Developer: Red Hook Studios
Publisher: Red Hook Studios
Release Date: 18 January 2018
Price: $24.99 / £17.99
Reviewed by Josh Brant
Masochists rejoice! Darkest Dungeon’s long-awaited release on Nintendo Switch has arrived after previously being released first as an Early Access game on PC, and later on PS4 and Vita. Created by developer Red Hook Studios, Darkest Dungeon is a gripping tour-de-force that provides a completely individualistic experience and might be one of the best turn-based RPGs ever created.
Darkest Dungeon is a dungeon crawler with a new twist on status effects, in the form of stress and psychological traits that can only be relieved by various activities.
The Stuff of Nightmares
The story revolves around the player taking control of a gothic mansion, while the previous owner narrates his quest for power and fame, escalating the dungeons and catacombs beneath his very own home. This unleashes otherworldly horrors throughout the land, and these Lovecraftian enemies are certainly the stuff of nightmares, with their grotesque appearances and occult-rich vices.
You are tasked with recruiting various class-based heroes - all of which have their own unique abilities, traits, and equippable items - in order to defeat what lurks in the darkest dungeon and the four surrounding areas. Each area features different hazards, enemy types, and other monstrosities lurking around every corner. The somewhat permanent psychological traits build up for each hero, fleshing out that character in a deep algorithm of randomness. This in turn makes each character memorable, but all the more terrible if and when they die.
At the beginning of Darkest Dungeon, you are told to embrace death, and you'll soon learn to do so, as you will have numerous heroes die throughout your playthrough. Personally, I probably lost 60 heroes in just under 50 hours of play time. Forcing you to try and stay detached, while constantly adapting to new teams, is Darkest Dungeon’s bread and butter. You should never grow too attached to those in your party.
After succeeding or failing at a mission, your heroes will be returned to their home town of Hamlet. This is an upgradeable base that allows for improving weapons or armor, relieving stress, improving abilities, recruiting new heroes, and more. The town itself can experience its own randomised town events that may help or hinder you in a variety of different ways. When a team is ready to embark, you’ll have a set task to achieve, whether it be defeating unique bosses or just exploring every room.
While crawling through a randomised dungeon layout, the team will have to battle numerous monstrosities in a single file line while taking turns attacking or performing abilities and skills. This is where tactical positioning comes in. Certain classes are more suited for certain positions based on their abilities and the same goes for enemies; for example: healers in the back, brawlers in the front, and alchemists or buff specialists in the middle.
Quests can vary in length and range from short, medium, and long. The medium and long length quests will require the team to bring firewood in order to set-up a campsite in the middle of a journey to recoup some strength and sanity. Camping makes the adventure feel tangible, as if everyone would really get tired and hungry while exploring a downtrodden maze. Each class brings another set of abilities to camping as well, with some being able to tend wounds, serenade the party with music, pray, and much more. This extra level of planning while inside a dungeon is a nice touch.
Rising Grind raises all ships
Almost after 50 hours of playtime, I feel like I’ve barely made a dent in completing Darkest Dungeon, and by no means is this a bad thing. The highest level you can upgrade a character to is 6, and the higher their level, the less likely the are to fall prey to certain psychological effects. Heroes at level 6 are theoretically ready to tackle the actual darkest dungeon, but I still struggled with level five in the harder standard quests. The good part is that with the more dungeons you enter, the more loot you gain to level up your party’s starting level, taking away the grind of leveling up the newbies.
While the classes are very diversified in their expertise, I felt like the healing aspect of some of your characters doesn’t feel right. There are only two classes that do any type of party healing, with other characters having various abilities that only heal themselves or a smaller percentage of another hero's HP. Since your available pool of heroes is random, sometimes you may not even have a good healer to take on a quest.
You might think this can be mitigated by healing items, but unfortunately there are none. You can bring food on each quest for when the heroes get hungry, or for use during camping, and this restores HP, but very little and thus is almost worthless.
Knock, Knock, Knockin' on Heaven's Door
When a hero’s HP hits zero, they enter a phase known as Death’s Door in which any subsequent hit has a 33% chance of killing them off for good. Should you happen to heal that character past the point of death, they now have a permanent debuff for the remainder of the quest. This almost feels too punishing, but I appreciated having a second or even third chance to save a hero knocking on Death’s Door. Also, if a hero’s sanity level reaches 100%, they will have a heart attack and be knocked down to zero HP. Even with a dedicated healer, it can be difficult to play knock-and-run with the Grim Reaper.
This constant struggle is part of what makes Darkest Dungeon so intriguing, and there are almost no boons in the players favour, outside of the chance of gaining Virtue: a positive effect of stress that can add buffs to a character. While the difficulty could be a major turn-off for most, there is something ultimately gratifying about it, and it compels you to go exploring again in a new dungeon and see what new surprises await.
Can I see the menu please?
My only complaints involve the UI and how the menus work. Firstly, text while playing on the big screen is fine, but when in handheld mode it can appear too small at times. Secondly, I found navigating the menus and just searching for simple commands unintuitive, and it becomes too easy to press the wrong thing or forget how to access a certain part of the menu. There is a help guide by pressing the Minus button, but it still seems like the controls could have been laid out better.
Even with a few nitpicks, the nature of Darkest Dungeon and the constantly compounding gameplay systems driven by dice rolls was always exciting to me. Even minor quests may quickly become an unmitigated disaster and that dance with death never grew old. You’ll quickly learn the ins and outs of each dungeon and see the same environments and enemies, but somehow Red Hook Studios managed to get a ton of mileage out of the limited resources they had. One or two classes may be essentially worthless, but every ability of your team and hero pool are really cool to experiment with.
Finally, the visuals in Darkest Dungeon are about as perfect as a gothic rogue-like RPG can be. It is ambitious, especially with the design of the creatures, but smartly knows that it should not aim for heights beyond their scope. The small range of dungeons allows for each to be elaborately designed and memorable. Also, the soundtrack, composed by Stuart Chatwood, further enhances the dark atmosphere created by the story and graphical design.
Overall, Darkest Dungeon manages to pack a lot content in a small package and for the most part it’s amazingly presented and thought out. It asks a lot of the player with managing numerous systems, but the simple task of completing a quest or just narrowly escaping a bad situation keeps the experience fresh and exciting. There is very little to criticize about Darkest Dungeon and it is one experience I would recommend taking a trip into the abyss for.
Pros & Cons
+ Stunning art style
+ Great RPG mechanics
+ Intriguing story and lore to get lost in
+ Plenty of variety in gameplay and exploration
- Menu navigation can be clunky
- Some of the character classes are underutilized