Your have inherited a cursed land. Your father, gripped in the clutches of an insatiable lust for power and extravagance, sought out a rumored place which would lead to a place of unfathomable splendors. Finding it unleashes hordes of demon spawn onto your land reducing it to a hellish wasteland. It is now up to you to hire mercenaries to help you take back your homeland from the foul creatures who have inhabited it.
The story unfolds slows, but it is written phenomenally well. Every single sentence is full of descriptive adjectives which paint a very vivid image. Even short little quips from the narrator during gameplay felt like they added greatly to the experience. However, the greatest example of the writing in this game comes from the excellent journal entries which you will uncover while exploring.
Well-Written Journal Entries
Occasionally, you will find bloody sheets of paper with detailed recounts of several doomed parties’ attempts at exploring the wretched lands. Each one of these are so dark and excellently written that they felt like they could have easily fit into a Stephen King novel or Edgar Allen Poe story. These add to the story in a way similar to how books in Skyrim give you insight into the lore of the land. The journal entries in this game do the same by showing the absolute hopelessness which most befalls most people when they enter these lands.
Themes of Fear, Stress and Heroics
A set story isn’t necessarily told when you venture out into each dungeon, but the story sort of actively writes itself as you play based on how your characters develop. As their stress levels raise, they will develop certain problems called afflictions, and how they speak and interact with one another changes based on this. You will end up with a different sort of story every time you play thanks to this. Additionally, your characters can overcome their stress and become heroic which also affects your characters’ dialogue. All these things work together to bring the characters to life.
A Story of Your Own Telling
This is the kind of game which you can have a lot of stories to tell because of how your characters develop problems and the kind of desperate situations you encounter. With some slight embellishing, here is my terrifying tale of my premier team’s first encounter with a boss:
With the tantalizing promise of a very rare trinket offering a powerful boost to our forces, I decided to risk venturing into the fetid den of the swine folk guarded by a hulking beast known as the Swine Prince. I gathered together my most powerful force comprised of Reynold the holy crusader, Dismas the gunslinging highwayman, and my two healing vestals, Stanley and Caradas. Bolstered with confidence from my forces recent victories and their growing strength, I sent them on a doomed quest.
They began their venture of strong spirit and mind. Immediately, they found that they were able to scout out the first several rooms and were able to bypass several battles. Even those damned beings which they encountered did little to slow them down. It wasn’t long before they found the lair of the detestable beast.
Before engaging in combat with the leader of the swines, they decided to establish camp for the night and prepare for the battle to come. After everyone ravenously devoured all of the remaining food rations, Reynold gave the group an encouraging speech, and Stanley provided the group with divine protection through the night. The following morning, they set out to attempt to slay the beast.
When they set eyes upon its putrid and decaying face, their courage began to fail them. It was beyond anything any of them had ever imagined. Half of its body was missing with its intestines spilling out in all directions. One of its arms pulsated with festering blisters, and the other arm was missing all of its flesh down to the very bone. The beast stared at them through hollow eye sockets and upon its exposed brain sat an iron crown of menacing spikes.
Their first plan to stun the beast failed spectacularly. After discovering its resistance to stunning, they turned their attention to the diminutive creature hiding behind it. Perhaps by removing this entity from the battlefield, they could focus their attention on the Swine Prince. They couldn’t have made a greater mistake.
Honing in on the smaller beast, Dismas took aim with his trusty pistol. Pressing his trigger with a quick and decisive motion, he caused significant damage to the miserable creature. Immediately, the Swine Prince let out a bellowing roar and brought down fury upon the entire party with one fell swoop of its massive, destructive blade. Reynold bellowed, “It is protecting the small swine,” as Caradas fell to her knees overcome by paranoia. Frantically trying to heal the party and succeeding to some small degree, Stanley could tell his efforts were going to be in vane should they attempt to follow through with their efforts.
Reynold stood up to this mighty creature in defiance as he attempted one final attack to defeat the small creature, but this was only met by an even mightier blow from the Swine Prince leaving all but Dismas stunned and unable to move. Everyone was left barely standing from this last attack, and it wasn’t to be the end of it. Towering above these four shattered souls, the beast let loose one more attack focused on Dismas and Reynold. Dismas was left teetering on the brink of death.
Knowing that they had no other choice lest they should all perish, I commanded them to flee. Somehow, they managed to escape from the creatures with one try, but all four were left as broken shells of their former selves. With Dismas at death’s door and Reynold risking dying from a heart attack at any second, they retreated immediately from those halls of death and despair.
A narrator voiced by Wayne June delivers the story as well as provides frequent quips while you are exploring and battling. He is the only source of voice acting in this game, but he performs spectacularly. His gritty, baritone voice perfectly matches the setting of this game. I felt like Mr. June did work of such high quality here that he would be able to perfectly narrate audio books such as Stephen King’s IT.
Sounds of Dread and Despair
As you explore down well-lit halls, low chords played on a piano instill a sense of unease on the player. Sounds of dripping water, shuffling feet, labored breathing and groans can be heard in the distance. The howling of wind over the footsteps of your explorers along with the rest of the background noises brings a sense of cohesion and eerie realism to the experience.
