Alas, this will be my last video game review for 2016. Not because I feel like five weeks is a long time to be doing reviews (because I’d keep going if I could). But simply because I’ve run out of new games I played in 2016. Alas, as you get older, you end up with less and less time. But that’s ok. I’m sure I can find something else to review from 2016 until I get to April and then go silent as I go back to novel writing.
Not to say that there weren’t other games worthy of discussion that released. Sadly, I won’t be hitting up Pillars of Eternity since I’m nowhere near finished with it. Plus, I’ve started Age of Decadence which I’m surely going to discuss on a future date.
But we came for a review and a review I shall deliver. Thus, I present to you my opinions of Darkest Dungeon!
Unlike the other games I’ve reviewed that I haven’t finished, Darkest Dungeon is different than the rest. For one, I’ve tried twice now to get through it. However, it’s greatest negatives keep holding me back from finally completing the game. However, following that first point I know I will finish it because in the end I like the game despite it’s horrible stumbling.
But let’s start with the positives.
Darkest Dungeon drips atmosphere. It’s a dungeon crawling game that set out to blend Lovecraftian horror with Dungeons and Dragons tropes. Visually and audibly it hits those notes perfectly. I adore the the heavy inked visual style the game adopts. Even more, I love their direction for a early gunpowder era and their reimagining staples of class based party gameplay. The healer of the game is the Vestal who is some type of angry battle nun. Other support classes include the Middle Eastern Occultist who directly channels Lovecraft’s fantastical orientalist who is steeped in otherworldly knowledge and spiritualism. Then we have the plague doctor to address poisons and maladies.
Each class is delightfully flavoured and visually striking with distinctive abilities that make coming up with party combinations an interesting mix of careful planning and delightful discovery. Unfortunately, while they do have a large range of abilities, I find that certain builds seem far more useful than others so you will specialize most of your classes in a similar manner. This was a recurrent problem in Xcom so it’s more an unfortunate expectation than a large disappointment.
The expert visual design isn’t reserved just for the classes, however. Both the town and the dungeons are perfectly captured. You get a real sense of progression as you turn your rotting hamlet into a veritable fortress through investments of your family heirlooms into its well-being. And reclaiming those goods from the four themed dungeons is very engrossing. Each dungeon not only places an emphasis on different game elements but are also themed with different types of horror motifs. You have the catacombs filled with undead monsters immune to bleeding but vulnerable to holy powers and just outright damage. The warrens, however, are body horror caverns choked with cannibalistic pigs with large health pools and ready to spread disease at every corner but can be overcome with stuns and bleeding. The weald has been taken over by coven of hags and their mushroom monsters that poison but are susceptible to bleed. And finally the cove is crawling with Lovecraftian pelagic terrors that melt beneath acid.
As you explore these locales, you will have to overcome ambushes and consider how to interact with curios while attempting to complete a random assignment within its halls. I love the curio system that forces you to prepare your expeditions and guess which equipment will overcome potential traps to reveal even greater treasures then you’d normally discover. It adds yet another concern when your readying a mission than just selecting the best men and women for the job: you need to make sure they’ve got the best tools for the areas too.
There is a certain amount of repetition to the game, however. I happened to really enjoy the base exploration and combat mechanics which was fortunate for me because you do a lot of it. Your immediate goal is to train your adventurers to level six while upgrading their equipment in order to prepare them for taking on the horrors that await beneath your family estate. Since the game adopts a number of Xcom elements and roguelike properties, you’ll invariably be setback while you’re training your troops. There are different bosses available in each dungeon to hone your skills and test your fortitude. And for the most part these bosses are really fun.
But this bleeds into the biggest problem of the game. There is no getting around that after awhile the whole system feels like a grind. Part of it is due to the imbalanced difficulty. Low level missions are stacked in your favour while high level missions very clearly put you at a disadvantage. I’m normally ok with this sort of challenge but each setback doesn’t push you towards a failed game state – it just eats up time. You can’t technically lose Darkest Dungeon since every week you receive new adventurers to toss against the grinder of the different locations. However, each adventurer that dies represents a loss of time more than anything else. Adventurers are easily replaceable, it just takes forever to do so.
And the further you progress in the game, the easier it is to lose your investments.
