Review: Darkest Dungeon (PC)

Darkest Dungeon delivers a unique blend of rogue-like elements, RPG dungeon crawling and action, and a grim world inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft.

After spending a long while in Steam early access, Darkest Dungeon has finally reached its full release. It puts you in the shoes of one who has inherited a major estate haunted by monsters and filled with cultists. With the nearby village of the estate serving as a hub, you are to collect adventurers that come to the village, equip and level them up using the village amenities, and send them into the ruins surrounding your estate. In doing so, you collect treasures to improve your characters and the village, increasing your ability to delve further and eventually end the source of the dangers in the estate.

The key aspect is maintaining all the adventurers you collect. They come in different classes such as melee-focused Crusaders or Plague Doctors that use gases as weapons and healing items. The variety is quite large, with over a dozen classes and each one having interesting sets of strengths and weaknesses. As mentioned, you can level up and better equip these characters, much as in any other RPG, but you also have to manage their stress levels and quirks. Stress levels grow for the characters as they are sent into dungeons and face difficult challenges. If their stress goes to high, they may become irrational and less effective or more difficult to control in battle. At the village, you can assign them to certain activities to lower their stress level.

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This beautiful little village is the only source of comfort for the adventurers.

Character quirks form the other side of this coin. Every character comes with their own set of quirks that can be positive or negative. For example, I have a Crusader that fights better when the party has a well-lit torch for a source of light, but he also has kleptomania, which means he may steal items that the party finds. These quirks can be removed with treatment in the village, but with time they become more ingrained in the character. New quirks may be developed as the characters go on adventures.

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Character quirks can be both good and bad, with the possibility of turning the tide of battle.

For the most part, this unique approach to character development works very well. It keeps things interesting and gets you more involved in the management of your party. Each time you set out to explore the ruins, you have to decide which characters to bring along and which to leave behind to recuperate. However, at times this becomes very stressful for the player. Eventually, when you sit down to play the game, you find yourself worrying about which characters to bring and which to leave behind, and this delays your access to the meat of the game, which is the dungeon exploration and turn-based combat. If you grow especially fond of certain characters, this level of forethought matters quite a bit as sending out characters that are ill-prepared may result in their death, which is permanent (and there is only one save slot).This can kill your mood to play the game. That being said, this also raises the stakes, making the game much more interesting.

Going through the ruins is depicted by you controlling a party of four selected characters in a side-scrolling fashion. Every dungeon is made up of rooms and halls, which contain traps, treasures, and enemies. Along the way, you need to keep a torch lit to make navigation easier, to lower the party’s stress level, and to prevent monsters from sneaking up on you. This makes the simplistic side-scrolling navigation much more exciting, as you never know what surprises you may come across next. Longer dungeons may require you to buy food to keep characters strong, or even camping supplies to provide moments of rest and recuperation. Camping allows you to use your characters’ camping skills such as giving inspiring speeches or lessons on tactics, which buff the party’s abilities.

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Combat maintains a simple yet attractive side-scrolling perspective that makes it easier to sort out all the details.

Combat is fully turn-based, with each character and enemy taking their turn to use items, move to the front or back lines of the fight, and to cast abilities and attacks. Positioning is key, as some abilities work only when your character is in the front or back of the party, and the abilities may also only target enemies in certain positions. The different classes bring their unique abilities with some favoring melee combat, while others are better suited to be behind everyone, casting healing abilities and buffs. Every turn requires you to carefully weigh which abilities to use and which targets to select, as the difficulty is balanced so as to make each move count for quite a lot.

The streamlined, yet incredibly intelligent combat design is very addictive, and is now one of my favorite in video games. Everything comes together in these battles as your preparation in the village is put the test, your characters’ quirks begin to make the biggest differences, and stress levels are pushed to the limit which may drive characters into states of despair, or hope if they overcome the challenge. The smart enemy AI will keep you on your toes, taking advantage of positioning and abilities as much as the player does. In the end, combat is a high-risk/high-reward game of careful strategy, presented in a deceptively simple package.

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The art and animation is beautifully done in nearly every aspect of the game.

Finally, we must make note of the overall presentation of this game. Both sounds and visuals are beautifully done with little demand on hardware. The audio is filled with ominous sound effects that provide a tense atmosphere in dungeons, and the music ramps up at key moments to energize the player. A narrator describes your adventure as you play using colorfully descriptive language. This definitely adds to the game’s unique persona, though some may find the narration to be at times wordy and stilted. That being said, the voice work leaves a very positive effect on the game overall. The visuals are hand drawn, using a very stylized, comic-book approach that emphasizes deeper, darker colors and bold lines. The art is fantastic, emphasizing the mood of the game, and it allows the player to be more easily pulled into this grim fantasy.

Darkest Dungeon is a game I do not expect to forget easily. In both mechanics and presentation it builds on past games, while introducing something new as well. While some of the more creative features may be at times cumbersome, the entire package overcomes those shortfalls to provide an extremely smart and addictive side-scrolling, strategic RPG. Players looking for turn-based combat and complex character management will find a treasure trove in the Darkest Dungeon.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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