I’m a big fan of role playing games; it’s one of the holdovers from my time as an anti-social nerd up through high school. At the time, I had lots of spare time to sit down and really invest myself into the world of the game, lovingly craft and develop characters, and just get lost in the experience. These days, spare time is at a premium, and I can’t enjoy these types of games to the level that I once did, so I tend to seek out more condensed experience that pack a ton of personality in story in a small package. Darkest Dungeon hits these notes with flourish.
While Darkest Dungeon does have a nice, story-driven backdrop, the real trust of the game play is more strategic. You’re dealing with resources from the start, and they come in a couple of different stripes. The first, and probably most important, are your adventurers. These are the people who arrive via stagecoach to answer the call to adventure and try to reclaim your lost home from the horrors that have taken it over.
Like most RPGs, you develop your characters in the typical ways: unlocking and advancing their skills, and upgrading their equipment. But that’s only the beginning, and this is where Darkest Dungeon gets truly interesting. In addition to experience, equipment, and hit points, you also have to deal with their personalities and psychological stress.
Now, there are a lot of ways to incorporate the stress characters will no doubt feel into the game play, but the vast majority will feel cheap and tacked on. In Darkest Dungeon, it’s a core mechanic of the game. In fact it’s one of the most challenging aspects of the game and comes out in a pretty big variety of different ways.
At its most basic, characters in the game have a stress level, which works more or less the same way as hit points, except in reverse. While you want your hit points maxed out, you want the stress level as low as possible.
Characters accumulate stress whenever they have embarked on a quest. Once they’re exploring barrows and dungeons, their psyches are under attack from a variety of sources. Obviously, fighting the horrific monsters in the game stressed them out, but it comes out in a lot of other organic ways as well. If it gets too dark, stress levels start to rise. If a battle is going poorly, they stress more. Some monsters have attacks that specifically damage characters psychologically.
Let the stress levels get too high, and people will start breaking down. They’ll get combative, ignore your directions, refuse healing, and generally make things even tougher than they already are.
Of course, you can help push things in the other direction. Just as doing poorly in a fight causes stress to mount, landing critical hits or killing monsters can help the whole group. When questing, there’s not a whole lot you can do directly, other than try to mitigate the effects of an inherently dangerous activity, by doing things like ensuring you have plenty of food and torches, and don’t push your heroes too far.
Adventuring is only part of the game. The other half is managing your characters in your dilapidated estate. In town, you actually can help combat the stresses of adventuring through a variety of different services, which you slowly unlock the longer you play the game. You can let your heroes drown their troubles in the bar, hit up the brothel, get treated at the sanitarium, pray out the evil in the church. The downside? These activities all take time and cost money, and you only get money through adventuring. Thus the circle continues.
Clearly, the psychological aspect of the game is what’s getting all the attention here because it’s so unique. Beyond that, though, Darkest Dungeon has a lot of other strengths. Perhaps the biggest is the art style, which is absolutely gorgeous. One of the highlights to playing the game for me was gradually unlocking and discovering new environments, monsters, and animations.
As you can tell, I’m a pretty big fan of Darkest Dungeon. It’s been a long time that I’ve played something this inspired and interesting. That said, this is an early access title, and still being actively developed. You might run into bugs, and mechanics might change. I played a fair bit of the game, and didn’t run into any issues, but your mileage may vary. But if you want to support developers building something unique, well, hit that buy button.
You won’t regret it.