Game Review: Darkest Dungeon

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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I didn’t quite grasp the weight of this until afterward.

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.

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“This is your life bar. When it reaches zero, you die. Eat food or find medkits or drink red potions to restore your health.”

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.

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Edward was memorable for a multitude of things in FF4, but being a useful fighter was not one of them.

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].”

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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:

Indifference.

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And if you spend enough time thinking about it, insignificance.

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.

Class Progression 2/3 : Druids

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Oh come on, this’s good.

For better context, be sure and read Part 1 of this series, where I focused on my fascination with paladins back when I was a sprout.

For the record, the concept of a paladin remains interesting to me today, but World of Warcraft pretty much destroyed my idea of what paladins represented. This was mostly on account of the people behind their avatars, and how a paladin was, and remains, basically “a knight who has holy magic but does what he wants regardless of the moral implications.”

At any rate, as I matured into that awkward stage of life where hundreds of other people my age, drunk to our gills in hormones, are stuffed together in small rooms (at least that’s how I remember high school), my interest in warrior-related class preferences went through a transition. I was exposed to other concepts of what it meant to be a warrior; I studied Buddhism and developed an interest in East-Asian cultures. As a teenager and with the limited resources available to me (the internet was new at the time), the most readily available media came from Japan. I discovered anime and a slew of games, and through it the exaggerated concepts of samurai swordsmanship. Rurouni Kenshin was a big influence.

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I played the hell out of this horribly mis-painted yet excellent game.

My interest in Eastern philosophies, cultures and traditions evolved, though in many video games I played, this manifested in the form of favoring any character who would/could carry a katana – or better yet, a no-dachi. But alongside them came a healthy respect for a class very often seen in fantasy media: the monk. Martial arts, though not a passion of mine, has remained a strong point of interest and respect for me.

These interests and preferences came from a common root arguably seen in a paladin; warriors who fought and employed abilities that came from an external source, a higher belief, in some form or another. No disrespect to the barbarians and berserkers out there reading this, but when it came to physical combat, I always found myself attracted to warrior-classes that fought for some kind of ideal — as opposed to a warrior that was just “badass.”

The monk, in it’s various incarnations throughout games over these last few decades, often exemplified this almost as perfectly as the paladin — except (usually) with that distinctive “Fantasy-Asian” flavor. I think my favorite monks were found in Final Fantasy Tactics (which also had samurai and holy knights, come to think of it), though I’ll enjoy most any character capable of standing toe-to-toe with opponents armed and armored in tempered steal, with little more than calloused knuckles and foot wraps.

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They could punch through steel armor. That’s freaking awesome.

Yet the monk, and many martial artist-like characters and classes out there, did not quite resonate as “me,” not in the way paladins did when I was younger. Considering the area in which I grew up and the people I knew there, “Eastern” thoughts and “alternative thinking” kinda left me mostly on my own, save a few individuals. What this, and the appearance of certain influential Blizzard games, primed me for was my fascination with the druid.

I cannot remember the first time I had come across the concept of a druid. It might have been during Magic: The Gathering, where they were inarguably green, but at that time I was more drawn to angels. No, it was the Warcraft series, specifically the introduction of the Night Elves, that really got me into things druidic.

And yes, I’m well aware of the historical druids of our world.

Then of course Warcraft 3 followed by World of Warcraft came around, and having favored the Night Elf faction, I rolled a druid the moment I got my hands on WoW. I shan’t linger on the precise mechanics of that game, nor their place in the world lore. What I’m going to talk about is the concept of a druid, which at it’s core, holds strands in common with the druids of other universes, such as that of Dungeons & Dragons (in its many incarnations), Everquest, and others.

Now for those of you unfamiliar with what a druid actually is, here’s a nifty excerpt from TVtropes.org :

“In modern fiction, “druid” is typically used for a nature-themed magic-user that usually has flavour of priesthood, especially if they hail from pre-Christian Europe (or fantastical equivalent). Unlike standard issue Fighter, Mage, Thief or well-defined concepts such as The Paladin, druid capabilities may vary highly based on setting, although in principle it’s a very broad spectrum: their powers govern just about everything connected to living things and unliving manifestations of nature…”

Yup, totally what I saw myself as in WoW. At least when I wasn’t getting ganked.

What we have here is a warrior inspired and empowered by nature. Now there’s an ideal, the power of nature; a spiritual background that appealed to me — a boy raised in the woods by vegetarian hippy parents. A druid, whether a single individual or part of some circle, very ranger-like in their abstaining from society, and were very much outliers in most any given setting. They were loners, preservers, and really had a handle on “the big picture.”

Often enough, nature falls in that gray area between clearly defined Good and Evil, Black and White, Light and Darkness. Nature is its own thing.

These were ideas to which I could subscribe. The druid felt very “me,” and throughout my college years this could be seen in my work as an Art Major (examples of which I will spare you). But more than that, I learned about the concept of adaptability in terms of character class, and this served to develop my personal psychology to lasting effect. Allow me to paint for you a mental picture.

