Darkest Dungeon (Early Access)

So I recently purchased early access on Darkest Dungeon, a Kickstarter project that impressed me with its superb art direction, tone and supposed ridiculous difficulty. Here’s my review of the early version as stands.

You are heir to a mad and improvised aristocrat, recalled home to deal with your father’s legacy of satanic excess, which has brought ruin to the village of your birth. You will attract teams of foolish adventurers with promise of fabulous treasure, pouring their blood into the chthonic tunnels that your birth right has become in a bid to restore your estate.

First off, the artwork is phenomenal. Seemingly heavily inspired by the works of Mike Mignola, it paints a vivid picture of a grim, gothic world steeped in blood and squalor. The score, dialogue and voice work are equally adroit in creating a wonderfully grim and melodramatic atmosphere.

Take a few seconds to immerse yourself into Red Hook’s splendidly dismal vision:

 

As far as genre goes, DD is sort of a mixture between Dungeon Keeper and Gauntlet. You direct your heroes as they trawl through the side-scrolling dungeon, commanding them in battle against the various monstrosities that assail them, but the principal object you’re fighting for is the town that serves as your base. You should expect death to be frequent and forgettable, only the town matters; it’s where armour is forged, skills trained and ailments are cured. Heroes are free to hire and plentiful, town upgrades are expensive and must be bought in blood.

The actual management of resources is rather cursory as stands; you acquire various types and invest them in town infrastructure, which is used to improve your heroes to acquire more resources. Simple. The intrigue is in the combat system, which is based around a unique positional system, where the hero/enemy position in the party line-up determines what skills they can use and who they can use them on.

As illustrated here:

Beige dots = Your position. Red dots = can then hit enemies in this position, with linked dots representing AOE attacks.

Beige dots = Your position. Red dots = can then hit enemies in this position, with linked dots representing AOE attacks.

Party order can be altered by various skills and outside factors, so it’s partly a game of juggling your heroes and their foes into positions where you can butcher them and they can’t even engage you. As there are large number of different classes and skills exploring their various interactions to find the ‘best line-up’ is a large part of the game.
The other interesting hero-based mechanic/resource is sanity. Taking its cue from Lovecraft, the world of DD is a nerve grinding, brain warping nightmare from which death is sweet release. Pretty much every action you ask your heroes to undertake is going to impinge on their stress levels. Stress is just as important as physical health, if not more so as it’s so difficult to heal. Hit 100% stress and your characters will go totally off the rails: psychosis, violent delusion, party sabotage. Even worse their allies will take a large stress penalty when a comrade snaps, which can have a domino effect and send your whole team bouncing off the walls into a shallow grave. Even if they live this, they’re often left with a list of game-play influencing scars, which you may need to have excised – check the rap sheet for my fellow below.

quirksA minefield of psychosis, which you crassly exploit for mental gain? It’s like living in Hollywood.

So far, so good, eh? Alas, the center cannot hold and all must fall apart.

The gameplay is incredibly monotonous and grindy. This is a resource farming game and while dungeon lay-out may change, you’re essentially trawling the same stretch of corridor 5 hours into the game as you were 5 minutes in. Something worsened by the fact that a lot of the map designs result in high amounts of backtracking as you fruitlessly search for the goal that ends the level. The combat system may be initially intriguing; but it really doesn’t have enough depth to support this amount of repetition.

I quite enjoy hard games. Dark Souls, Bayonetta – these are hard games, but games determined by skill, alertness, muscle memory. So while they are hard, they are ‘fair’. DD is hard, but not fair. The root of this is in the random number generator. The RNG determines dungeon composition, which enemies you face, whether you or the enemy are taken by surprise, trap springing, combat math, loot drops, hero skills… it goes on. You can use character skills to manipulate the figures, but ultimately your agency seems less than the game’s. When the game say’s ‘no,’ which it will with frequency, your guys die and there’s nothing you can do about it. This is frustrating. Even worse, when I do breeze a level in a blaze of crits and wheelbarrows of loot, it never really feels it’s a result of my efforts, simply that the game has ‘allowed’ my victory on surety of greater future bullshit. You may as well just shoot craps.

Now, as I established, party death is to be expected, but as there seems little agency in your actions and the pool of replacement heroes is essentially limitless (you can’t really ‘lose’) – what exactly are you playing for? It’s hard to care about your town – it’s not organic in the way Dungeon Keeper or Dwarf Fortress is. The heroes? Their fate is at the whim of the dice and their character merely a list of psychosis on a sheet. It’s so disappointing for game literally dripping in atmosphere, but ultimately, everything seems rather futile, which I do suppose is quite in keeping with the Gothic/Lovecraftian theme.

TLDR; Looks and sounds amazing, some interesting ideas. Let down by poor/unfair mechanics. May get better on release.

• Now obviously I haven’t seen the full game, there are entire dungeons and hero classes not even currently implemented that will certainly add more to the finished product. However, my issues really lie with the core game-play mechanics and I’m not sure how these can be addressed without a radical overhaul.

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About Gregory Scrawl

Stuff, stuff, stuff. Comment and criticism always welcome. Feel free to contact me if you find any of my work interesting.
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