When listened to with a pair of headphones, this sounds absolutely amazing because of how effectively different sounds are fed into each ear. I have heard many soundtracks in games which use stereo sound effects, but Darkest Dungeon employs the use of stereo masterfully. The sounds flow smoothly from one ear to the other and gives the audio itself a sense of fluidity and motion.
If the torch goes out entirely, sort and quick notes begin playing while the sounds of creatures become louder and more frequent. Frankly, it is unsettling and speaks to excellent sound design found in this game.
When you start a battle, there is a deep battle cry given by the beings you encounter. Then bass drums and tubas are brought in immediately for slow yet deep and intense music indicating that battles aren’t something to be trifled with in the Darkest Dungeon. Battles in this game are meant to be harrowing experiences, and the combat music conveys this concept very well. As the music starts, you will also notice that the background noises heard while exploring remain and complement the unnerving battle music effectively.
Visuals & Performance
Crisp and Detailed Character Design
Darkest Dungeon employs a detailed, hand-drawn 2D art style. All 16 classes of playable characters feature varied and interesting designs inspired by such character types as gunslingers, medieval Italian doctors and armored knights. The enemies are designed to elicit feelings of dread in the players for they are gruesome monstrosities as would only be encountered in nightmares.
Simple Combat Animations Emphasized By Dramatic Camera Zoom
The combat animations by their selves aren’t particularly memorable. They are mostly basic attacking animations consisting of a few quick motions determined by the character and move being used. Despite that, clever use of the camera makes the combat one of the most memorable parts of this game.
Any time that you or the enemy performs an attack, the camera quickly zooms in on the characters involved in the current exchange. The result is that each attack feels incredibly satisfying. You always feel that your attacks have weight behind them which is really quite an achievement in a 2D RPG like this.
2D Graphics Are One Of This Game’s Strengths
Not everyone will enjoy 2D graphics, but don’t let that design decision dissuade you from giving this game a try. While these graphics are 2D, the dynamic camera zoom during battle, excellent character design and detailed backgrounds grant this game an extra layer of life compared to many other indie offerings on the eShop.
Two years ago, Darkest Dungeon was released on Steam. It has since been released on a variety of platforms such as the PS4, PS Vita and the iPad. Red Hook has done an absolutely phenomenal job of bringing this game to the Switch. The game performs extremely well on the platform. The resolution is sharp, and I did not encounter any sort of frame drops. While that sort of thing may not necessarily hurt too many RPGs, that would be particularly noticeable in this title because of the fluidity of its camera zoom.
Fantastic Use of the Touchscreen
Darkest Dungeon on the Nintendo Switch brings together all of the best features of the other versions of the game. It has the strength of being able to be played on a large display such as would be experienced on the PS4 or PC. It also brings over the use of the touchscreen from the iPad and PS Vita ports of the game which is actually incredibly useful in this game.
Darkest Dungeon is an RPG with many complex menus, character selection screens and a village with several selectable locations. Sometimes it is more convenient to use the buttons to navigate these things, but I frequently found that it was far easier to use the touchscreen to quickly and easily select my characters, their attacks or drag and drop equipment. Being able to easily switch between touch controls and button controls gives systems like the PS Vita and Switch a great advantage over the touch-only devices such as the iPad, and it really stands out in this game.
A Single Unexplained Crash
While this game left me satisfied regarding its performance, there was one instance while I was in the village and the game crashed. I have not been able to replicate this and it was the only time I experienced a crash in Darkest Dungeon, but it is worth mentioning.
I have never found a game before which cause me quite so much stress in a positive way as this. Darkest Dungeon is a turn-based RPG with procedurally generated dungeons and permadeath for your characters. I have played many games like that in the past, but none have ever caused me to worry about my characters so much as this one and it is for one reason: the stress and affliction system.
While you are exploring dungeons, your characters will each have a stress meter going up to 200 points which needs to be managed. If this meter raises to 100, the camera will focus in on that character and they will perform a short animation emphasizing what is happening to them. Most often these will be negative effects and are called afflictions.
Afflictions can have a range of effects on your characters in terms of actions they will take outside of your control and things they will say. An interesting affliction is Abusive. When someone becomes Abusive, they will begin to heckle their comrades. Whenever someone attempts an attack and misses, the Abusive character might say something along the lines of, “Why don’t you try aiming next time?” That will then cause the character who missed to gain some stress.
Another interesting affliction is Paranoia. Once, I had a character suffering from Paranoia accuse another one of my characters of being a traitor then attacked him from behind. These are just a couple of examples of the types of situations you will encounter while playing this game thanks to the affliction system.
There is something interesting which happens when your character reaches a maximum affliction rating of 200, but I won’t spoil that for you here.
Not All Afflictions Are Bad
Sometimes your characters will have a chance to step up to the plate and become heroic when their stress reaches 100. This is somewhat of a rare occurrence, but it can be a life saver when it happens. Often these will give you effects such as healing, lowering your team’s stress or making you temporarily stronger.
