Review: Darkest Dungeon

By Michael Coffer 29 Aug 2017 22

Review: Darkest Dungeon

Released 24 Aug 2017

Developer: Red Hook Studios
Genre: Roguelike
Available from:
App Store
Reviewed on: iPad 5th gen

Darkness, unlike light, has no speed. It simply lurks, menacingly or invitingly, to be met on its own terms. Like a supplicant, this is how I first encountered Darkest Dungeon, a turn-based dungeon-crawler strategy game with a bit of village and party management. Playing it earlier this year, I was dimly aware of its reputation and new to its challenges and charms. The game's success started back in 2014, as it smoothly rode the path of a well-funded Kickstarter to Early Access on Steam, before releasing last January to critical acclaim. Along the way, it has continually been refined and tweaked, with balance changes alongside major additions like the Radiant (i.e. Easy) difficulty and the most recent Crimson Court expansion.

Now, one of the best games in recent memory is available on the tablet - While the game's systems and flow of action make it a natural fit for the iPad (64bit models), several flaws in the user interface mar the otherwise compelling experience.

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As the prologue informs, you have inherited a godforsaken estate, lousy with evil of the usual sorts. The ancestor's descent into madness drove him to search dark corners for unnatural power, and this endeavour invited assaults on the sanity and physical safety of the hamlet and estate. Now it falls squarely onto you, nameless protagonist, to purge the corruption and beat back the darkness as best you can. Assembling teams of four mercenaries, you complete missions in various regions, finishing quests and levelling up the town and its fighters until you can brave the final assault on the Darkest Dungeon. Each run will put you closer to this ultimate goal, but quite a few of them might also set you back, because heroes who perish on expeditions suffer permadeath.

The various classes of the heroes-for-hire make a large variety of team compositions possible, although only a small subset of these are strategically viable for demanding runs. The order of your party's lineup determines which skills they can use and where they can reach, with each class possessing different abilities and favored positions. When picking members, the truisms still apply: teams need a sturdy frontline, a punitively damaging backline, and a dedicated support somewhere in the middle. A single team cannot be the evergreen go-to, however, because different areas and bosses will require increasingly specific tools to thrive. The Warrens region, for example, is a natural fit for a Hound Master, while the expeditions to hunt down a dungeon's boss can be shortened with scouting abilities to avoid stress or camp right before key battles. Fortunately the wagon carts in a fresh batch heroes each week, to be hired and used as fodder in your machinations. Each hero starts with four of its combat abilities unlocked along with a mixture of positive and negative quirks. They gain stress resistance as they level up after successful expeditions, and can likewise have their skills and equipment upgraded to higher levels.

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The battles, rich and tense enough on their own, are compounded by several innovative systems. The sanity system models the psychological stress on the heroes as they go on expeditions, with diverse contributors like movement, traps, critical hits and enemy abilities all adding points to a stress bar. Starting at zero and capping out at two hundred, adventurers gain a temporary affliction (or more rarely, a virtue) at one hundred stress, impairing (or enhancing, respectively) their fighting ability. At two hundred stress, they suffer a heart attack and die outright. Unlike health, stress is persistent across expeditions and must be alleviated at the tavern or chapel. These stress treatments incur extra costs, however, and also prevent the hero from going on that week's expedition. In addition to stress, the lighting resource system allows players to juggle easier fights against the chance for better loot.

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Special praise to the game's close match between punishing gameplay and grim theme. It gives no quarter. The atmosphere is cohesive and oppressive, its subject classically Lovecraftian and abject. Yet as colorful and startling as the game's evocations of horror are, they tend to register in the mind along practical, not visceral, modes. I appreciate the spilt lifeblood of my Bounty Hunter tactically, as an inconvenient misstep or perhaps a necessary sacrifice. The monomania and desperation of these figures who do my bidding only matter insofar as it affects their combat prowess. 

The word "affliction" in-game is merely a technical term provoking calculations, not sympathetic imagination. So while the horror of the mythos relies on the unutterable and unknowable, Darkest Dungeon is demonstrative and gratuitous in its mediated terrors. Reading something like The Shadow over Innsmouth works in part because the ultimate revelation is obscured and must be imagined. The narrator's mind disintegrates and the reader's is left in the lurch before the abyss. Playing puppeteer with bands of heroes inside the game does not quite strike the same chord of existential dread. Still, none of these criticisms tarnish Darkest Dungeon's allure for me one bit, nor do I suspect Chthulu die-hards will be much put-off by the game's incarnation of the mythos.

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What might discourage would-be players is the difficulty of navigating the game's subtleties. Some bosses bring new threats that require significant and sometimes narrow counters. These bosses can be brute-forced early on by overlevelled parties but later might require doomed attempts just to scout and learn how they work. Tapping the screen to bring up detailed descriptions of an item or status condition is more difficult than it should be, as are ordinary gestures like scrolling down the list of heroes. The clarifying text is hidden directly behind the finger as well, an awkward carryover from the original mouse-and-keyboard interface.

For a game which hinges so much on foresight and preparation, it is unpleasant how laborious it can be to research details or manage basic finances and inventory. The save transfer function works like a charm, though, making cross-platform play easy. Again, these are peripheral concerns which do not greatly harm the game's undeniable quality, only impede the practical experience of play. It is a cruel, delightful game, well on its way to becoming a classic, and while it requires commitment to master, Darkest Dungeon will more than repay the effort.

Darkest Dungeon visits fresh horrors upon unseasoned newcomers, but behind its grim facade is a fascinating dungeon crawler.

Review: Darkest Dungeon

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