The Darkest Dungeon is definitely one of a more unconventional approach to Gothic Horror. Not that there is a lack of variety in video games for this theme – there are all kinds of action/adventure types, starting from Alone in the Dark, RPGs like Ravenloft or upcoming Stygian, pure adventure games (Black Mirror) and on the action side, there is Castlevania series.
Yet, in all those other games your protagonist doesn’t really face death. You can die, of course, but only to reload your latest save. At worst start the game anew, so you can finally beat it by surviving against all odds. However, in Darkest Dungeon the tragic loss of life is not only possible but practically inevitable, even if you finally succeed.
For you’re not venturing into dangerous labyrinths on your own, but sending parties of adventurers to face the evil that lurks around your family estate. You are not Simon Belmont or Dr. Armitage in this story. You are the person, who gathers those heroes, provides them with the base of operations. And you direct actions of your crusaders, hunters, and clerics, knowing full well that not everyone will make it back alive. Or sane.
Welcome to Hellsing!
Of course, you have many ways to increase heroes’ chances of survival. First of all, by providing them with the right equipment and supplies. Party composition is even more important – even recruits of the same class may have a different skill set, so you always have to adapt, never sticking to a single optimal solution. When your team embarks on a journey, you choose the route through corridors of the randomly generated layout. When your team returns – you select recreation activity, upgrades for skills and purchase talismans to bestow some buffs.
And it’s you, who issue commands during turn-based fights when the party runs into enemies. Though I don’t think you have much freedom at this point. If you’ve prepared your party well, you already devised an optimal strategy to make everyone’s attack, buff, and de-buff to work in a devastating combo. But if party members don’t have the synergy, stand in each other’s way (like two melee fighters have their attacks only available while standing in the first slot), or exhausted their supplies – your only option is to pray. Or run.
Sometimes it’s actually quite a necessary option. And Darkest Dungeon has a really good risk-reward system in general. Your torch can shine brighter to raise your chances to surprise enemies. Or you can dim it to increase possible loot. Though darkness not only makes fights tougher but also stir up more stress.
The Horror, The Horror…
“Stress mechanic” is probably the most notorious feature of this game. Unlike flesh wounds that are healed immediately after the party returns home, damage to the mental health of your people tends to persist. And it’s not just the amount of stress itself. Characters receive psychological quirks (negative and positive) on going through the 100-stress threshold, or on achieving another level of “resolve”.
Not only 100+ stress makes your character unresponsive at times if you careless enough to raise it up to 200 there will be a heart attack. Health will drop to zero and your soldier will find oneself at “the death door”.Literally – this state is obligatory, regardless if you get there by overwhelming stress or a blow that made twice your health damage. All will cling to their existence and you can actually pull them back with a healing spell. But any damage to a character on the brink of death will end poor soul with a certain probability.
Later you will encounter enemies that spread physical diseases. Luckily “Sanitarium” at your hamlet at the mansion will provide options to heal them. As well as an option to remove mental problems. Or even enhance positive quirks.
And as time will pass, some heroes will be lucky enough to survive and succeed in many expeditions and raise to the ranks of elite warriors. With many positive traits, advanced skills, and improved weaponry.
Death of such a veteran will be a devastating blow to your endeavor. And for that reason each time your favorite adventurer tittering on a brink of demise will make you fear with more certainty than any horrific image, the game could ever provide.
Going down with style
Game’s visuals are deserving praise still. Artists were clearly inspired by Mike Mignola’s graphic novels. Remember Hellboy or his opponents? Yes, you will fight similar fiendish creatures. And honestly, that would be enough to imagine yourself and your estate being a precursor to the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense.
Though you will immerse in the atmosphere of Gothic Horror even further with the narrator (supposedly your relative) revealing horrific secrets of the estate. He (or maybe his spirit, as he is dead) will guide you through tutorials, drop some hints. And even crack a few gruesome jokes. Though at some point you will learn all his phrases by heart.
Each of the “dungeons” has its own “flavor” in terms of monsters living there, types of traps and treasures found. Even with the layout of the rooms changing each expedition you will still gather enough impressions of what to be ready for. Though you’ll have to venture there quite many times to get to know all the stuff.
Devil in Details
However, I’m not sure that the game should rely on player’s experimentation THAT much. Even some basic instructions are missing in the tutorial. And you can’t exactly look up for what each affliction (that manifests on 100+ stress) means. Or compare heroes side by side at your base. System of hunger is totally counter-intuitive.
Brutal random doesn’t help at all. With inevitable deaths happening on a regular basis, you will be forced to “train” your new recruits in low-level dungeons – the thing which is essentially a grind. Again and again. Sure, with DLCs you will have an additional variety of missions and enemies, but you will still have to start with basics. Until quite a few costly (luckily with only in-game money) upgrades that will allow you to hire more high-level heroes from the start.
But even with those problems, the game offers a great experience. Exploring new territories – both literally and in terms of tactics and monsters can be incredibly engaging. As unfavorable circumstance strike (be it a row of powerful enemy attacks or nasty surprise in the curio) your mind will have enough exercise in adapting and devising a new strategy. Too bad, if you lose you will have to hire newbies and raise them from scratch.
And when you will find yourself too familiar with all the monsters and traps after a few successful playthroughs, there are mods for you in Steam Workshop. So you can dig even deeper.