Afflictions aren’t the only kind of personality and gameplay affecting traits your characters can develop. As you explore dungeons, you may find things like books laying around, chests or traps. Interacting with these objects can have a variety of effects on your mercenaries. Some will be positive such as the quirk Quick Reflexes which increases your speed by two. However, some will be decisively more negative.
Once, I came across a torture box and had a character inspect it for treasures. It turned out that it was a loaded trap which captured my character inside it temporarily. When she emerged, she had developed claustrophobia which would then increase her stress levels when walking down narrow hallways.
Together, the quirks and affliction system helped me feel connected to all of my characters. While none of them had been written to tell a specific story like you would see in games with permadeath such as Fire Emblem, I still felt like each one of my characters in Darkest Dungeon were unique individuals.
For your characters who manage to survive the horrors, they will likely return to the hamlet as broken and battered shells of their former selves. You can manage this to help keep your most stalwart heroes sane and healthy. These come in the form of facilities such as a brothel which is always a great stress reliever! They can also seek out solace through prayer or even flagellation at the sanctuary. Just beware that when you leave a character there, it will cost a fair amount of money, and they will need to remain for the duration of one minute.
Recruiting and Improving
You start the game with just two characters, but after each mission, you will be able to recruit a few characters who will appear in a stagecoach. Each one of these characters will have a random set of quirks and will come with at least four of their eight potential skills. This will be vital as you will lose many characters as you play this game. Especially while you are at the beginning of the game and learning the ropes.
As your characters complete dungeons, their resolve will increase. You can think of their resolve as their level. By leveling up your resolve, you will be able to explore more dangerous dungeons, and you can also improve your characters skills at the guild as well as their weapons and armor at the blacksmith.
Every facility in the hamlet can be improved by finding treasures from your family’s past. These can include sculptures and land deeds. By collecting these items on quests, you can upgrade the facilities in town to lower costs or allow you to improve your mercenaries even further.
Picking a Dungeon and Team
When you are ready to explore again, you will be given a few options for dungeons. These will be separated by recommended resolve level and dungeon length. You will need to judge how capable your team of mercenaries is and weight the risk and reward to determine if you should attempt it or not.
Before venturing out, you will need to pick your team and organize them in a four-character line up. Your characters position is going to be very important strategically as theirs can only be used from specific placements in the line up. For example, the Crusader is most effective in the front two positions as most of his attacks can be activated from one of those two spots. There are other characters most effective from the middle or rear positions as well. And don’t worry, their best attacking positions are shown to you clearly in the game so there isn’t any guesswork to it.
Battles Are Dynamic
I loved battling in this game. Each encounter feels like a harrowing experience in which you need to carefully manage everything from your characters position to their stress levels. Along with those things come standard RPG fare such as status ailments and HP, but it is how your characters react to combat which really makes it come to life. Your characters will sometimes encourage each other, but they will often be falling apart at the seems as their stress levels build. As a result of this and how the camera follows the action so effectively, I rarely felt like I had the same battle twice even as I encountered the same enemies repeatedly.
This is a hard game. I played it on its middle difficulty setting: Darkest. The game offers a lower difficulty setting for newcomers, but after playing the game for several hours, I found the experience to be very fulfilling in the harder difficulty. Going into any dungeon and feeling the very real threat that I could lose my valuable characters at any time allowed me to feel a similar kind of stress as they were. This may not be for everyone, so if you feel you might not enjoy that, perhaps the easier Radiant difficulty setting will be for you. The game does not insult you for playing it at the lower difficulty level, so you don’t need to worry about that.
Darkest Dungeon offers one higher difficulty level for brave adventurers called Stygian. This difficulty will force you to complete the game within a set time limit and a set hero death limit. Exceed either, and it’s time to start over for you! I wouldn’t recommend attempting that difficulty until you are completely familiar with this game and all of its features or you may have a fairly tough time beating it.
Darkest Dungeon on the Switch effectively combines the strengths of the console version along with the best aspects of the game as experienced on the Vita. Playing it in handheld mode using the Joycon and the touchscreen is an absolute joy and having the option to play it on the TV without needing to spend money on a separate version of the games makes this one an absolute no brainer. You will get the best value for your money with the Switch version of this game especially because it shares the same cost with the PC, PS4 and PS Vita versions. The iPad version only costs $5, but you lose access to buttons features as well as being able to play on your TV.
With over 80 potential hours of gameplay, excellent sound design and a fantastic art direction, this game is absolutely worth the price tag of $25. There is a lot of competition on the Switch at that price range, but this game stands out among the pack.
80+ Hours of Potential Gameplay
Excellent Hand-Drawn 2d Art
Fluid Sound Effects Provide Sense of Unease Especially With Headphones
Writing Feels Like It Belongs in a Stephen King Novel
Stress and Afflictions is a Brilliant System
Dramatic Camera Effects Make Simple Animations Great
Supports Video Capture
Not For The Faint of Heart