Darkest Dungeon
Hands-On Preview
Robert Steinman Robert Steinman


Red Hook Studios

Red Hook Studios

Traditional RPG, Roguelike


US Summer 2015

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Sometimes, the stress of battle can lead to bountiful benefits.
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I'm often too frightened to search for trinkets and baubles...
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Cthulhu tendrils for the win!
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Great, now he's a stress eater!
"Darkest Dungeon, even with an estimated six months left in development, feels remarkably polished, deep and, most of all, incredibly fun. "

Playing Darkest Dungeon is like arguing with the world's most nefarious and evil Dungeon Master during a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. "Better make sure you have enough torches to see in the dark. Oh, the trap has sprung and now your damage dealer is bleeding out on the cobblestones. Whoops, your healer has taken too much damage and has fallen to the grips of madness. Better luck next time! HAHAHAHA!!!"

In truth, I hated most of these kinds of things playing D&D in my youth. Just let me get my equipment and kill some monsters so I feel cool, right? Turns out I had the whole idea wrong. Games like XCOM and Fire Emblem thrive on player choice and consequence, and if the early access beta for Darkest Dungeon is any indication, we'll soon have another critical hit on our hands that demands our attention and respect.

Things seems simple enough at the start; you assemble a four person team from various classes and storm dungeons to recover lost family heirlooms and loot. Of course, fiendish monstrosities lurk in the shadows, ready to drive a blade in your belly and feast on your worst fears. Combat's based around character position and strategy. Your plague doctor, for example, can hurl stunning grenades from the back row at the archers who are hiding behind powerful brigands, while the sturdy and dangerous leper can quickly dispatch the eldritch hordes with powerful strikes from the front line. Each class feels unique, and careful placement is key to take advantage of each class' skills and abilities. Combat is about more than just whacking enemies with strong attacks. Taking advantage of powerful status effects and keeping your party from succumbing to poison is dreadfully important, as is keeping that torch lit so you can actually hit your target. Combat is full of moments that you'll want to discuss with friends. A healing spell at just the right time may have saved your crusader from disappearing into the abyss, or perhaps your newly recruited jester fell to a critical strike during his first real adventure.

Death matters in Darkest Dungeon, as the game employs permadeath without any option to play by more "softcore" rules. The developers explicitly tell you that quests will end in failure and that your favorite characters will die in battle during the opening cinematic, and this level of brutality and honestly helps raise the stakes on what could be considered a pretty standard (but delightfully wicked) turn-based combat system. Imagine if Squall or Cloud could die for good? Wait, maybe that's not such a bad thing...

The Grim Reaper is always around the corner, but it's his friend Madness that will test the limit of your adventurers' resolve. Character are constantly under stress while they explore the various ruins of your ramshackle estate, leading to diabolical quirks and afflictions. Maybe your stalwart crusader develops a selfish trait, forcing him to steal from the very party he's trying to protect. Your hellion could rise to the occasion, however, and find herself more resistant to stunning effects. God help you if your stress level reaches one hundred, though. You might be lucky enough to receive a bountiful boon for your continued engagement with the evils of the land, but it's more likely that your character's mind will finally snap and leave them a twisted shell of their former self. One courageous sojourn ended in complete disaster when my occultist turned abusive, flinging insults at the rest of the party and pushing their stress into dangerous territory.

Fortunately, you can always recover stress in the way most people do in the real world. While in town, you can drink your cares away at the tavern, seek religious fulfillment in the abbey, or perhaps engage in pleasures of the flesh to chase away the darkness inside. These "treatments" require a great deal of coin and take your party member out of the fight for a time, so a large roster of fighters is almost a requirement. You'll grow attached to certain party members, to be sure, but keep in mind that they are all, in the end, disposable tools in your arsenal against the damned. The town is more than just a respite for troubled warriors, as you can upgrade skills and gear using some of those recovered family heirlooms mentioned earlier.

Darkest Dungeon, even with an estimated six months left in development, feels remarkably polished, deep and, most of all, incredibly fun. It's just the right amount of stress, failure and triumph to demand your attention and keep you focused on the quest at hand. A perfectly-timed critical strike kept my party alive during a devastatingly tough encounter, while my first character named Robert fell because of a complete lack of judgment on my part. Balance is still a mercurial thing at this point. Stress can skyrocket with one or two bad moves, and some of the afflictions are so nasty that they can send your entire party into a downward spiral to the gates of hell almost too fast. It's my hope that things can be ironed out a bit before full release this summer, but also that Red Hook manages to pull it off without losing the teeth that make Darkest Dungeon so mean and engrossing. With a fantastic combat system, strong art direction (look at how awesome this things looks!) and a moody soundtrack, Darkest Dungeon seems like it's poised to take the hardcore gaming world by storm.

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