Darkest Dungeon Beta Review
Yes, it’s another Roguelike-like. I don’t care if you’re sick of them, because I probably never will be. Darkest Dungeon is a dungeon crawler inspired by the legions of Roguelikes, and is nearly as brutal. It achieves this through extreme difficulty, a constantly high body count on your team, and the psychological terror it inflicts upon your heroes. This version is incomplete, but the sturdy skeleton of a great game is there.
When people call Darkest Dungeon a Roguelike, it’s a misnomer because although there is permadeath and mostly randomly-generated dungeons, the dungeons themselves are for the most part linear, and you can even use a scouting skill to show what’s up ahead. Darkest Dungeon has a definite inspiration from the dungeon crawlers of old, but it is a different thing in itself.
In Darkest Dungeon, you control a team of heroes—four at a time, but with a backup roster of many more—in their quest to . Kill monsters, get loot. But this dungeon is a bleak, miserable hellhole, like Muscatine, Iowa. This dungeon is not only filled with monsters and traps, but your party can go insane long before they die.
Each character has not only the standard hit points and other stats, but a stress level that increases when severely hurt, when surprised by the enemy, when out of food, when the torches run low. When the stress gets too high, your characters start seriously screwing up. This takes the form of stat reductions, refusal to obey your orders, or worse. Stress can be reduced by a small amount by landing critical hits, with certain skills, or by crushing enemies, and by a large amount by having the character spend a week in the tavern or the church in town. To do the latter, the character is unavailable for the next excursion into a dungeon, hence why you have a big roster.
I appreciate that Darkest Dungeon‘s insanity takes the form of a game mechanic and isn’t just an aesthetic that screams “we like H.P. Lovecraft, too!” The narrator does a great job of explaining and hyping up the characters’ despair without sounding cheesy or melodramatic. This and other aesthetics add strongly to the oppressive atmosphere.
Combat is also rather odd and fascinating, reminiscent of Ogre Battle or Radiant Historia. Your four characters take one of four positions on a line, as do your enemies. None of the characters need consumable points for their skills, so the only stats you need to manage are HP and stress, and neither is easy to keep up. The skills each character can use are not reliant on magic points or cooldowns, but which position they’re in. Each class available to your disposable heroes has a different range of skills, most of which can be upgraded in town. Naturally, both you and your enemies have skills than can damage, inflict status ailments, forcibly change the opponent’s positions, or all of the above. Your enemies also have skills that can inflict stress, sometimes in addition to one of the above.
Don’t underestimate how effective positioning can be; you’re not brute forcing your way through this game and you need to strategize even in the first dungeon. Your big beefy meatshield who guards the front can be rendered useless if an enemy has a skill that knocks him back, forcing you to waste that character’s turn changing places with whoever’s in front of them. Of course, you can do the same to your foes–pull the squishy wizards forward where they are more vulnerable, or knock high-HP enemies backwards to get them out of the way.
In most games of this sort, your characters’ skills are reliant on magic points, cooldowns, or some other resource. In Darkest Dungeon, they depend on your position. For example, the Highwayman’s Point Blank Shot does high damage, but it knocks the user back one spot, can only be used if the Highwayman is in front, and only targets the enemy in front. So if you want to do the most damage, it might be in your best interest to get your Highwayman in the front position… but Highwaymen have low HP, meaning that this is a risky move, meaning that you’ll need some method of defense. The Point Blank Shot skill is just one example of the many battle strategies you have to employ to survive. It’s a nice change of pace from the typical “use strong high-MP skills on strong enemies, regular attacks on weak enemies” because there are few skills that could be considered regular attacks.
In town, you can buy items (bad idea; every item is ultra expensive and all contain drawbacks in addition to benefits), upgrade weapons and armor (essential), upgrade character skills, recruit new troops to replace those who have fallen (you will do this a lot), and send characters off for a while to reduce their stress levels (also important). Prices of everything are higher than you would think, leading to yet another difficulty Darkest Dungeon presents you: Poverty.
Despite all the hard stuff the game throws at you, Darkest Dungeon rarely feels unfair. If you have the skill and the experience, you can avoid most of the pitfalls the game presents. If the game gets popular, I’m sure we’ll eventually see experts on Youtube speedrunning it without losing a single character, but in these early stages when no one has mastered it, the game is still lovingly brutal.
For all of my praise, Darkest Dungeon has some undeniably bad design choices. It’s easy to pour a big pile of money into a character only to have them die in a dungeon their class was unsuited for, leaving you to hope the rest of your party can measure up. And sometimes, they can’t. The difficulty level of each individual dungeon increases each time you go through it, which means that if your party of strong characters gets wiped out, you might end up resorting to level 0 backup characters and no gold to outfit them, leaving you permanently stuck.
If you wanted to channel a tiny bit of the vicious unfairness of the Wizardry series, then you succeeded, Darkest Dungeon. Hopefully annoying elements such as this will be remedied in the final version. At least give us a dungeon for noob characters that doesn’t increase in difficulty so we can build our way back up.
Darkest Dungeon is still in its beta (or “early access”), but it’s one that I can recommend strongly. It could definitely be ported to Android or iPad without any loss of functionality. I could easily see the final version having gigantic dungeons, more monsters, and more classes. It will probably only get better from here. Strong recommendation.