Darkest Dungeon is a 4-slot position-based RPG wherein you are tasked to continuously send frightened explorers and warriors into nightmarish wealds and slovenly brackens, with the sole purpose of rebuilding your ancestral home back up, brick by bloodsoaked brick. Your chosen party members and reserves are not hired and outfitted with the expectancy that they will live for the 90 or more times you dive into another excursion--this RPG is roguelike in nature, meaning death is not only expected, but it it imminent if you wish to fight through most of the tougher bosses. In sacrifice, there is radiance--your stressed-out heroes have equal chance to find either middling madness or courageous zeal.
As a bitesize roguelike, Darkest Dungeon will have you sending 4-person parties consisting of a handful of diverse classes and skills into horrid ruins, with the aim usually to do something like exploring 90% of an area, fulfilling all room battles, or slaying a boss enemy. In battle, there's a quaint selection of status ailments, movement shuffles, debuffs, and heals to be slung about, varying depending on your characters. But, there's also the element of Stress--a value that increases or decreases depending on how dim you keep the torch you bear, how many sickening critical hits you take, or what ailments and entrapments envelop each characters. At the edge of Stress lies the maw of madness; a Fearful hero may skip turns, while an Abusive one may hurt itself or berate others with increasing Stress. On the flip side, some characters will have the chance to rise up, becoming stronger and wiser as the tide of the fight turns. This singular feature alone is a wonderful addition to the RPG formula, and adds a lot of strategy to the scope ahead, as well. It serves not just as a thematic difficulty weight, but to also insure you consistently play with and utilize a variety of different teams and playstyles. it's quite a brilliant way to put forth the idea that each encounter with the unknown and the eldritch has a palpable effect on your poor adventurers, thus necessitating a visit to the bar or an internment at the medical asylums between missions.
When you aren't imploring your mercenaries out to the evil realms, you're constantly upgrading your haven. Early on in Darkest Dungeon, the focus is less about your adventuring roster and more about preparing your former hovel to a battle-ready home. Eventually, you'll be able to not only pay less for cures and heal more people effectively, but outfit leveled characters with better armor, weaponry, and buffed skills. As upgrades grow and characters get stronger/better, so too does the knowledge of how to better tackle traps, examine weakness of each enemy type, and formulate teams with synergy. It's an expertise that comes with both time and effort, since your stronger teams will not likely emerge until a few areas in your town are updated permanently. In this way, I've found this game much more accessible than other roguelikes like FTL or even Binding of Isaac, which gave you more options on each playthrough but did not guarantee what you could carry on. In Darkest Dungeon, even if you manage to wipe out your entire roster, the progress made in your village will ensure that the following adventures you have go by smoother due to the capability to actually upgrade stats cheaper and faster.
Thematically, Darkest Dungeon is beyond excellent; from the initial mood that narrator Wayne June dregs up like a thick fog of horror, the grim resolve permeates everything that is said and done throughout your journey. The notes and quotes of your ancestor litter each major boss fight's foreword, and with every strike and discovery there's a notation of victory--or defeat. Rarely is there something so notably incomprable when it comes to presentation, but the narration here is so enjoyable. Equally enjoyable is the fantastic art style, a kind of Gory/Mignola mashup that isn't quite hyper-real but still manages to be unsettling and shadowed with something sinister. A great many monsters are legit gross and abhorrent, which goes a long way at encountering some of the more disgusting bosses and knowing you're in for quite a match.
I'm not a roguelike guy at all--I've never even come close to beating stuff like Isaac or FTL or even Invisible Inc, much as I love those games and enjoy their mechanics. However, I've clicked with DD mainly because the "failure" of losing characters, even after a great many victories to build them up, doesn't cause me pangs of extreme grief. I am not the character--I am the descendant, and the township is my legacy, not the life of the mercs. This format allowed me to accept that the future excursions would become less fraught with peril, although the threats and stress therein will always consistently provide some sort of challenge. It's that roguelike everyone has where you can put 100 or so hours in, doing convenieently menial or repetitive tasks yet always curious what's next. What team composition can I try next? What lurks beyond that threatening curio on the map? Which quirks and diseases should I heal--or spend a fortune to lock?
When it comes to "that bullshit rng" claims--I have to laugh, as this is no different from any rogue/rpg/etc. The real elements of distress and fear of death are what seperate this from most smaller roguelikes, though this game's really no different in handling RNG-based tragedy than Fire Emblem or XCOM--both games that I love. Sure, there was rarely a boss that I beat without a significant death from my team, but again--this is a slow march towards getting better and building smarter. Death is inevitable as you climb closer to the zeniths ahead. As far as options go, for those who are not a fan of systems like enemy corpses affecting slots or heart attacks making stress potentilaly more taxing, the devs have chosen to give normal runs the ability to switch those features on or off. I admit, at first I found those features a bit overwhelming--before I began paying attention to the upgrades that would even the odds. I've played with all the normal features turned on since and never felt like they hindered me immensely.
Darkest Dungeon has been a pleasure to play, from its early access inception to its ultimate released form. There have been stumbles along the way, particularly nerfs or buffs that made me initially think that the game was on very thin ice. However, Red Hook's willingness to be flexible with toggled options and updates have won my trust, and I've found that there was more advantage given to the player over time when it came to things like debuffs and movement options. That I've played almost nothing else the past few weeks since their latest flurry of updates and upgrades says a lot about how fantastic I think this stress-inducing, mind-melting jewel is. What I love most is that even at the lowest point, I've been able to start again and stronger than before--not just due to the progress of the town, but based on what I learned from each triumph and failure before. That, I believe, is the mark of an outstanding roguelike. I've stood gallant and fearless as my Vestal withered into madness, depending on the Leper messiah to slay the Formless Flesh--and cheering silently as he proceeded to hew through the horrid menace with a much-needed hit. I've seen my entire force slaughtered and boiled to bits my the malignant Hag, cursing my fortune and vowing to return in due time to turn the tables on the morrow.
I've watched entire parties crumble, only to rally around one lone Crusader who decides to get Focused at the peak of his stress. And I've accepted defeat at the maw of the malicious Shambler, foolish in my confidence that my rank 1 group could possibly outwit the Lovecraftian beast. DD is as much about the stories and failures gifted as it is about slowly accepting your knocks and eventually besting the opposition. It's a marvelous, wicked game, worthy of at least a try if this relatively simple creation interests you.
Red Hook has potentially created a masterpiece of the genre. The match has been struck; a blazing star is born.
Amazing and topical!