Darkest Dungeon

This was very popular for a while on Broken Forum and I was very interested in it but waited until it went on discount before buying it. I was also apprehensive about it being too difficult and in particular I have a hard time getting too far into rogue-like games. As it turned out, I found the difficulty level to be high but manageable. What got me down however is how grindy reaching the end of the game is.

Darkest Dungeon is a pure dungeon crawling game though in rogue-like fashion, the heroes are interchangeable and disposal. You actually run the town from which expeditions are mounted and every turn a fresh crop of level 0 adventurers are always available for free to be sent off to their fates. Success brings experience for the adventurers; gold which is spent on upgrading their gear and skills and perhaps more importantly healing their inevitable hurts; and heirlooms which are spent to upgrade the town itself. This is because heroes come and go but the town improvements are permanent. Upgrades include having the ability to train adventurers of higher caliber, treating more of them at a cheaper price, allowing you to buy specialized trinkets and so forth.

Everything is turn-based with both your group and the enemies being arranged is ranks of up to four each. Each character has abilities that can be used if they occupy an allowed position. For example, the Arbalest’s Sniper Shot only works if the character is standing in either of the two back rows. They’re also limited at being able to target specific rows. So the aforementioned Sniper Shot can hit every enemy row except the front-most position. As certain abilities also involves moving the character and of course both your heroes and the monsters have abilities that force enemies to move, this is key part of the game’s strategy. Combine this with damage-over-time effects, buffs and debuffs, stuns and area-of-effect attacks and this results in a rich and very satisfying combat system indeed.

Of course the game’s most famous mechanic is stress so let’s talk about that next. In addition to health, every character has a stress meter. Unlike health which is automatically healed in town, stress is persistent until the hero takes a destressing action, such getting drunk at the tavern or praying at the abbey. These actions cost gold and means that the hero won’t available for the week. Pretty much anything causes stress including just walking in a dungeon, especially in the dark. But the main cause of it are monsters that specifically use stress-based attacks. I pretty much always prioritize these guys and it helps that they are usual fragile, caster-type enemies. When stress gets too high in a dungeon characters can become psychotic. Irrational characters often take actions on their own for example. Even higher and characters can die of a heart attack. Back in town, high stress also causes bad quirks which cost a lot of money to get rid of.

The design for this is just great and makes for an addictive gaming experience. I especially appreciate how easy to understand the user interface is and when and how abilities can be used as represented by symbols, a stark contrast with the previous game I wrote about. The visuals, sound design and even the voice narration are all fantastic and contribute to the atmosphere. Between the four different dungeon zones and the final Darkest series of dungeons there’s also plenty of variety in terms of enemies. Even the curios add a lot of personality to the dungeons, making this easily my favorite of all of the dungeon-crawling rogue-likes I’ve ever played.

Unfortunately there are things that I am unhappy about. Most importantly, the game is both very difficult and very grindy if you want to actually reach the very end. The difficulty is exacerbated by the extreme swings of randomness that is possible. It is quite common for bosses to reduce the hitpoints of one or two heroes from full to zero in a single critical strike for example. Bosses require special tactics and party compositions if you are to have any hope of beating them. Combined with the inability to save scum and permanent hero deaths, this results in frequent episodes of rage-inducing frustration for me.

This difficulty might be manageable to me but not when combined with the grind. Though I understand that this has been reduced in patches, you must still grind a lot of emblems and gold to fully equip a group of maximum level heroes and you will certainly need these to do the final series of Darkest dungeons. Finally, win or lose, each hero can only attempt one of these final dungeons once. This means that you need to recruit, level and equip an entirely new group of heroes for each attempt on each of these final dungeons. That means an excessive number of game hours would be required to beat the game. I know that traditional rogue-like games might require hundreds of hours but this is kind of ridiculous in a modern game, especially as you are grinding for resources through endless series of randomly generated dungeons.

I do want to say that I love the design and I really dig the gameplay. It’s just so much putting together differently specced heroes and seeing what they can do in different dungeons. But at the same time, this game is really frustrating to play on hours and hours on end because the vagaries of chance and how difficult the end bosses are. I think I’ll keep this on my drive and load it up for a dungeon crawl or two once in a while but I have no illusions that I’ll ever see the game’s true ending.

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