The Darkest Dungeon

Of late, I have been playing a game called the Darkest Dungeon. It is a side-scrolling Roguelike RPG, designed by a studio called Red Hook, and funded (in part) through Kick-starter[1]. It is one of the success stories of the current trend of crowd funding, in terms of both money raised and the product that is being delivered. I first became aware of the game’s existence through a video put together by Matt Lees, a videogame/web-media personality whose work I follow. I wasn’t part of the Kickstarter, I was given the game as a birthday present. It is currently available through Steam’s Early Access feature. I’d like to share my thoughts which are, overwhelmingly, positive.

First of all, and probably most importantly for me, the game is absolutely amazingly realised. I am of the opinion that there is a bit of a glut of Lovecraft-mythos inspired media currently out there, a kind of lazy embrace of Cthulhu and assorted monstrosities without any interrogation of the text. Similarly, the trend for ‘dark fantasy.’ To put it another way, given I did write ‘dark fantasy’ novella, I have developed in to a bit of a picky snob with regards to genre.

In The Darkest Dungeon I think these two themes have been stylishly represented and artfully deployed. The game is presented to the player in two modes: a washed-out township with a collection of decrepit buildings or, the meat of the game, 2-d side scrolling sprites arranged in order as they move from the left side of your screen to the right, tripping hazards and looting treasures along the way. A simple foundation, boldly realised. The art direction is amazing and evocative: the Ruins are gothic, there’s a slaughter-house vibe to the Warrens of the swine, and the Weald is the dark forest of traditional fairy-tale married to a Del Toro-esque fantasy vision. Everything looks grubby, worn, and a little close to breaking; the heroes look nearly as bestial as the monsters they face; and the simple colour shifts of the torch wash out the world in threatening reds and obscuring blues. This is accompanied by fragmentary narration by a nameless ‘Ancestor’ who warns and entreats in equal measure, a score that emphasizes the claustrophobia and creeping unease of the setting, and a sound effects palette that shifts from soft whispered squeals to reverberating echoes. An incredible amount of work has gone in to realising this setting.

Monsters hideous and peculiar

Monsters hideous and peculiar

I’ve never really played “Roguelikes.” I remember, vaguely, the original Rogue as something my older brothers probably played, but especially that my mum really liked.[2] That meant that, apart from a little bit of peripheral reading, I was not familiar with the mechanisms of Roguelike play – randomness, nonlinearity, the tendency for things to sometimes be just unfair. That is not to say I only play games with a preset structure – a current favourite is Crusader Kings 2 – but I’m more inclined to ‘save scum’[3] if I don’t get the outcome I want. That option isn’t available in DD, which means that I have to accept my losses as I progress. This has been emphasized by a particular conceit I have embraced while playing Darkest Dungeon: I have renamed each of my heroes to a family member or friend.

Or a nickname, on request

Or a nickname, on request

It is an odd little quirk to get you more invested in the characters, that tiny amount of customisation. You can do a similar thing in the 2012 X-Com game;[4] my actual first play-through of the game featured me renaming every recruit that of my friends and family, semi-prompted by the narrative of familial duty that the game presents.[5] This added investment, the tiniest of tweaks in customisation, added another layer to my engagement with the fictive universe: I wasn’t just some nameless inheritor sending strangers off to die, I was me, and the people fighting in the tombs were my friends. Yet the game itself exceeds the expectation of just naming your soldiers that the afore-mentioned X-Com offered. The heroes of Darkest Dungeon suffer for their travails, bend and break as they are exposed to danger and horror, and develop strange quirks of personality as a result of it. I think it is telling that, while the quirks that affect stats were the one’s that were most obviously detrimental, it was the traits that reflected personality that brought the characters to life and affected game play. One Graverobber was ‘Curious’, rifling through books and scrolls even as they further eroded her mind. Then there was the Crusader, a holy warrior, afflicted with Kleptomania; sometimes, against my wishes, he would open chests and pocket the treasure for himself

Meanwhile, in Hamlet...

Meanwhile, in Hamlet…

Even back in town, characters would refuse or require certain activities: the Highwayman who refused any comfort other than drink, or the Vestal who had been barred from the Brothel for her ‘Deviant Tastes.’ The band came alive with quirks beyond my direct governance. When, finally, the deathblows fell,[6] I had become attached to them through their habits as much as the names I had given them.

The center cannot hold

The center cannot hold

There are also, mechanically, so many little features of Darkest Dungeon, all geared to evoking the claustrophobic feel of the descent. Your characters are not just at risk of bodily harm; they have a Stress meter that endures between forays in to the dungeon. Gain too much stress, and your hero can break, becoming abusive or paranoid. Gain even more, and it could kill them.

