I have never been more split on my stance with a game than I have been with Darkest Dungeon. I love and hate this game, it is addicting but many of its design decisions are baffling. So many factors of this game are absolutely phenomenal, but just a few bad decisions significantly hamper the overall experience. This game gets heaps of praise from reviewers and players, but most of them have not completed the game, and the last half of the game is where most of the issues are obvious. I have been playing this game on and off for a about a year, I would play it heavily for a week or two but then would stop because I had my fill. That’s the big issue with Darkest Dungeon, it’s just far too long.
Darkest Dungeon is a roguelike turn-based dungeon crawler in which the player inherits their ancestral home. Unfortunately, this home and the surrounding town have been infested by eldritch horrors and the player must recruit a team of heroes to cleanse the land. There are four main areas which you can take on, and at the peak of the town is the titular darkest dungeon which must be conquered to restore the village to its former glory. In each area you can assemble a party of 4 heroes from 15 different classes to complete quests to gain gold, trinkets, relics, and experience. The system of progression is one of the factors makes Darkest Dungeon so addicting, you collect relics which are used to upgrade the buildings in the town, like the blacksmith for example, to further power up your characters. The core loop of Darkest Dungeon is taking on these dungeons as your heroes gain experience, you upgrade the town, and you spend gold to upgrade your heroes’ weapons and skills. This is a satisfying cycle that kept me interested as I trained my heroes to be prepared to take on the final darkest dungeon.
Darkest Dungeon is a turn-based dungeon crawler with a unique twist. Instead of just taking just normal health damage, your heroes also take stress damage and will eventually go mad if you are not careful. This Lovecraftian-inspired game delves into the psychological effects of dungeon crawling and fighting hordes of monster without respite. Furthermore, stress-damage persists between dungeons while health-damage is restored after a quest is completed. This means that you have to give your heroes a break and let them recover at the town abbey or bar. This encourages the player to use many different characters and forces the player to experiment with party compositions and test out new class combinations. If a character’s stress level goes above 100, then they will likely become temporarily afflicted with a trait like masochism, selfishness, or paranoia. This causes the hero to not listen to player commands and perform detrimental actions. If the stress level reaches 200, then the hero will die. It is absolutely paramount to manage the stress of your characters, and it adds an extra layer of depth to the turn-based combat.
What I love most about Darkest Dungeon is not its gameplay, but the Lovecraftian style that it utilizes as well as the art and sounds of the game. The artwork in Darkest Dungeon is similar to a comic book and this style is perfect for a turn-based action game. The animations are crisp and satisfying, and the backgrounds and monsters are properly horrifying. The character designs of the heroes are also fantastic and Red Hook Studios did a phenomenal job at remaking the classic class tropes such as healer, warrior, marksman, and thief into much more intricate designs. This game has more Lovecraftian elements than just the cosmic horror it imbues. The narrator of the game, Wayne June, was the narrator for many of Lovecraft’s audio books and he masterfully encapsulates the novels. The voice lines are memorable, quotable, and are famous for their verbosity. A few of my favorites:
“Monstrous size has no intrinsic merit, unless inordinate exsanguination be considered a virtue.”
“Overconfidence is a slow and insidious killer.”
“As life ebbs, terrible vistas of emptiness reveal themselves.”
This voice lines were written and delivered extraordinarily well and they ooze that Lovecraftian vibe that Red Hook Studios was trying to achieve.
By no stretch of the imagination can Darkest Dungeon be considered an easy game. One misstep can cause disaster, and even if you do not make any mistakes, some bad luck will brutalize your misfortunate heroes. One of the most contentious issues with Darkest Dungeon is its randomness. Sure, some random factors in turn-based games is welcome and necessary, but Darkest Dungeon takes these chances to new and frustrating heights. Things like hit-chance, critical hits, and status effects all are typically random in turn-based games, but this game goes far farther. The dungeon layouts are randomized, meaning you could fight 1 group of enemies and complete a dungeon, or you could fight 10. Even in town if you let your hero rest at the abbey to relieve stress there is a chance that they gain a negative perk or abandon your party for an unknown period of time. When beating a dungeon your heroes may gain a positive or negative quirk, again completely random. Worst of all, speed is fairly random as well, meaning that you cannot properly plan out turns because you have no idea which order the characters are going to perform an action in.
Furthermore, dungeon layouts, the number of enemies, and the types of enemies you face also varies heavily from mission to mission. I completely understand why randomness exists in the game, especially in combat, but some form of consistency would be appreciated. With pretty any action you take in Darkest Dungeon there is a good chance that something goes terribly wrong. To be fair, the motto that is constantly repeated for the game is that it is about “making the best out of a bad situation”, and that’s fine. But it is difficult to maneuver your way out of a sticky situation when a bad dice roll equates to disaster. The thing that exacerbates the randomness of the game is the overall length of the game, otherwise I would be completely fine with some bad luck.
