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Darkest Dungeon: hack-and-slash with a heart

Darkest Dungeon: hack-and-slash with a heart

In most games, the characters cheerfully butcher their foes without a second thought. Here, they get PTSD

In most games, the characters cheerfully butcher their foes without a second thought. Here, they get PTSD

Tim Cross | July 19th 2017

All genres of entertainment – from literary fiction to crime novels to romcoms and television serials – have their tropes. Detectives are hard-boiled; love interests are tall and dark; season finales reliably come with cliffhanger endings. Video games are no different. And because fans of a given genre are so familiar with its tropes, canny developers can have great fun trying to subvert them. 

Enter “Darkest Dungeon,” a hack-and-slash roleplaying game that was first released in 2016, and has recently received its first big update, called “The Crimson Court”. The premise is familiar enough. The player must lead a cast of adventurers against an ancient evil. All the familiar trappings are present: players can recruit more than a dozen different classes of adventurer to their cause, including grave-robbers, grizzled soldiers, highwaymen and militaristic nuns. Each brings a different menu of skills and abilities to the table, and finding a mix that works well is crucial for success. Early dungeons are easy, and as your charges gain experience their power grows, allowing them to tackle bigger challenges. 

She’s a fan The artwork is similar to the comic “Hellboy”

The twist, though, comes in how the game treats those characters. In most similar games, the protagonists are an insouciant, two-dimensional bunch, cheerfully butchering streams of horrifying foes without so much as a sleepless night to show for it. Not so in “Darkest Dungeon”. Breaking into ruins full of terrible secrets guarded by the living dead is, after all, a harrowing business. The game therefore keeps track of damage to the characters’ minds as well as their bodies. A character that gets too stressed – by taking one too many blows, say, or becoming trapped in a rusted torture device – may be afflicted with paranoia, paralysing fear or hopelessness. They might start refusing the player’s orders entirely, or choosing what to do themselves, and their mutterings can start to unnerve their companions as well. Continue to pile on the stress and they may expire from a heart attack. 

At the same time, characters can pick up minor psychological quirks from their experiences. Some are beneficial: a character with quick reflexes is more likely to strike first in combat. Others are less so: adventurers can be prone to stealing treasure, afraid of the dark, or obsessed with delusions of sainthood. There is an overarching plot to the game – an aristocrat, obsessed with forbidden knowledge, has unleashed a plague of eldritch nightmares across the countryside; as his descendant it is the player’s job to clean up the mess. But the most memorable stories emerge organically from the game itself: one of my most stalwart party members was a god-fearing nun whose only method of stress relief was to go on drunken benders in a dilapidated tavern. 

All this is brought to life with stylish, striking design reminiscent of Mike Mignola’s artwork on the comic-book series “Hellboy”. The game’s relentless grimness would be wearing, but the developers have deliberately – and wisely – tipped things just over the line into self-knowing camp. The player’s actions are occasionally remarked upon by a dolorous narrator, who brings an extra layer of ironic gloom to proceedings. After the heroes successfully dispatch a pack of monsters, for instance, he may glumly observe that it is “A trifling victory. But a victory, nonetheless.”

Without good mechanics, though, all this would be just a mildly diverting gimmick. But “Darkest Dungeon” is a good game as well as a slick one. Managing your party in combat is tricky and tactical: your adventurers move through their dungeons in a line, as do the packs of monsters they fight. Many abilities depend on a character’s position, or work well with certain skills but not with others. Beating the hardest dungeons requires a good understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of each adventurer. 

In fact, one criticism of the game is that it can be punishingly hard. Playing well is a matter of accruing as many small advantages as possible, but a run of bad luck can see even the most seasoned adventurers crippled or destroyed. Recovering from such setbacks can take a long time. And while individual trips into the dungeon rarely take more than hour (which makes for a good diversion on a lengthy commute), the game itself can take ages to finish, with too much time spent retracing steps or undoing the damage inflicted on previous runs. (An easier version, called Radiant mode, is available for those who want a quicker, less demanding experience). But those are quibbles: for a slick, stylish and original take on one of the oldest genres in gaming, “Darkest Dungeon” is hard to beat. 

Darkest Dungeon is published by Red Hook Studios

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