I am a self diagnosed The Binding of Isaac addict. While my playtimes are eclipsed by the most dedicated of players, I still clock in well over 300 hours between the original and 2014’s new edition of the indie classic. Be that as it may, I’m always on a lookout for new games to mix up my play time with. At first I was looking for close-to clones, but when titles like Our Darker Purpose just didn’t click in the same way, I became unsure of what I was actually looking for. Now comes along Red Hook’s new rogue-lite dungeon crawler Darkest Dungeon, and it’s the first game to pierce my thoughts with such ferocity since Isaac.
It turns out what I was looking for was a fresh change of pace with familiar mechanics, and Darkest Dungeon fits the bill. The game’s stress mechanics are fairly unique and are implemented in a way that is not only engaging from a gameplay standpoint, but also adds value to the horrific world. The atmosphere derives heavily from Lovecraftian themes of hopelessness and fear, benefited by the game’s unforgiving nature, as well as the horrific design of the cast of enemies.
In Darkest Dungeon, stress management arguably more important than health management. Acting as a secondary life bar that doesn’t refresh at the end of each adventure, and carries with it the potential for entire party collapse. Character levels are entirely stress resistant focus, and the ways that the mechanic involve themselves in every aspect of gameplay is arguably genius. As characters are hit with critical hits in combat, team morale reduces and stress increases. When critical hits are dealt on the enemy, the opposite happens. And as the light dims, units will just naturally become uncomfortable and gain stress.
Things get ugly when a unit’s stress levels get too high. The result is for their resolve to be tested. Units are inflicted with an existential crisis like hopelessness, or masochism. The result is the rest of the team’s stress levels going haywire, and the afflicted character might refuse healing, disobey orders, or attack themselves. Considering this rarely happens unless things have gone to a dark place, falling into a chain reaction of stress damage could easily result in a loss of an entire party of heroes. Those who do manage to survive must sit out a week or more of dungeon delving for much needed therapy.
Safety is a forgotten virtue in the world of Darkest Dungeon. The goal is to send undertrained teams of heroes to their potential death to rid the wilds of fantastical horrors through a remarkably involving turn-based battle system that relies on random number generation often, but does not underplay a massive importance of player strategy to keep yourself alive.
With the entire game taking place on a 2D plane, combat’s complexity comes from the diversity of character classes mixed with their placement on the roster. As you descend deeper into each of the randomly generated dungeon, you will encounter foes who, much like you, are stuck on a singular plane of action. Each character’s move has a designated origin point and possible positions of attack. Because of this, each particular class has different functions in various positions of the field. For instance, the Crusader is a tankier class who has more options at the front of the arrangement in rank 1 or 2, where he can use powerful focused moves, or area of effect attacks. In ranks 3 or 4 he has drastically less options, limited to a weak heal move or a lance attack which moves him back to the front of the rotation. Another character type like the support class Occultist have way more options towards the back of the alignment, such as healing or long range attacks. Thankfully, the game’s useful user interface gives unit preferences in placement.
Much like with other rogue-lite experiences, strategic resource management is key to survival. In Darkest Dungeon, the emphasis for that is on preparation for each descent into madness. Selecting the right amount of torches to manage light, food to manage hunger, and supplies to curb the drain of impairments like bleed and blight are the key to success. With random generation playing a major roll in all aspects of Darkest Dungeon, improper prep can have your fate spelled out for you before you even get your first look at the dungeon at hand.
The game’s randomization can be a positive or negative for some. In the capacity that it is now (with the game still in beta and getting frequent balance patches based on player feedback), I find the randomization completely enjoyable, and a way to keep the player on their toes. The game takes tons of influence from the Dungeons & Dragons’ school of randomization, with nearly every action and event controlled by invisible dice rolls. Room layouts, to loot, to attack order, and so on are a slave to the dice. Even so, most aspects have some predictability involved, such as visible status chances, or objects having a set number of outcomes set to that dice roll, so getting used to each event comes down to trial and error.
The negatives of the RNG systems come from the combat, where the game can seemingly on a whim end your life. While this has seldom happened to me, it makes each encounter feel truly threatening, and requires a good deal of thinking. Turn order is “random” in that, as it appears to be, is established by character speeds followed by a dice roll deciding whether or not the character gets to take that turn. Moves can miss rather frequently, something that I feel could use a little bit of tweaking. Because of it though, it becomes hard to say that unlike a game like Dark Souls, Darkest Dungeon CAN be unfairly difficult, it just rarely is.
Death’s Door is one mechanic that sort of gives the player some benefit from the game’s randomization. Character’s cannot simply be swept by bad roll chains, and this mechanic acts as sort of a fail save. Much like Borderlands, heroes have a “fight for your life” mechanic, where they can resist fatality by the skin of their teeth. In this mode, heroes effectively have zero HP and enter a new version of RNG where they can resist any form of damage and stay alive. The mode remains until you heal that character with food or a healing move.
The question arises however, “is Darkest Dungeon worth $19.99 for its beta”? I’d say yes and no. Yes because the package here is functionally complete, short of balancing, with tons more content left to add. The game’s final two dungeons are still in development, as well as a handful of exciting sounding new heroes. If a complete package is something you need to have right off the bat, then hold off, but if you can find comfort with the 30+ hours of content already available in Darkest Dungeon, then I encourage you to buy in now and participate in an evolving game as more content rolls out by its expected release in the Summer.
Darkest Dungeon is the most engaging experience of the year so far, and it’s not even complete yet. Thematically amazing, with great polish, a fantastic art style and atmosphere, and intoxicating RNG infused gameplay, Darkest Dungeon is pure crack for someone like me who wastes hours a day replaying The Binding of Isaac and I fear for my own sanity when the game follows suit and makes it to Playstation Vita. Red Hood’s game is in the early stages of being a masterpiece for a rookie studio, and above all else it has me more confident about 2015 as a year in this industry. I could keep talking for ages about what I find appealing about this game, but I need to save some things for the review.