The central message of Darkest Dungeon — if we can be so serious as to make one — is that instead of making stronger, noble heroes, repeated dungeon delves in RPGs would cause serious mental and physical trauma. If these people were anything like us. It almost makes me wonder if this is a sly look at how combat veterans deal with multiple deployments and the scars (visible and internal) that they return with.
Then again, Darkest Dungeon could merely be a clever title that takes the bland tropes of being a professional munchkin and make a game out of considering the mental state of our party in addition to their physical. Either way, it’s a pretty impressive display.
Darkest Dungeon opens with a simple backstory: A rich man becomes obsessed with digging under his manor until he happens to hit on portals to eldritch realms, goes pretty much bonkers, then begs his relatives to go dungeon diving on his behalf and beat these monstrosities back. Even the surrounding town is ruined, slowly being repaired as the player progresses through the dungeons.
The central idea here is that players form teams of four characters out of a roster of off-kilter heroes, go into the various dungeons under the manor, and return with loot to expand services and strengthen the party. As the name implies, it’s a grim task that will most likely churn up bodies in a meatgrinder — if they’re lucky. If not, they’ll probably go stark raving mad from the efforts.
Dungeon delves are cautious, difficult affairs in which you must try to get as far as you can while keeping your party somewhat sane and hale. There’s turn-based combat, traps, and all manner of clickables. It doesn’t help that your torches keep flickering out, letting the darkness creep in…
So instead of a full review or an account of my playthrough, I wanted to highlight three factors that really go into making Darkest Dungeon a memorable, well-crafted RPG title.
1. The Art
While at its core, Darkest Dungeon is really just a 2-D title with minimal animation, it makes up for any visual deficiencies with its art style. It reminds me of Paper Mario a bit, and also Flash animation, but mostly a really dark and gritty graphic novel inked with lots of personality and talent. The characters, the backgrounds, the attacks — all of it makes me think of an animated graphic novel, one which I would gladly read. The thick lines and lack of any sun (save for the intro) or cheery dispositions makes for a moody go. “Cute” has no place here. I could lose myself in how this game is drawn.
2. The Language
Even more than how the game looks is how it both reads and sounds. There’s a particular emphasis here on descriptions and narratives that sound like they’re straight out of a gothic story. Lots of older turns of phrases, heavier descriptions, and dour monologues abound.
What I love the best is the narrator, who gives this game a severe gravitas. Whether you’re perusing the small hamlet’s services or getting pummeled in a dungeon, he’s constantly popping in with something to say — and what he says gives weight to the atmosphere and actions. Again, it’s like someone took a really great fantasy novel and then broke it up, sifted it for all the best sentences, and then parceled them out to us.
“Survival is a tenuous proposition… in this sprawling tomb.”
3. The Stress
As I said earlier, the stress/mental health mechanic is what sets Darkest Dungeon apart from its contemporaries, and it’s a well-thought-out mechanic at that. Each character has a stress bar that goes from 0 to 200, and the higher it goes, the more a character starts to lose it. At 100, a character’s “resolve” is tested, which could well result in obtaining a negative trait that will stick with him or her until treated.
There are simply scads of quirks to be found here, many of which radically change how the group functions. Have your healer become paranoid? She might stop healing or refuse help, thinking that everyone is against her. I had a Plague Doctor who got the curious quirk, so he would automatically touch every dang thing in the dungeon whether I wanted the party to or not.
Seeing your team unravel — and trying to do everything you can to keep them from doing so — is where the stories from Darkest Dungeon emerge. Sometimes it gets downright hilarious, but often you feel genuinely bad as these adventurers go mad trying to push to the end of a dungeon run. At least you can plop them in a church, tavern, or sanitarium afterward to give them some respite.