the brothel. For reasons best left to discretion.”
Connecting With The Characters
There are a large variety of characters to recruit, and each one comes with several skills to learn and upgrade. I loved how unique each individual felt thanks to all of their quirks, their afflictions and the abilities I gave them. The game encourages you to become connected with these individuals, and it is stressful knowing that your best ones could be ticking time bombs ready to go off. They can lose their grip on reality which can sometimes result in them leveling themselves defenseless or even killing themselves. You end up spending all of your money just trying to keep these select few alive so they can keep getting stronger by upgrading them at the blacksmith or at the guild and by keeping their sanity in check.
While this is very stressful for me as the player, it also forces me to remain vigilant when I send them into the darkest depths. This will turn some people off, but this permadeath and affliction feature is precisely what makes this game compelling for me.
To sum it up as succinctly as possible, this game is dark. It is stressful. It will force you to carefully manage your resources, and you will sometimes have to decide when you throw away characters so your favorite ones can survive. And even if they survive, what will be left of them as their very sanity withers away?