I’ve got a shameful confession to make: for too long I’ve lived in the shadows, letting shame rule me. But no more! It’s time to admit that I enjoy YouTube Let’s Play videos. Yes, I know they’re terrible. Yes, I know that clicking on one is an invitation to find oneself assaulted with nerdvoice or some monstrosity’s hideous facecammed visage. I just can’t help myself. Sometimes there are good ones, after all. Not often. Sometimes.
That means that when no fewer than six of the Let’s Play creators I watch on YouTube decided to start a new series about Darkest Dungeon nearly simultaneously, I knew I had to look into it. Let’s Play creators, like indie game developers, are highly sensitive to trends and will rapidly flock to follow the crowd; if that many people decided to play a game at the same time, they smelled subscribers, ad revenue…and quality, perhaps. Darkest Dungeon, as it turns out, is turn-based roguelike title where in theory you’re trying to restore your family’s honor by removing bandits and monstrosities from your estate. But in theory you spend a lot of time dying. And I mean a lot of time and a whole lot of deaths.
The meat of Darkest Dungeon has you guiding a team of four adventurers as they delve into one of several dungeons on the grounds of the estate. A typical delve will have your heroes either exploring the dungeon, defeating all the foes in each room or battling a boss. Your heroes come in a variety of flavors, ranging from your average knife-and-pistol-wielding highwayman to a mad jester with a penchant for bleeding foes dry. One thing they’ve all got in common, though, is that they’re kind of all giant weenies who aren’t really cut out for the adventuring life.
As a result, you’re going to need to manage their stress levels as you delve. Unfortunate events like triggering traps, taking powerful hits from foes and, naturally, the death of a party member will raise a hero’s stress level, while fortunate events like defeating a troublesome foe will reduce it. Different heroes are more or less stressed by different things, so it can help to match a party to a dungeon in an attempt to keep stress levels low. If a hero reaches the breaking point, it triggers a stress reaction – typically the hero snapping and going a bit unhinged until they’re treated, though at times a hero might react in precisely the opposite way and enter a positive state like a berserker rage instead.
The stress teeter-totter is the primary innovation on display here and proper play necessitates managing it at all times. It’s possible to have heroes recuperate at various upgradable locations in the estate, but not only does this cost gold, a resting hero isn’t available to go delving. You’ll need to manage a stable of heroes instead of just one all-star party in order to keep everyone in decent shape. What’s more, heroes have positive and negative quirks that both affect their stressors, what forms of recuperation are most effective for them and incidental behaviors like a tendency to keep some loot for themselves. It’s possible to adjust a hero’s quirks a bit, both through objects in the dungeons and through a facility at the estate, but they both run the risk of being ineffective…or worse.
In terms of gameplay, well, Darkest Dungeon doesn’t play nice. You’ll spend most of your time traipsing around dungeons disarming traps and gathering loot as your characters gradually grow more and more stressed. When nasties show up, you’ll switch to a turn-based combat system; this focuses largely on managing your heroes’ positions and that of the enemy in order to use your most effective techniques. Pushing and pulling foes around is a vital part of ensuring everything is where it needs to be. Enemies, for their part, will try and do much the same. They also tend to do a whole buttload of damage in a game where your characters are fragile and die on a permanent basis, so you’re going to have to carefully ration what little healing is available. Expect to lose entire parties fairly often before you get the hang of distributing damage amongst your heroes and using supplies as necessary.
Supplies bear mention as well, since your heroes do need to eat while exploring. You’ll load up on supplies before entering a dungeon and will need to balance your perceived need with the reward a dungeon might offer. If you take too little, you’ll encounter chests without the keys to open them, rubble without shovels to move it and the ravages of hunger. On the other hand, if you take too much, you’ll find most of your provisions remain unused and you won’t be refunded for your trouble. For what it’s worth, I found that properly provisioning your quests comes down to simple experience with what each dungeon will expect of you, but it tends to be better to go big rather than small in terms of how much you take. Longer dungeons also offer the chance to camp, allowing your characters to use special camp skills to heal, buff and reduce stress.
There’s a fair amount of content here if you find you enjoy the constant balance of stress, food and the lives of your heroes. It’s still an Early Access game, though, which is fancy speak for “it’s not finished and big chunks of it aren’t actually in yet.” This includes at least two dungeons, some of the character classes and so on; the final version will also feature an ending, while the current game just lets you keep delving forever. Updates are coming fairly regularly and the game’s Early Access blurb appears to hint that the game may cost more in its final form, so that’s worth considering.
So should you buy Darkest Dungeon? I mean, it’s an Early Access game, so the default answer is “probably not”…but I guess if you want to make an exception there are worse choices out there. Plenty of worse choices out there, actually. And for those brave enough to take the plunge you’ll be getting a competently-made roguelike that’s going to kick your butt six ways to Sunday, so if that’s what you’re into, go for it. This is one game that definitely demands a certain degree of patience, so be ready for an experience that is as liable to frustrate as it is to entertain.