Live an Adventurer's Nightmare in 'Darkest Dungeon'

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Darkest Dungeon
“Slowly. Gently. This is how a life is taken.”

Darkest Dungeon released on Steam on January 19, and if you’re not playing it yet, you should be.

I want to tell you how great Darkest Dungeon is, to gush over its luscious narration, go on about the sense of dread permeated throughout the game, and share with you the tales of triumph and anguish my characters have survived. But here’s the thing: when the game came out on Steam Early Access in February 2015, GeekDad guest writer Dave Kirby wrote up his thoughts on the game, and he did it far better than I could hope to. Go read it now; I’ll wait.

An abomination is sliced by a man with knives on his arm, covering him in blood.
My abomination was slashed so badly at one point I decided to rename him Kylo Rend.

For those of you who didn’t go read his article (you still should!), here’s the summary: in Darkest Dungeon you assemble a mix of adventurers to explore terrifying locations and fight hideous monsters. Generally, the goal is simple: explore, fight, and defeat enemies. Collect loot, heal up, and repeat. The game’s fresh take on the genre is that your characters react much like you would if you had to descend into an abyss to fight demons from hell: they are severely stressed, they crack under the pressure, and they develop terrible behavioral traits.

The game informs you of its roguelike roots from the opening warning screen. Things don’t slow down from there: the cinematic, along with the narrator’s deeply disturbing tone, set the stage for your experience. Even the opening tutorial isn’t a pass; I lost both characters and sat there in blinking surprise as it sank in: yes, they are really dead. For real real dead.

The warning text for the game reads: "Darkest Dungeon is about making the most of a bad situation. Quests will fail or must be abandoned. Heroes will die. And when they die, they stay dead. Progress autosaves constantly, so actions are permanent. The game expects a lot out of you. How far will you push your adventurers? How much are you willing to risk in your quest to restore the Hamlet? What will you sacrifice to save the life of your favorite hero? Thankfully, there are always fresh souls arriving on the stage coach, seeking both adventure and fame in the shadow of the..."
Contains 100% of your daily recommended intake of roguelike.

But losing characters is just fine. There’s always another desperate batch of souls arriving on the stagecoach, ready to sign up for the chance of reward or redemption, irrespective of the cost to their physical health and sanity. Which is good, given that you’ll need a fresh batch of suckers plucky adventurers to earn you gold and artifacts. You’ll use your loot to upgrade your hamlet and characters. Maybe that will help this new group survive and make a push for the next boss.

A view of the hamlet below Darkest dungeon including an abbey, stagecoach, and bar.
As you upgrade your town, it will start to have an improved look to it. OK, it’s still a creepy dump, but it’s a creepy dump with a fresh coat of paint.

I could go on giving you more details, but the amazing thing is this: Kirby’s write-up pretty much stands today, which is a testament to just how polished a game this was when it hit Early Access. Since that time, few core elements of the game have changed. The development has mostly focused on completing the content: more curios, more monsters, and the end goal of the Darkest Dungeon itself. In its release version, Darkest Dungeon features 14 character classes to choose from and 29 mini-boss, boss, and adventure challenges.

Shows a character sheet for a Bounty Hunter.
Name characters after your friends and regale them later with lurid details of their gruesome, terrifying, and untimely death.

One difference since Kirby’s article is how leftover provisions are handled. It used to be that items such as shovels, food, and torches were discarded after a dungeon romp. Personally, I found this quite annoying as it didn’t make sense within the context of the game. The developers listened to player feedback, and now those items are sold back at the end of an expedition at a discounted rate. Sure, they probably amped up the difficulty elsewhere (less loot?) to compensate, but thematically at least you get a few gold for those medicinal herbs.

Another addition is called “New Game +,” but which I refer to as “Masochistic Mode.” Extreme players will find the challenge they want here, with the game on a clock and only 13 deaths allowed. Failure is met with a “game over” and deleted save game file.

A closeup of a cleric with a glowing red background and the word "fearful" below her.
If your characters take enough stress they are tested. Sometimes they come out stronger for it. More often, they gain an affliction that can hurt your team – sometimes causing an affliction cascade. I’ve lost an entire roster to heart attacks this way.

To put the icing on this terrifying cake, the development team has promised a free expansion on the way, including town events and a new hero class. They’ve also hinted at future DLC. I think this is a great sign of a game that is going to continue to receive care and attention and good news for fans; I’m certain once people have met the challenges of the released game they’ll be looking for more content.

Darkest Dungeon is an Early Access game that has lived up to its promises. Its hand-drawn gothic art, brilliant sound design, and game mechanics stress the player with a delightful tension that keeps me coming back for more. Buy this game ($19.99, Steam or GOG), turn down the lights, crank the sound, and get ready for an absolutely unique experience.

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