When it comes to dungeon crawlers, a genre of game involving exactly what it sounds like, most veteran gamers will think of things like Diablo or the aptly named Dungeons & Dragons. The concept of lashing together a party of people and delving into dangerous, subterranean locales is not a new concept, particularly as far as fantasy adventure is concerned.
Whether the hero’s purpose is to seek riches, to defeat the evil found below, to gain glory for one’s self or one’s organization, to discover occult knowledge, or some other unlisted factor, the end-result in terms of this kind of game is generally the same: Descend into a cave/dungeon and survive traps, kill monsters, and bust open treasure chests. It’s a great narrative for a story and an adequate excuse for why people of different paths (like clerics and thieves) might be inclined to work together.
It’s also a valid living if ever there was one, if you ask me.
Darkest Dungeon takes this concept and blends ingredients both familiar and new, delving into an equally familiar mythos in the form of Lovecraftian homage. In terms of gameplay, there is the RogueLike element, however, that makes this stand out from other Dungeon Crawlers. That and the aforementioned homage to a Lovecraftian Horror takes the form of a very real game mechanic, which I’ll detail shortly.
The story is pretty straight forward. An unfathomably opulant estate has long since fallen into ruin, and under it stretches labyrinthine tunnels and passages and caves. Heeding the call of your ancient relative (uncle?), you employ adventurers of varying dispositions and goals as they arrive by stagecoach every week to plumb the depths and do what adventurers do best.
Great so we’ve got RogueLike dungeons and motley parties of adventurers bent on combating the influence of an Eldritch Abomination that has made no secret of taking residence nearby. What makes this game stand out?
In a word: Stress. This is literal in two senses.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a veteran gamer, but I’m not a novice either. There is a disclaimer at the opening of Darkest Dungeon warning the player that they *will* lose, and that their characters *will* die. The game is about making the best out of a bad situation; when I saw character flaws manifest themselves in your characters, I mean that shit can get hard, fast.
What makes Darkest Dungeon unique to many dungeon crawlers, but not necessarily unique to Lovecraftian-themed games, is the Stress Meter mechanic. I think it’s safe to assume that even someone who’s never played a game before in their life can grasp the following concept the same minute they first pick up a controller.
Therefore, maintaining your party’s health — particularly when they’re suffering from DoTs (Damage Over Time effects) like bleeding or blight (poison) — so that they can keep on swinging is pretty much the opposite of new. Managing the stress of your party is significant for the longevity of your party, and what makes this fascinating is that this is rarely ever addressed in games like Diablo, World of Warcraft, Dragon Age, Baldur’s Gate … the list goes on.
Rarely in these games does the magnitude of the task at hand really affect the characters. Sure you’ve got life-infused characters in Dragon Age, who might express their discomfort in the form of form of emotive voice acting, or even Edward from FF4 who actually has a command option “hide,” something with about as much use as passing on your turn.
But these things don’t usually affect both the character and the story except in the form of scripted sequences; of COURSE Edward has the Hide option; the story dictates that his character is a coward. Darkest Dungeon takes this in a different direction — people don’t become fearful because the writers dictated it as such, but because of the unforseeable things that happen *to* them in your randomized dungeon runs. Quirks such as nervousness or anxiety about certain environments or monsters happens as a result of the adventures.
Look, going into a dungeon is a stressful situation for anyone. You’ve got things like horrific monsters, the impenetrable darkness around you, food (or lack thereof), even your own team mates to worry about, as well as any other factors you can imagine that could be remotely connected to these. If your heroes reach too high of a level of stress, they break down — and generally the situation spirals downward from there. If one person breaks, it has an effect on the other party members, and after that it doesn’t take much for the undead horrors, blood cultists, rotting pig-men and other lovely beasties down there to tear you apart.
And when they die, they stay dead.
One misstep and this game will punish you. In fact even when there are no missteps, this game will punish you. It’s a very heavy RNG (Random Number Generator) game, which is gamer-language for “luck.” Therefore you can have great RNG or bad RNG — despite any preparation or how solidly put together you think your party is.
If you’ve played this game before, you’ll understand when I say: “I’ve had luckier runs in this game with a motley group of level zeroes with NO HEALER than with a carefully constructed group of Level 3’s.” As my older brother and I used to say back in the day, when we’d play a game and for all practical purposes we should have succeeded/survived a situation, “The Game just decides [that it wins and we lose].”
More than once I’ve envisioned tossing my computer out the window thanks to what can be chalked up as “bad RNG,” but I’ve come to understand that that is a major factor in the fun — without difficult times, we cannot compare successful or otherwise “Eh, could’ve been worse” situations. When you experience success in this game, when shit actually goes as planned (or you just downright get good RNG), it’s one of the most satisfying feelings I’ve had from a game since beating Dragon Age: Origins and making decisions that gave me the ending I wanted.
I haven’t even touched on the presentation. Perhaps what wraps Darkest Dungeon together so solidly is the dark, grimy art style, with heavy black lines and a slightly unfinished illustrative look. The minimalist, two-frame action animation works to such an effect that I had never previously imagined possible, and on top of it all we have an excellent soundtrack that succeeds, thoroughly, in cultivating a gloomy and often hopeless atmosphere.
This game gives you a sense of true Lovecraftian Horror; that humanity, despite all its best efforts and accomplishments, is utterly powerless in the face of cosmic evils. It’s not that the universe hates us, no, it exhibits something much, much worse:
Overall, I sense that I’ll one day get fed up with bad RNG, but otherwise this game is a tremendous experience and has helped me grow in terms of storytelling. Whenever I write about adventurers (in a dungeon setting or otherwise), I’ll be paying as much attention to the Stress Meter as their hunger, bathroom and health gauges.