I’m a big sucker for old-school turn-based RPGs. Though, judging by my latest series of posts (and – let’s be honest – the vast majority of posts on this website), that fact was already readily apparent.
And it is with that fact in mind that I will just say right up front that Darkest Dungeon hits all the right notes. It fills me with a dark, hungering glee as I watch my party descend further into madness, wondering how far I can push them before their souls break.
But let’s back up. Darkest Dungeon is a video game currently in early access on Steam. It is indeed a turn-based RPG where you perform missions exploring randomly generated dungeons with a party of four adventurers selected from a larger stable of recruits. In the dungeons, you’ll not only have to keep an eye on your party’s health, but also their stress and the light level of your torch. As you complete missions, adventurers will level up and gain quirks (both good and bad) and you’ll gain items that can be used to improve your base camp, giving your adventurers better equipment, skills and stress relief.
So in that basic description, we can definitely see some cool, intriguing ideas, but what first jumped out at me when playing it was how amazingly fulfilling the combat is. I’ve talked at length before about the common problem in turn-based combat of just repeating the basic “attack” action ad infinitum until the combat is over. It’s boring and it stems from the fact that, if your dungeon crawl requires a lot of endurance, then saving your mana (or whatever secondary resource your skills expend) for healing spells is going to be the most efficient thing to do. Darkest Dungeon incorporates the very simple idea of not using a secondary resource. All skills are free to use, so you can use them as much as you want. Except you can’t use them outside of combat, so opportunities to use them become the limited resource. On your turn, you now have the same opportunity to use a heal or an attack, so you really have to think about which one is better in the current situation. Sure, healing will increase your health, but if you can kill these enemies faster with an attack, that will result in less damage you’ll have to heal later.
But that’s not even the coolest part. Darkest Dungeon has also incorporated an innovative party order system, where an adventurer’s position within the party’s four available slots determines which skills they are able to use. Your crusader might be a one-man wrecking crew in the first or second party slot, but most of his good skills aren’t usable in the back slots, so rolling out a crew of 4 crusaders might not be a great idea, because the guys in back won’t be able to do much.
In addition, though, the enemies themselves have preferred positions in their attacking party. That undead crossbowman might be a total pain in the ass in the back ranks of the enemy party, but if you can get him to the front, he can no longer use his crossbow and becomes a de-clawed kitten. Some melee units don’t even have attacks they can use from the back ranks, so if you can get them back there, they’ll be forced to completely pass their turn. And the beauty is that you are totally encouraged to screw with the enemy’s formation. Sure, you could use your bounty hunter to take a decent chunk out of that tank fellow who’s protecting some dangerous back-line attackers, but instead you could use a skill that will pull one of those back guys to the front, completely neutering half of the attacking force in one fell swoop.
The great thing is that because you’ve got such a large stable of character classes to chose from and each class has a large selection of skills, you’re constantly finding new ways to fight the enemy and new synergies to play around with. This becomes even more evident during the dreaded situation in which your party is surprised. I’m sure getting surprised upsets a lot of people, but those are some of my favorite moments in the game.
Basically what happens is that there is some chance when encountering a group of enemies for your party members to get their positions shuffled up at the start of combat. Now your beefy melee characters are at the back of the party and your squishy healers are at the front. Sure, you can spend your actions making small position switches to get all your people back in their proper slots, but then the enemy is going to get a free turn or two to totally wail on you, which is no fun. It’s much better just to roll with it and try out some skills that hardly ever get used.
As the game says right up front, it’s all about making the best of a bad situation.
And there will be plenty of bad situations. Characters will die, and when they die, they won’t come back, which is sad. When money is tight, you’ll have to make hard decisions between healing someone’s stress level or taking enough food into a dungeon to make sure your adventurers don’t starve. When things go bad, they can go really bad, and it can definitely get a little discouraging. But when you’re at the end of your rope, you’ve got two adventurers on death’s door and one of them is about to go insane from stress, but you pull off a couple of good crits and a couple good heals and you come back from the brink to win the battle and three more battles after that – after you were sure you were going to have to run away from the dungeon with your tail between your legs – well, there’s just no better feeling.
Darkest Dungeon provides true, honest-to-god challenge, which is often very hard to find in turn-based RPGs. And the challenge makes the victories all the sweeter.
And even when you’ve mastered the game – when you’ve got a full stable of max-level characters who are afraid of nothing – Darkest Dungeon has a built-in difficulty system that is a work of beauty. It’s called “light.”
If you’re willing to spend a fair amount of money on torches at the beginning of each dungeon, you can pretty easily keep your light level at maximum the entire time, basking in the warm glow of “easy mode.” Or you could, you know, be a man. Men don’t need torches. They bumble around these dungeon in the dark, getting surprised by monsters at every turn and taking double the amount of stress and physical damage. It’s absolutely brutal and an absolute blast. Playing in no light really keeps you on your toes, as one lucky crit from the enemy can send a battle south super-quick.
I could go on for another thousand words about everything I love about this game – including the wonderful art and attention to detail. I could also spend some time talking about the few things I don’t like – how you can only have 7 quirks and how new ones you get randomly overwrite old ones, or how the voice-over gets pretty repetitive after a while (easy solution: turn the volume off in the option menu). I could also wax hopefully about how there is still plenty of new content to be added – new dungeon environments, new enemies, new character classes.
But I won’t. Instead I’ll leave you with the moment I truly fell in love with the game.
I was fighting the “Hag” boss, who up and tosses one of my party members into a boiling cauldron. Every time someone takes an action, this guy in the cauldron takes damage and starts screaming for me to attack the pot and free him. In any normal game, these screaming dialogue windows would be construed as some sort of tutorial-like help system – a suggestion by the game about what the player should do to win the fight.
So I take some time to whack at this pot and free my companion, all the while he’s taking damage and the hag is beating on me. And then before I can even turn around and start doing damage to the boss again, she just laughs and drops someone else into the pot, and I’m back in the exact situation very much worse for the wear.
You see, the course of action the game suggests the exact wrong strategy. In order to win the fight, you have to focus your damage on the hag, trying desperately to ignore the pained screams of your party member in that pot as his skin boils away. In the end, he may survive the fight, but, then again, he may not. Such is the beautiful cruelty of Darkest Dungeon.
Its designers are evil, crafty bastards, and I love them for it.