Some games can be played as a way of escaping the everyday routines of the real world, some games work as an effective outlet for processing harsh realities, and some games just want to kick your ass. Darkest Dungeon is firmly in the final category. Combining the sadistic attitude of Dark Souls with the permadeath strategising of Fire Emblem, it takes great pleasure in crushing your dreams of success.
Having been available on Steam since the beginning of the year now, and before then through Early Access, Darkest Dungeon finds its way onto consoles as a far more polished and refined game. It benefits from Cross-Buy, and although I began reviewing on PS4 I found it more suited to the Vita. The big screen version seemed like overkill for the menu-based gameplay, and the whole experience works fantastically as a short burst pick up and play game. Cross-save works well between the two versions but, as always, is a bit cumbersome as you have to upload and transfer the save between the systems.
The game itself has a wonderful Lovecraftian aesthetic, complete with tentacled monsters and the constant threat of indescribable horrors. The Cthulhu mythos has been well represented in gaming, but Darkest Dungeon is surely the finest use of such influences since Eternal Darkness on the Gamecube. It features a similar mechanic of madness manifesting itself directly, albeit with the effects remaining more clearly within the game world. It plays like a well-designed board game, with all the calculations and random numbers happening in the background.
As the game begins, you are approaching the house of your deceased uncle, aware that he died in mysterious circumstances having dabbled in occult experiments. It is your duty to recruit and guide a party of unlikely heroes to explore around and beneath the mansion to uncover and eradicate the horrors that were released. So far, so predictable. The backstory is similar to many other RPGs, but the key difference here is how disposable your characters are. As with the hugely popular Souls series, you learn and progress through dying, so it pays not to get too attached to any of your team members.
The balance to be struck, therefore, is between ensuring that your characters are levelled up through experience and spending gold on their skills and equipment without over-investing and losing it all due to a doomed dungeon run. After the first few disasters, it becomes apparent that the best strategy is to have several different parties set up to alternate between, as the stresses of dungeon exploration necessitate resting your heroes between sorties.
Rest and relaxation in the game can take place in the bar, gambling house, brothel, or through various acts of devotion in the abbey. All of these cost money, however, and at the beginning of the game the main difficulty comes from earning enough to keep your party alive and healthy. It is also possible to change your character names, but given their life expectancies, not advisable.
As well as developing your heroes, you are directly responsible for the upkeep of the hamlet in which you are based. Various establishments, from the aforementioned bar and abbey to the blacksmith and the stagecoach on which your fated volunteers arrive can be upgraded and improved. Taken alongside the investments required for your characters, the game requires a cool-headed strategic approach even before you descend to the dungeons that represent the real body of the game.
Alongside the usual mix of fighters, mages and rogues, Darkest Dungeon contains a number of unusual character types. The starting skills and stats of your characters are randomly generated so sometimes it’s actually best to send a group to their deaths if they don’t fit your requirements, as callous as that sounds. I found most success with a party setup of a Leper (tank), Highwayman (mix of ranged/melee), Arbalest (ranged) and a Vestal (cleric/healer). This conventional RPG setup was offset by other teams featuring more esoteric figures such as the Houndsman, complete with dog, and the powerful but hugely unpredictable Abomination. The latter can deal massive damage, but will prevent devout characters from joining the team.
The vast range of potential party combinations provides a great deal of variety and depth to the game. The downside, however, is that the finances required to manage several teams and the town do mean a fair amount of grinding. As your characters (hopefully) become stronger, they no longer agree to carry out entry level missions, so you are forced to bring in new teams. This mechanic prevents easy grinding and gold farming but can add a frustrating element of delay to your main progression.
Darkest Dungeon’s PC origins can be seen in the complicated controls. Navigating menus requires shoulder buttons to be held, a process that feels uncomfortable for the first few hours. On the Vita, the back touchpad is used to cycle through your party members, which I found frustratingly unresponsive. Fortunately, an update in the past week allows these controls to be mapped onto the front touch screen which feels more intuitive and less prone to accidental slips of the fingers. Before this update, I had encountered a couple of infrequent crashes which is particularly frustrating in a rogue-like as progress was lost. They’ve yet to manifest for me since, so hopefully these have also been remedied now.
Darkest Dungeon has found itself high up in my games of the year list, and I’ll be playing it for a long time to come. An ungodly combination of Fire Emblem and Dark Souls, it delights in making you suffer, but every small step forwards feels like a massive achievement. It’s not for everyone, but if you enjoy the darkness and feel up to the challenge, you can’t do much better than enter the Darkest Dungeon. Just make sure that all your affairs are in order and that you have written a will, because once you’re in, you might not make it back out…
Version tested: PS4 ansd PS Vita