Cleaning Out Lovecraft’s Basement
HIGH Deep, satisfying combat. Stellar artwork.
LOW Grind becomes a major factor.
WTF He went too far in the flagellation room? Oh god.
I first saw Darkest Dungeon when it appeared on Kickstarter more than two years ago. The stylish graphics, Lovecraftian inspirations and turn-based combat all caught my attention, and I followed it closely. However, I’m not much of a PC player so I held hope that it might eventually come to console. That hope held true, and this grim dive into shadowy horror is now available on PS4 and Vita. While such an extended wait usually builds anticipation rarely satisfied by reality, I’m glad to say that Red Hook Studios didn’t disappoint.
This side-scrolling, turn-based roguelike RPG begins with the player receiving a letter from an eccentric uncle. The old man had become bored with his life of luxury and began dabbling in the black arts. Such pursuits rarely end well, and he unleashed all manner of nasty things from excavations beneath his mansion. He ends the letter by committing suicide, but before he pulls the trigger, he implores the player to come to the manor and clean up the eldritch mess he’s made.
Interestingly, the player’s character never takes a direct role in Darkest Dungeon. They’re not even seen. Instead, they’re a phantom presence guiding action in the decaying town near the estate. This hamlet is basically a staging area for assaults into enemy-filled catacombs, and carriages full of recruits arrive constantly, all eager to plumb the depths — although considering the success rate, I’m not sure why they’re so quick to try their luck.
The classes are varied, and the player must create a party of four to venture into nearby areas. On offer are knights and men-at-arms for the front lines, crossbowmen and riflewomen for the rear, clerics to heal, tortured wanderers with a dark side, mystics wielding magic of questionable origin, and more. Each has a range of special abilities and can be built to perform certain roles.
However, there’s a twist — since this is a side-scrolling game, the party walks single-file through dark hallways and dank passages, and certain abilities can only be activated when a character is in the correct position. For example, the Vestal can only perform her strongest healing when she’s in the rear, but while she’s back there, she can’t attack with her mace. Similarly, the Crusader is most effective when leading the charge, but if he loses his place at the front, he’s only good for cheering the rest of the group on.
Positioning is key with enemies, as well. Spellcasters are generally protected behind tanks or heavy hitters. Certain classes have the ability to rearrange enemy lines (let’s bring those squishy mages to the front, shall we?) and certain attacks are effective for hitting specific positions. The Jester bleeds the center of a hostile group, a Bounty Hunter’s hook can bring distant foes near, and a Hellion can perform a surprise distance attack when she’s not raking the front.
Adding another layer of complexity is that each character can only equip four abilities from a much larger pool, so assembling all of Darkest Dungeon’s pieces results in an intricately-layered combat experience that is deeply strategic and deeply satisfying. Finding a party that synergizes leads to decisive victories, but preparing for contingencies is a must – a group that dominates with a Leper in the lead might be wholly ineffective if he gets punted to the back of the line. While it might seem to be standard turn-based combat, there’s a lot more to it than picking someone with a big sword and marching forth.
Aesthetically, the game is phenomenal. The rich, bold artwork is incredibly on-point, and all of the characters, both friend and foe, are distinctive. Everything is gothic and diseased and horrible in the best possible sense. These visuals are a perfect example of style and design trumping the raw power of polygons, and I can’t get enough of them. Also superb is the voice actor who reads the uncle’s journals and narrates during fights. His somber tone adds welcome and appropriate gravitas to every trip through horrible hallways.
While I am absolutely in love with so many parts of Darkest Dungeon, I have to admit that it ended up much longer and more of a grind than expected. Since the core mechanic is team-building and leveling characters to survive ever-more-deadly challenges, it boils down to taking a squad in, hopefully winning, and then leaving with experience points and gold. However, this process is not fast. A lot depends on correct party composition, the randomness of enemies and dungeons, and how healthy and sane characters are… if they survive.
In a dungeon, nearly everything that happens to the party takes a psychological toll. When the stress and trauma becomes too great, characters start acting erratically, eventually leading to mental breakdown. It’s wholly Lovecraft in design, but stress relief back in town isn’t free. Neither is training skills. Curing sicknesses also has a pricetag. The blacksmith won’t volunteer his wares, so weapons and armor are yet another cost to bear.
As one might guess from this laundry list of party maintenance fees, money gets spent fast. To cope, the player will have to groom several groups at once — beaten heroes must constantly be swapped out for healthy ones. This is a very, very long-term process, especially in the early game when the player is still learning systems and building up resources. Throw in a few instances of bad luck on top of the occasional party wipe here and there (permadeath, remember?) and the amount of grinding to be done becomes incredibly daunting.
It’s also worth noting that once characters gain a few levels, they’ll refuse to enter previous areas. A level four Grave Robber won’t set foot in a level two catacomb, for example. It’s another reason to manage multiple heroes, but the rule is frustratingly arbitrary – after nurturing a fresh recruit into a seasoned killing machine, the expected joy of dispatching foes with impunity never comes. Darkest Dungeon is always an uphill battle, and while it may be thematically appropriate, it results in more grinding.
Although I had hoped to finish Darkest Dungeon before review, that goal was patently unrealistic. At the moment I’m absolutely nowhere near the end (completion times of more than 100 hours are common in my circle) and it’s not a thing I can play in long stretches. Instead of marathon sessions, I’ve fallen into the habit of doing one or two runs a day, and then putting it aside for lighter fare. I always come back, but the scope of the task is huge.
While it was a long time coming, I’m quite glad that I waited for Darkest Dungeon. The learning curve is steep, the controls are a little fiddly and the difficulty is high, but it’s a superb port of a rich game that’s become part of my daily routine. Conquering these cosmic horrors and undoing my mad uncle’s actions may be a long, grueling process, but it’s a process I’ll see to the end. Rating: 8 out of 10
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Red Hook Studios. It is currently available on PS4, Vita and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 38 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed. Yet. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T and contains Violence, Blood, Sexual Themes, Partial Nudity and Language. There’s lots of swordplay and firing of guns, but the animation is minimal and it’s all very stylized. The sexual themes are a few lines in reference to the brothel in town, and the partial nudity is in relation to one female character who goes topless for brief periods of 1-2 seconds.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All text can be subtitled, and there are no audio cues necessary for play. It’s fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.