Darkest Dungeon is hard. Really hard. You could play it on Easy mode… but it’s still hard! This is one of those super-tough games for players who want a serious challenge to overcome, and if that isn’t you then the game isn’t going to pull its punches. Darkest Dungeon has now released on Xbox One, complete with The Crimson Court DLC, so let’s take a look at the brutal Lovecraftian RPG and see just how many wonderful ways you can die.
We begin with exposition from our (wonderfully well-voiced) ancestor regarding the family estate, telling us that during his time living there he discovered a hellish portal beneath the land, filled with horrifying creatures. He has written a letter to the player, imploring them to return to their home, to drive back the invading horrors and to reclaim the estate. Along the way we learn of — and battle — many of the creatures associated with the mansion’s past, before delving into the Darkest Dungeon itself to finally seal away the encroaching evil. Assuming you manage to get that far, of course.
The game plays somewhat like the rebooted XCOM (which works for me!) crossed with a JRPG of sorts. Before heading out to adventure, you build up the hamlet (your base of operations) by upgrading the various structures, as well as hire and strengthen soldiers by using these buildings. Buildings are upgraded through heirlooms and using them requires money, both of which are found during your excursions. Once you are done playing with your town, you set out on a quest into one of the four locations (five with the DLC) with a team of four soldiers from your roster, equipping them with items for buffs and equipment to support them on their journey.
Quests take the form of real-time exploration of randomly generated rooms and corridors by using the analogue stick. Your quests tend to revolve around exploring a certain number of rooms, killing enemies, finding items or defeating bosses. When you encounter enemies (either in a room or a corridor), you switch to turn-based combat in which you select attacks and use support items to defeat your foes. The interesting thing here is that you and your enemies’ position in their respective parties determines who can use which attacks. A Hellion is very effective in position one (the front) and can hit most enemies, but should they be knocked further back in the ranks they will be next to useless, meaning future turns need to be spent repositioning her rather than attacking or recovering.
Enemies and heroes all hit very hard, meaning deaths can come quickly to either side. Your characters have an advantage here, as being reduced to zero health does not mean death, but places them on Death’s Door, meaning the next hit may kill them. However, your soldiers are susceptible to stress. High-impact attacks, horrifying monsters and walking around in darkness all increase stress. Should it reach a hundred, they either toughen up or — more frequently — crack under pressure and start acting irrationally. Perhaps they’ll stress out other party members, refuse to heal others or swap positions within the party. Should it reach two hundred, they have a heart attack and die. Balancing health and stress recovery whilst maintaining an effective attack is the key to the game, and as you become more used to the enemies, you get better at managing this with your different character classes. Bosses throw curve balls by having unusual ways to mess with your party, perhaps kidnapping someone temporarily or shuffling party members around constantly. They tend to be very challenging and victories against them tend to be by the skin of your teeth.
Success rewards you with money and heirlooms for your town, items for use in future excursions and experience for your characters. Quests are of differing lengths and challenge levels, and heroes won’t be afraid to tell you if they’re too terrified (or too powerful) to go on a certain quest based on their level. Sending people out is a risk regardless of their level, as an unfortunate run of bad luck can result in permanent death and loss of items. This can be significant, as losing a high-level character who has received a lot of investment can have a huge impact and may force you to change your future parties if you can’t find a way to replace them.
Replacing team members is a challenge in itself, as you only have a few new recruits as options (free of charge, thankfully) and there are a huge number of different classes, meaning a true replacement may not be possible at the time. Learning how all these different classes work and what their role is in any given party is crucial to having a hope in the higher level dungeons, and especially in the Darkest Dungeon itself. Characters can develop quirks, both positive and negative, that have an impact on their skills. Perhaps they will be faster in the dark but slower in the light; maybe they consume more food when they are stressed; or they may be prone to stealing items. These can be cured or locked in place by using buildings in town, but they do add an extra dimension to each character. Two Crusaders may play in completely different ways depending on their individual traits.
The downside in the way Darkest Dungeon plays out is that you can occasionally get bogged down in a grind. You need to power up your characters to allow them to access the titular quests and doing so can take some time. Should a major character die (and they will die), you need to spend time training up a replacement. Defeating bosses can be a slog as you complete dungeon runs to unlock that battle. Each area has multiple bosses, but they’re often the same couple of bosses multiple times. This slog does somewhat tie into the narrative, but it does become tedious after a while.
The challenge level of the game is very high, even on the easiest setting, with enemies utterly destroying your heroes if you make even the slightest mistake (and sometimes even if you don’t) on normal mode. On Stygian (hard), you have near on no chance, with a hero and time limit to contend with as well as the punishing difficulty. Radiant mode (easy) is somewhat forgiving by comparison, but only if you’re prepared. Even in this mode, I suffered a few party wipes during the Darkest Dungeon quests towards the end of the game due to not having a good plan going into them. There are plenty of options to adjust difficulty, though. You can prevent corpses from blocking your attacks, you can reduce enemy crit damage, you can reduce the effects of stress damage… It’s great for a developer to include so many options when it comes to difficulty. You’re still going to die, though…
Now, my favourite thing about Darkest Dungeon is the presentation. The character designs are fantastic, with both the heroes and the enemies really standing out. The Crimson Court characters have a wonderful visual style to them, but even the most basic of enemies have a huge amount of horrifying detail. The animations are mostly quite simple, but when combined with the sound effects work perfectly. Every attack sounds and looks as though it’s utterly brutal (and based on the health damage, they probably are). Speaking of the sound, the voice work is some of the best I’ve heard in even the highest-budget games. The narrator has the perfect voice to convey the horrors present in this Lovecraftian world of demons and unseen suffering inflicted by them. It really adds to the unsettling atmosphere in the run-up to a major boss encounter.
The Xbox One version of Darkest Dungeon comes with The Crimson Court DLC included (although it bizarrely doesn’t have the Shieldbreaker character DLC with it) which adds a new area called the Courtyard, along with new enemies, bosses and mechanics. Enemies are themed around vampirism, which can be inflicted upon your characters, giving them debuffs (and eventually causing their deaths) unless they’re regularly fed blood. Blood gives vampiric characters buffs, though, so it becomes something of a strategic resource. Annoyingly, if you go to the Courtyard too early in your campaign, you can end up with a lot of your characters requiring blood very early in the game, scuppering your chances early on. It’s definitely an area to consider for later on — it’s a hell of a good expansion to sink your teeth into (pun intended) and really adds a lot to the game.
There’s a new DLC due soon, as well, in the form of The Colour of Madness, which changes the game in significant ways — so now might be an excellent time to look into playing the game as it currently stands in preparation for this release. If you’re in the market for something utterly brutal but incredibly satisfying to overcome, this is the perfect game to take a look at. Just don’t let it drive you mad.