Standout Gameplay Elements Separate Darkest Dungeon from Crowd

Avi Vogel

You look at your roster. The last mission you played through wiped out all of your high-leveled heroes. You try to recruit some new ones, but they all have traits that would make them a detriment to any mission you might undertake. With reluctance, you take four level-zero adventurers with you, cross your fingers and hope they all return. In 10 minutes, they’re all dead.

Situations like these are common in Darkest Dungeon, a video game that was released this February on Steam, a prominent platform for releasing independent computer games, via the Early Access program. The developers at Red Hook Studios, who created the currently unfinished game, have released Darkest Dungeon with the aim of getting fans’ reactions in order to improve the finished product. Although this game is unfinished, it is more polished than many other games that get full commercial releases.

The goal of Darkest Dungeon is to venture into the depths of a onceprosperous estate and beat back a dark, supernatural force. The game is separated into two distinct styles of play. The first is at the manor, where you — the player — upgrade buildings, recruit new heroes and increase the abilities of your party. The other part of the game takes place within the dark area of your estate, where your group of handpicked heroes attempts to fight back the everspreading corruption in hopes of retrieving the resources that you will use back at the manor. It is here that the combat takes place. Each fight is structured in a line format. Your four heroes are lined up from front to back, each of them able to attack an enemy in a designated position; a move will only work in its designated position in line. At the end of each level, each surviving hero has a chance to develop a quirk. Quirks are changes that affect characters for better or worse.

While in the “dungeon,” where battles take place, you will be faced with difficulties that will lead to heroes becoming “stressed.” Stress, a key aspect of the game that differentiates it from others in its genre, is a bar seen underneath the health bar of each individual hero. Stress can be accrued in a number of different ways, like being attacked, not having enough food or letting your torchlight get too low. All of these can push your hero into insanity. When they hit the stress cap, one of two things will happen: The hero will get a huge bonus to all their stats or, more likely, they will become afflicted with some form of insanity that will make them unpredictable. They might pass their turn or increase the stress of your other heroes, making the combat that much more difficult. This effect won’t end after you leave the dungeon, but it will persist until the hero has had an opportunity to rest in town, making them unavailable during your next mission.

For a game that prides itself on complex systems and treacherous gameplay, Darkest Dungeon could do more to ease people into the experience. My first time playing, I lost eight heroes in three dungeon runs, making my next foray into the dungeon with only two people an immediate failure. There were also points at which I was forced to start the game over. During one playthrough, I was a little over 10 hours into the game’s campaign. I had just defeated my first “boss” and was about to take on the next. I brought my highest-leveled characters with me but they were promptly defeated. I continued this until I had only level 0 heroes. I put my head down, defeated, but despite this unforgiving learning curve, I found myself ready to start anew.

Twenty hours into my next run, I found myself still in love with every aspect of the game. Its art is hand drawn with dark lines and vibrant colors, making it reminiscent of a fairy tale, its music adds tension without overriding the strict focus necessary to play the game and its narration breathes life into dull moments. Each battle fills me with dread, as I know that any battle could decide the fate of my entire run. Darkest Dungeon is a uniquely difficult game, but playing through it is an ultimately satisfying experience.