In World of Warcraft, druids were designed to be versatile; not counting actual in-game application (which was in a constant state of flux), the various animal forms a druid could assume allowed for adapting to almost any situation. Turning into a bear allowed for greater hit points and the ability to pull enemies away from your allies; turning into a panther/lion fulfilled the role of a rogue, allowing quick bursts of damage; a moonkin (owlbear to you D&Ders) that blasted enemies with nature magic; and even a tree form to enhance one’s healing spells. Hell, one could even assume the form of a fast beast (a cheetah in the early days, and lately it’s been a stag) for long distance travel comparable to riding a horse, or even take on the form of a bird to fly over mountains and buildings. Sea lion form was available as well, allowing for speeding up rivers and across lakes. One could switch between most of these animal forms in a matter of seconds, without any particular limitation, making druids very slippery and cunning.

With so many options available, I found it unfulfilling to play any of the ‘mimicked’ classes. Rogues and Warriors and Mages did their role arguably better than a druid, but that’s all they did. I wasn’t satisfied with that, and this reflected in my life choices as well.

How could I adhere to one single career path if it meant specializing in one thing for the next 10 years? Or worse, the rest of my life?

How gods awful boring is that?

In the next and final installment of  this series, I’ll discuss which class with which I most identify myself today, as a matured adult in a modern age.

Music selection today is brought to you by, I couldn’t resist, Blizzard. Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos to be precise, when the night elf race made their debut and druids became “a thing” in Blizzard games (we do not speak of the druids in Diablo 2). This music harkens back to the time before the fall of Blizzard, in the opinion of this humble gamer.

This track is known as “Awakening,” the second of the three original night elf tracks, and it was chosen not only because hey, guess what, I rambled on about Warcraft games again, but because this track is unique among “nature tracks” I know. It begins with a determined mood, accompanied by a peculiar blend of drums and mandolin, then fades into a serene, peaceful atmospheric verse. With your volume up high enough, you can hear birds in the back, can almost see the untouched glades hidden amongst pristine, ancient forests; the wild and magical places of the world that druids call home and swear to protect. Then the music builds once more, back into determined, warlike tones of a mindset aware that if one is to be a “nature lover” in a fantasy setting, one must come equip with a savage side.

Happy writing, dear readers!

 

Guest Post: A Beginner’s Guide to Beginning

Today’s guest, Terry Murray, talks about the value of using RPGs as a valuable resource for worldbuilding, character development and plotting. Take it away, Terry!

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Mine is a tale of long ago, back when Steve Jackson’s Generic Universal RolePlaying System (GURPS) was almost new and the Commodore 64 still cool if not hot. A time when machines could not tell much of a story before their memories ran out. Nevertheless, I like to think some of what I learnt as we entered the 1990s will prove of value to a younger generation of cybernetically enhanced writers.

My venture in to the world of graphic novels to write, arguably, the first Christian example of the genre ironically benefited from a source many believers then (and now) might disapprove of – rpg reference books. I have found such materials a great help when it comes to fantasy writing. Of course, they also present some potential pitfalls.

The first problem role playing games helped me to solve was, so to speak, historical. It is true that the fantasy writer does not suffer the inconvenience of the historical novelist who must constantly take care to be faithful to the time and place they have set their story within. However, I soon came to realise I faced double the challenge. I needed first to create a plausible world, complete with history, within which to set my story and then to ensure I did not break my own rules of existence.

Admittedly, it was a fact-filled publication, Whitaker’s Almanack, which proved invaluable when it came to the early number-crunching. A late 19th century edition provided population figures for Australia from which I could envisage low-tech population clusters.

While Whitaker’s applied the broad brush strokes it was the rpg handbooks that filled in the finer detail. Using them as “culture catalogues”, I was able to order a collection of nations and people groups to populate the land.

The second problem I faced was character generation and plot development. The way I write, I might have a beginning and an end in mind but my story lines tend to be character driven. What happens to them in large part is influenced by who they are. I might place them in a situation but their abilities and personality will colour and to some extent decide the outcome; just as in the “real world” we don’t always have control of our circumstances but we do have a choice as to how we respond to them.

I found my rpg manuals an easy and convenient way to access a multitude of professions, abilities and backgrounds when I put together a collection of possible major players. I then played “what if” with a number of them and considered the results. Following these “auditions” I selected my cast and sent them on their way. As their journey changed them, they in turn changed their journey. The rest, as they say, is history.

If only it were that simple. The downside with referring to RPG material is one finds oneself spoilt for choice, so like a child let loose in a sweet shop it is tempting to have too much of too many things. From weapons to races, magic to monsters, the world of roleplay would be absurdly overstocked but for the discernment and discretion of those running the games.

The writer even more so must filter and distil the mass of possibilities if he or she is to create a world that does not look like a theme park. Where the games master might be generous, the writer needs to be frugal. We need to remember that exotic items, be they weapons or wands, are just that. They should be rare and reasonable. Similarly, you don’t need to be an ecologist to recognise what havoc some creatures would do if let loose upon a world. If you are going to introduce an exotic animal or monster in to the world, one way or another, it needs to fit in to the scheme of things.

Finally, when drawing upon such sources for inspiration, we must not lose sight of who rules our universe. Get too caught up in the designer’s game mechanics and we will start to limit our own imagination. Don’t let your story turn into a system scenario (unless you are planning to sell it as such).

Would I recommend any particular role playing game?

In my case, the Iron Crown Enterprise (ICE) Rolemaster series of the time played a big part in helping me to populate the world, establish its social dynamics and set its degree of divergence from the mundane. But there were a number of other potentially useful games around then, as there are now. What was best for me might not be best for you. If you are considering investing inRPGs as a writing resource investigate the market for yourself and purchase what suits your particular needs.

You might even find yourself playing the game!