Without a doubt, the biggest flaw of Darkest Dungeon is its obnoxious length. Even though I mostly loved the gameplay, it grew repetitive way before the end of the game was even in sight. For reference, it took me about 60 hours to complete the game, that is similar to the amount of time I put into massive open world games like Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and twice the length of any of the Dark Souls games and their respective DLCs. It is absurd that a turn-based dungeon crawler drags on for so long, especially since so much of its content is repeated. There are only 4 main dungeons that you constantly revisit. There are 3 “difficulties” to each of these dungeons. Apprentice for low level heroes, veteran for medium levels, and champion for the highest levels. These difficulties are functionally the same except for maybe 1 or 2 new enemies, just stronger enemies to match your stronger heroes. The worst part is that each dungeon has 2 bosses, and they are repeated on every difficulty level. Meaning that there are 8 bosses in the 4 main dungeons, but you fight each of them 3 times.
Apart from the overt repetitiveness, the length of the game also intensifies the randomness that the Darkest Dungeon exudes. It’s not such a big deal to lose a low-level hero, it stings but you can easily replace them. Losing a champion-level hero is a much different story however, they take a long time to train and cost a lot of money to upgrade fully. Losing one of your favorite heroes to a string of bad luck is near inevitable because the game is so long, you are bound to get unlucky. Moreover, the titular darkest dungeon, which is your goal to finish, is a slap in the face to the players.
There are 4 champion-level missions to be cleared in the final dungeon, each are significantly different than any dungeon in the game. Darkest Dungeon is a game that emphasizes proper preparation, bringing the right heroes, trinkets, items, and skills for any given dungeon. But the player has no idea what they are going to fight in these final missions, so you cannot properly prepare yourself. Furthermore, in every other dungeon, if things are looking too sketchy, you can abandon the quest with only minor penalties, in the darkest dungeon a character will die. So, you cannot properly prepare, you are hoping through blind luck that you will bring a good set of heroes because otherwise you will fail the mission or have to abandon and sacrifice a hero. To top it off, any hero that completes mission in darkest dungeon becomes psychologically scarred and cannot do any new missions there. The player is forced to have a diverse roster of at least 16 characters to beat the game. Luckily, I had about 20 high-level characters, but I can imagine that this would be a punch in the gut to anybody who was not prepared, as it would mean that you have to train up a bunch of new heroes. This just artificially lengthens a game that was already unbearably long.
Ultimately, it was the developer’s intention to go completely overboard with the length and randomness of Darkest Dungeon. The reasoning is that Darkest Dungeon is in some ways a meta statement. The player is meant to feel the stress that the heroes are feeling. It is meant to wear the player down just like how the heroes are driven insane. The same feeling could have been achieved if the game was 20 hours long rather than 60. I entirely understand the random nature of the game and how the player is meant to always be on the precipice of oblivion. I wish that it was toned back a tad and that some things had some consistency to them, but the randomness would not be an issue at all if the game was not so unfathomably long. I played for the first 20 hours and absolutely loved the game. Then I had my fill and took a break for a few months. Came back and played another 20 hours and had fun. Then I took another extended break and kind of slogged through the last bits of the game over the course of a few months.
Darkest Dungeon has absolutely no right being 60 hours. Any semblance of new content is sparingly sprinkled through the last 40 hours of gameplay. It is baffling because Darkest Dungeon was a game that was funded through Kickstarter and was available for early access. It was met with overwhelming success and praise and at the time was about 15-20 hours long. For some reason the developers just went completely overboard when the game was released. I was curious and looked up the achievement stats on Steam to see how many people actually completed Darkest Dungeon. About 2% of players who own the game have beaten it. That is abysmally low. For comparison, the famously “tough” Dark Souls games have about 15-25% completion rates. And The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, which is longer than Darkest Dungeon, has a 27% completion rate by its players. Darkest Dungeon just drags on for way too long for the amount of content it offers, and most of its players get bored or fed up far before the game reaches its conclusion.
Like I mentioned earlier, Darkest Dungeon is perhaps the most split I have ever been with my opinion of a game. By most rights, the game is utterly fantastic. It has brilliant combat, atmosphere, progression, mood, writing, character design, and visuals. But all this is thrown away because it just drags seemingly endlessly. If it was a third of the length, I’d sing praises for Darkest Dungeon, but instead I am just left confused. It is for these reasons I give Darkest Dungeon a 7/10. If you do pick the game up, I’d recommend not worrying about actually completing it. Instead just enjoy it like and endless dungeon crawler, because that is essentially what it is. I did have a lot of fun with the game, and I genuinely do love it, but it is plagued by grinding and repetition.
2 thoughts on “Darkest Dungeon (2016)”
This is one I have been interested in for awhile because I’ve heard good things from a lot of folks who played it, but I haven’t bit the bullet yet. Still not sure if I will since your review reflects mixed feelings about it! Maybe if it’s ever on sale or something I’ll scoop it up.
This is an excellent review, by the way. You cover the positives and negatives quite thoroughly!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Pingback: Good Week for Games | stephensopinions