Darkest Dungeon is like a nightmare, you feel like you’re always in danger, there’s an underlying tension all the time and, when you eventually mess up, you realise you’re fine ready to try again.
Darkest Dungeon is a dungeon crawling strategy RPG where you take control of an estate with a monster problem where you recruit heroes to help fight the menace – sending them off to their inevitable doom in the search of treasure and clues to the mystery of this damned estate.
The gameplay loop is straightforward in concept, you recruit a band of heroes of various skills, form a party of up to four and send them to a dungeon to explore. Either through retreat or completion of the quest the heroes return with their loot and experience. The nuances that Red Hook games have added are where this game excels.
First up is the perma-death, if your recruited heroes die whilst out on a quest that’s it, no reviving, no retry option, they’re gone for good and they join your ever expanding graveyard. It adds extra tension whilst out on a quest knowing one mistake is all it can take to lose a party member. Thankfully this won’t ruin your game as you’ll always be able to recruit more heroes and train them up via easier quests but it doesn’t make it any less of a body blow when you lose your best guy to a heart attack.
Yes, your party members can succumb to heart attacks, this is all thanks to the other key feature in the game; stress. Whilst out on their ventures your party members can become stressed through various factors such as an enemy landing a critical blow or setting off a trap while travelling through a dark corridor. When your characters stress meter fills up their resolve will be tested and the character will gain a quirk, for example they might become paranoid and distrustful of their allies sometimes attacking them instead of the monsters. These can quickly turn a battle against you as your members suddenly start infighting or cowering instead of obeying your commands. The effects of resolve being tested aren’t always bad though, sometimes a character will gain a positive boost which can help keep the battle from overwhelming you.
Once the stress meter fills the first time it will start to fill again, this time however if the character gets too stressed and the meter fills up their body will give out on them and they die. The game requires you to manage the stress levels of your characters as well as their health which forces rotation amongst your party and being extra careful when out adventuring as even a full health character that has become too stressed can become a liability.
The stress each character gains carries over even once you leave the dungeon and return to the estate. Thankfully at the estate you can pay and have the characters partake in stress relieving activities such as meditation or taking a trip to the local brothel – whatever floats your characters boat. While they’re busy letting go of their stressful endeavours though they can’t be used in your party so you’ll be forced to rely on other members of the party, as such a well-rounded party will be necessary if you want to make progress.
Finally just to give you that little more to manage, each character will have varying personality traits which will affect your party during your travels. One character, for example, might be a kleptomaniac and as such will try grabbing everything that isn’t nailed down whether it’s booby-trapped or not. Another example could be that your character is an expert in a certain dungeon and gains a boost to their combat ability in that dungeon. It’s another layer for you to consider when you send out a party and it all adds up to a very personal adventure and story with a lot of depth for you to dig into.
Diving more into the moment to moment experience you’ll be spending a lot of your time in the battle system. Thankfully this is really intuitive and delivers a surprising amount of depth. As mentioned before you’ll be managing the stress of your heroes as well as their health so even if you survive a battle the damage may still be done. You’ll be managing a party of four, the heroes will be arranged left to right and the attacks you can utilise will be determined by where you’re positioned in the party. Positioning is hugely important when setting up the party, your melee fighters will be useless at the back for example or if you have no one with ranged attacks then good luck hitting that annoying enemy throwing his goblet at the back. Each character can only take a certain amount of moves with them so carefully planning out which moves to take to cover a variety of situations, often you can find yourself ambushed and your party order changed so you’ll need to be able to deal with the unexpected.
Combat is turn based, each character will take their turn to attack or use a stat buffing move, there’s no way to clearly tell what character’s turn is next so planning ahead is difficult. The flow of combat is smooth though and the tide of battle can turn quickly creating exciting fights with a real tension.
For all the great depth and design decisions present the game isn’t without its minor problems. My major gripe is the UI for the game, on any given screen there is a lot of information present and with the small real estate on the Vita screen this can be a real issue when trying to read text on the screen or find useful information, it’s a small issue that eventually you get over and become accustomed to. My only other problem is the controls, when trying to do simple things such as deciding your party for a quest, you have to hold a shoulder button, use the stick to select a character, while still holding the shoulder button you then have to choose their position in the party then press X to confirm. Heaven forbid you want to check the stats of a character before placing them in the party though, it all feels way too fiddly and whilst workable it should be so much better.
Despite these fiddly problems though the game is still great to play and with a great visual style and hours of content to get through, Darkest Dungeon is a fantastic game and the gameplay is perfect in short or long stints for the Vita.