All too much

All too much

Stress is gained in combat, but also from unexpected surprises such as finding a gruesome scene or reading a particularly troubling text. You have limited supply space when you go in to the Dungeon; your heroes need to eat, but how much will you bring? You need to plan for what you might encounter: tunnels to clear passages, or bandages to bind up cuts.

Come prepared, and you may reap the rewards

Come prepared, and you may reap the rewards

Yet this all costs gold, and takes up space, reducing how much you can bring home from the dungeon. The money so spent is lost. That’s the core of the gameplay, balancing the risk of pushing on and losing everything, with the potential to gain more treasure. A tough fight might be winnable, or you might prefer to retreat when things go south. Unlike, say, a modern MMO where the only thing lost is time, in Darkest Dungeon you could lose a treasured Hero (and the investment they represent) as well as everything they were carrying

.Darkest Dungeon is not without flaws. Despite your heroes deteriorating state, there is no sense of urgency in the over game. It is a perfectly viable strategy to rinse through several heroes just to get gold and heirlooms. I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about the Occultist being locked in as mystic and coded as non-white.[7] There are a lot of bugs, from graphical glitches where objects, events, and even characters will be locked out; there is a consistent problem with crashes and lock-ups, and the game is not at all well integrated with the Steam Overlay. I had to turn off alerts of any sort, and frequently had to restart when taking screen shots.

For example

For example

This would have been a bigger problem without the constant auto-saving. I also think that the game’s difficulty could use some attention; the balance between the risk of exploring in the dark doesn’t feel that great, while the rewards are staggering. There are some abilities that just come across as emphatically better; I can’t imagine using any of the Hellion’s self-bebuffing abilities when other classes can do more for less; the Arbalist and the Bountyhunter’s Marks are both vastly inferior to the Houndmasters and the Occultist’s. There’s some need for another balance pass there.

It is an excellent, atmospheric game though. It achieves the tense feeling of a classic dungeon crawl without reference to complex placement. The music, art, and tone of the game draw you in; what at first seems a plea for help is gradually revealed as more of a protracted confession of wrong-doing. The little touches on the Heroes makes you feel connected with your favourites, even as you throw them again and again in to the jaws of doom. Each classes offers something a little different, a different strength that, it turns out, has a niche in the Dungeons. Build a party around Marks, build a party around Blight, or build a party that is so tough you can just wear the enemies down. I love the kind of real, tactical choice Darkest Dungeon offers, and more that it wraps it in a game so evocative and ridiculously beautiful. It is already amazing, and there is more to come.

Gather strength before pushing onward.

Gather strength before pushing onward.

[1] Also involving the company Klei, who were behind the equally quirky “Don’t Starve.” There’s some commonality in the aesthetic of the two games.

[2] In fact, when I was chatting with her about The Darkest Dungeon, her face lit up as she said “So it’s like Rogue!”

[3] That is, quit and reload from an earlier point in the game.

[4] Which I also quite enjoyed.

[5] I made my exploits available to send friends through a private screenshot collection, some of which you see here.

[6] In some cases, multiple times.

[7] Though by and large the game is excellent when it comes to the diversity of the heroes. For most characters with visible faces, the tones vary dramatically. So good on Red Hook.


3 thoughts on “The Darkest Dungeon

  1. This is a very nice overview of the darkest dungeon in its early access state. I am an early adopter as well and agree with most of what’s here, though I’m not sure I understand your issue with the non-white occultist: each character has a single race and sex, such as the highwayman being white and male and the vestal being white and female. Are you against the hard coding of their characteristics in general or just in the case of the Occultist?

    • Hi,
      With regard to the Occultist, it troubles me because there’s a lot of history behind magic and mystician being ‘Oriental’ (as in Said’s definition of it) and seeing it reproduced bugs me. I can’t help but contrast with, say, the Hellion, who is a Barbarian but comes in a variety of skin tones, or the Armsman, who has likewise. There has obviously been some thought put in there, with the aforementioned classes getting a variety of palettes, so the Occultist stood out in that you couldn’t.

      It isn’t a big deal and, given elsewhere (at least in the hero roster) you have quite a lot of diversity, I won’t be brigading Red Hook. It is just in the reproduction of this specific type that I noticed it, especially given the obvious, ‘mythos’ inspiration that the game draws on – shades of the ‘mad Arab’ and all that.

      • Ah, that makes perfect sense! I played it a while ago and there still weren’t different color palettes for certain classes. I can certainly understand your issue with that approach, my first thought when I saw it was that you were alright with no variety in the white classes but irked from having to play someone with dark skin and a turban – glad to know it’s actually a (very) valid point. I guess the game’s lore draws a lot from 19th-early 20th century English fiction, and anyone who’s read Sherlock Holmes will know that the “mystical Arabs” seemed to be all the rage back then. I’ll be following you, if you’d like you can take a look at my blog – I plan on doing an early evaluation of Darkest Dungeon some day, as well.

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