Contrast this with Xcom where the initial months of the game are the hardest as you’re stuck with substandard gear and inexperienced rookies. You don’t have the skills or armour to really push through opposition and some bad turns can make it so you can’t keep up with the alien progression. However, if you manage to make it through four months, you’ll have progressed past the alien’s technical prowess and find that you’re just rolling over even the scariest enemies. The more time you invest in a soldier in Xcom, the less likely you are to lose them.
It’s a tough tightrope to balance and it’s unfortunate that neither Darkest Dungeon nor Xcom really found that sweet spot.
So everytime you lose a hero it’s demoralizing only because you know just how much time it’s going to take to build another character up. And it’s not like those first couple of levels are hard either, as mentioned. Furthermore, there’s little in the ways of variety to make repeated levelling of new adventurers interesting. Each dungeon has three assorted bosses that you can kill for improved rewards and to unlock the next level of missions in that dungeon. Unfortunately, those bosses return again and again only with improved damage and health. I was excited at first to see the variation between the bosses and how dramatically the can change the scope of battle. But by the third encounter, you knew exactly that you needed to fight them and it was, once again, more a chore to slay them than any feeling of achievement.
But perhaps the worst offence for Darkest Dungeon was it’s titular final level. It was clear that these final levels were design to be the most nerve wracking for the player as you’re warned even retreating from those missions will incur an automatic random hero death as a party member falls in the retreat. What you don’t know until you’ve succeeded on a mission is that every member of that expedition refuses to take on another Darkest Dungeon foray. Thus, assuming that you don’t lose any heroes whatsoever in the course of the game, you need at minimum sixteen heroes at max level and equipment to beat the game. And this is ignoring the inevitable setbacks that the system is designed to incur. Even worse in particular with the Darkest Dungeon is that you really need to have a party tailored to the particular challenges of that level if you want to succeed – something you won’t know until you embark. Which then means you’ll lose at least one hero automatically when you invariably have to retreat. That’s more heroes that require training and equipment. And this is ignoring that certain heroes are far better in the missions than others so some of the heroes you’re levelling end up not being that useful in the end after all.
Which means you’re back to grinding up low level adventurers to deal with the final mission. And then, of course, the real nail in the coffin is that adventurers refuse to do missions below their difficulty level so you need to keep enough adventurers at each difficulty step to train up the recruits you’ll need in the end.
It’s a long, grindy chore. And it’s really bad. I can see what the designers were attempting and I applaud their commitment to the challenge but I can’t help and feel like there must be a better way to implement those ideas. Personally, I would have liked to see the Darkest Dungeon restrictions scaled back. Either have automatic death on retreat or have party members refuse further expeditions – not both. That would ease a bit of the unnecessary grind in the end – which will be well over seventy hours if you wanted to go and kill all the different permutations of the different bosses before taking on the final missions.
As it stands now, there’s really no point in playing Darkest Dungeon without loading up an online guide or walkthrough to cut significantly down on the time you have to take to make up for mistakes. And that’s why I prefer Xcom’s execution over Darkest Dungeon. With Xcom, failure is less frustrating since your options for bouncing back are better. Or, in the worst case scenario, you can simply restart the entire Xcom campaign and still finish a second try without coming anywhere near Darkest Dungeon’s runtime. Darkest Dungeon straight up punishes you for experimenting and learning and it drains the enjoyment from the game.
Which is a pity because otherwise it hits the rest of its notes pitch perfectly. The story is… well… adequate enough for what it’s trying to accomplish. I think it’s telling that I felt the four base dungeons were more engaging and interesting than the Darkest Dungeon itself which oddly enough seems less horrific despite its attempts to try and up the scale of cosmic horror. But it quickly becomes more over the top than anything else. That and coupled with the aforementioned frustration sucks what fun horror you could extract regardless.
But I know I’ll finish the game and for one reason alone:
My goodness is the narrator in Darkest Dungeon amazing. Between the moody dialogue and the expert delivering, I could listen to the Darkest Dungeon soundbytes all day. And with such lines as “Prestigious size alone is of no intrinsic value unless inordinate ex-sanguination is to be considered a virtue” how can you not love it? The tale of the Ancestor’s fall isn’t one that has an inherent draw but the voice actor’s performance make you want to hear every single twisted turn in it over and over again.
Major kudos to the actor and writer for easily the best audio in a game all year. Which is good, because you’ll be hearing him warn about trapped halls and corridors for many, many hours as you retread your steps in the unending gruel that is…
The Darkest Dungeon.