Darkest Dungeon

Review of: Darkest Dungeon
Dungeon crawler, management simulator:
Red Hook Studios

Reviewed by:
On February 21, 2015
Last modified:January 2, 2016


Fight. Drink. Scream. Pray. Win. Fail. Die.

I was prepared to make the most of the long weekend: I got some work done, sent some emails, went out dancing. Saturday night I came home, took off my dress, fired up Steam and proceeded to not leave the room until Monday morning. I subsisted entirely on ramen and tea, utterly lost in Red Hook Studios’ early access dungeon crawler/economic simulator, Darkest Dungeon. I have no regrets.

In Darkest Dungeon, you are the heir to a disgraced noble family, your fortunes exhausted by a relative who sank it all into exploring the mysterious dungeon below your mansion. That relative has since killed himself, a horde of monsters has been unleashed by your family’s greed, and your family home has become a nexus of unspeakable evil. Here’s where it gets interesting: you aren’t the hero of the story. Instead, you use the last of your money to hire others to do that for you.

Yes, Darkest Dungeon is a dungeon crawler, but that’s only half the game. The other half is a management sim: you recruit an endless stream of plucky adventurers, outfit and organize them into four-man parties, and throw them into the depths searching for treasure and family heirlooms. You use the loot to upgrade the town that’s sprung up on the outskirts of your estate, gradually expanding it from a tumbledown hole to a thriving boom town capable of supporting a small army.

In addition to managing hit points and status effects in the field, your characters must have enough food and torches to stay healthy and confident. The lighting system is one of several simple yet innovative mechanics at work here: a brightly lit expedition has a higher chance of scouting out danger and surprising monsters, while a party kept in the dark may find more treasure at the cost of stronger monsters and rapidly accumulating stress.

The stress system is the centerpiece of Darkest Dungeon, adding consequences to adventuring not normally seen in other dungeon crawlers. Characters will see horrors beyond imagination that slowly fill their stress bars; when those top out, their resolve will be tested, and they’ll either emerge stronger – with party-boosting traits like “Courageous” or “Powerful” – or buckle under the strain, becoming “Paranoid,” “Selfish,” or (heaven forbid) “Abusive.” Your heroes-for-hire will return stronger from their expeditions, but with physical and psychological scars that they’ll have to pray, drink, or whore away at your various businesses.

The economy of stress management – keeping your heroes sane and deciding which of their various personality quirks work well with others – is the game’s biggest strength. In the right hands, it becomes a brutally efficient tool. Do you spend the money to keep a rabid, alcoholic nymphomaniac’s tastes in check? What if she’s your only high-level healer? The biggest hurdle to new player is probably learning not to get attached to your heroes; get past that, and you’ll find yourself mercilessly throwing the lowbies into the meat grinder, skimming off the best without batting an eye. After all, only one party member needs to get out alive to bring home the treasure, and casualties mean fewer mouths to feed. It only took me a day to stop buying torches for new recruits.

That sense of impermanence is just one component in the game’s gripping atmosphere. It’s written with a Joe Abercrombie-esque eye for harsh realities; new heroes chomping at the bit to go exploring are a constant source of dramatic irony, and making camp on longer expeditions is a welcome respite as your heroes shore up each other’s sanity and prepare for the rest of the journey. The music ranges from muted and plaintive in town to aggressive and driving in battle, and the darker it gets the louder the ambient growls and screams become. Every action is narrated Bastion-style by the rich voice of Wayne June, alternately praising your victories and foreshadowing your defeats. You’ll come to relish the sound of a critical hit (“Mortality clarified with a single blow!”), and since crits raise or lower stress depending on who scores them, you quickly learn that every hit counts, and counts hard.

Indeed, if there’s one major turnoff to potential players, it’s the unforgiving nature of combat. If one hero’s resolve is tested and breaks, the rest will be all the more stressed (fortunately, the reverse is true if they keep it together). Healing is hard to come by, and your marching order determines who you can hit and with what skills, so if you’re experimenting with a team composition or haven’t had time or money to properly spec out your adventurers, you’ll be punished for the slightest misstep. That’s not even taking into account the monsters that can rearrange your party, pushing your heavy hitters to the back line to get at your squishy caster types. You’ll find yourself retreating often if you’re not careful; you get to keep whatever treasure you’ve found, but your characters will suffer the stress of failure.

But that’s the whole point of Darkest Dungeon. It rewards smart decisions and smacks you down for the wrong ones, forcing you to adapt to the cruel arithmetic of a world that for the most part wants you dead. Succeed and you’ll end up with a legion of heroes hardened by battle (and probably intense therapy), strong enough to strike down the foes of good and patch each other up in camp. Seeing zeroth-level characters go from eager rookies to jaded veterans is just one of many rewards for perseverance, and when the full game releases in the second half of this year, you can expect many more.

About Joss Taylor Olson (15 Articles)
English major, editor and professional Cards Against Humanity player. Hopes to one day rewrite Oldboy as a Jacobean revenge tragedy.