Red Hook Studios | PC & Mac Versions | Download Available via Steam
Why do I hate this game so much? It possesses all the trappings to suggest that it could be a favorite—a Lovecraft-influenced mythology, evocative gothic locations, a stable of bizarre creatures, and a fantastic woodblock-style art design with a striking, but subdued, color palette. Conversely, perhaps the reason emerges all too clearly, since the game has so ruthlessly kicked my ass over the course of sixteen-plus hours of playtime. Spite.
Darkest Dungeon is a rogue-like dungeon crawler that puts the player in charge of a newly inherited estate, composed of a run-down mansion that happens to mark the entrance to a bizarre and malignant netherworld. Tasked with exploring the mysterious, seemingly never-ending tunnels and dungeons below the mansion, players recruit a band of ne’er-to-well mercenaries who arrive in the Hamlet via the Stage Coach. Battles play out in a turn-based system, with the selected party of heroes using a variety of skills against dungeon-specific monsters.
The twist here is that the characters suffer mental as well as physical damage, picking up a variety of afflictions—described as Paranoid, Selfish, Abusive, Masochistic—that impact gameplay, requiring a variety of treatments back on the surface. Sometimes, if the stress level becomes high enough, characters simply die of a heart attack before being able to retreat from battle.
The game certainly exposed a troubling lack of personal empathy, as I [rather eloquently] screamed again and again, “just [expletive deleted] get OVER IT and [expletive deleted] FIGHT, you weak-willed [expletive deleted],” to my reluctant band of heroes, as they crumpled under their accumulated mental stress and stood powerless before whatever skeleton, cultist, or shuffling horror stood in the way of my glory.
Between fights, players use resources pillaged from the dungeon locations to upgrade the Hamlet’s resources. Upgrading the Stage Coach will result in new classes and numbers of mercenaries to recruit, while focusing on the Abbey, Sanitarium, or Tavern will allow better treatment options for the suffering heroes who return damaged from their adventures in the tunnels below the cursed mansion. The hero classes cannot be personalized beyond the base categories—Bounty Hunter, Crusader, Grave Robber, Jester, Leper, Occultist, Plague Doctor, etc.—but no matter, the would-be heroes die so frequently that others must eventually be recruited as replacements, preventing any great personal attachment to any one of them.
After giving up and quitting several times, I still hear the occasional, but insistent, siren call beckoning my return. Undoubtedly, though, the ever-diminishing light of my torch will never reveal the deepest recesses hidden at the heart of Darkest Dungeon. The Hamlet’s cemetery will overflow in the attempt, with the latest batch of fresh-off-the-stage-coach heroes marching without mercy into the game’s meat grinder—also known as, Level One.