With this, Darkest Dungeon opens its story, with you hurdling down the old winding road towards your family member's grave. You know, like the characters you control do, that bad things await as you set off on adventure after adventure, digging deeper into catacombs and darkened ruins. You understand that by playing this game, bad things are going to happen, and that despite all of your best efforts and carefully laid plans, you might lose, and there's no save file for you to retrieve.
But yet, you keep playing, even as the odds slowly stack against your string of good luck, You play on, even after two minutes of gameplay can undo two hours of hard earned accomplishment. That is the power of Darkest Dungeon, and one of the many reasons why we, like so many others, were excited to see it released just yesterday.
Darkest Dungeon is a game that takes the classic old dungeon crawl and suffuses it with the lethality that Rogue-likes are known for. It doesn't stop with this blending though, but instead attempts to transcend what's come before by mixing style in with substance. It borrows gladly and without shame from H.P. Lovecraft and the mythos that he birthed, weaving a tale where the sense of growing dread is heightened by the dramatic, over-the-top narration of exactly how badly your day is going.
Your traditional heroic party has been swapped out by desperate holy men and money-seeking vagabonds. Lepers lead on into the battle, while Occultists of questionable sanity attempt to heal or hex you from the back lines. Monsters not only inflict damage, but stress, causing panic attacks and PTSD mid-fight, forcing your Man-At-Arms to flee to the back of the party instead of attacking. Your Plague Doctor might decide that, after being vomited on by a creature of a dozen gibbering mouths, that they deserve all of the healing potions, not the rest of your crew. He drinks them down, as your party falls like flies.
This is the warning you see as you boot up the game. They don't hide the fact that this game will test you.
Darkest Dungeon is both uncompromising and unforgiving in it's attempt to display a dark, terrible world; it's focus is on the heroes you control, and to what would happen to those that try and stand up against the horrors that might seem commonplace in other high-fantasy video games. It will not apologize as it chews you up and spits you out. Even your best champions, while they live and breathe, will become compromised with character flaws that follow them from battle to battle, thanks to the stress they accumulate over time.
This game is amazing.
Officially, Darkest Dungeon came out only yesterday, January 19th, but it has been in early access for nearly a year, and that was after a successful kickstarter campaign before that. Because of this lengthy process, many people have had a chance to dive into this game and get chewed back out before the release date. Many others have just known about it, and have waited for this day to come. There have been changes and tweaks, mostly to make the game harder and more insidious in it's way of destroying your hopes to win... while also taking feedback to make sure the game remains challenging and fun for many to keep on trying. The final product is here now, sure, but many people have had a chance to make up their mind a long time ago about whether or not this is a game for them.
Characters can go insane, starting to act according to their own logic as panic takes over. Here, my healer has decided it's better to talk about everything burning than heal my party.
Here at Sprites and Dice, many of us have tried out hand in previous months, and fallen in love with the game for various reasons. I also know that we have been waiting for this day to start over, to make a new save, and play through the content as it is now. This hasn't given us time to write a full review, since none of us yet have really experienced the final end to the grim, maddening story. However, in it's place, we have three outtakes, three different snapshots of what our first 2-10 hours of the final product feel like. We hope it gives you a feel for whether or not this is a game for you, and if it is something you still need to pick up, what you have waiting in store for you.
Dana: Surviving Hardship Is An Addiction
Darkest Dungeon is a shiny, polished game with the rotten guts and black beating heart of it's benighted progenitor Rogue, or more recently Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup. I've been playing it since early access, and I still haven't managed to actually beat the damn game. The genre still hasn't given up on the concept that not every game is winnable, and the random number generator God in Darkest Dungeon is a wicked and malefic deity, laughing at your feeble squirming during your inevitable trudge towards oblivion.
Oh, I'm sure this is a good thing.
...Isn't that what makes snatching victory from overwhelming odds so fulfilling? Maybe the next time you boot it up, you'll manage to scrape together what pitiful resources and allies you have to redeem your filthy lineage. Maybe this time into the pit will be the time you cleanse the stain of your cursed blood. Maybe...
Eric: The Game Has Changed, I See...
First off, there were a few tweaks to individual character professions in order to balance them, but also a really nice change to the mini-map while you are in a dungeon, letting you see a little further at times. Some characters now come prepared, bringing an item with them into the dungeon that fits their class; it was an unexpected change, but not unwelcome. It makes sense, as experienced adventurers would probably be carrying such things to aid them on their own dangerous quest.
The major update to the game though, was the addition of the eponymous Darkest Dungeon. It is the final level, and it is quite certainly the hardest. I was going to check it out with my highest level characters from early access, just to see what it was all about... but then the game warned me that even if I should abandon the quest, I would still lose at least one character to the monsters.
Let's remember that some of the first enemies in the game can do full-party damage, before you judge.
So, instead of risking my strongest team, I took a group of level 0 cannon fodder in, just to see what it was all about. ...They all died in the second room, but from what I saw, I was confident that my level five characters could handle what was inside.
They couldn't. I managed to get out without losing anyone besides the noble hero who sacrified himself so the others could escape, but I had only gotten a few rooms into it before turning back. Setting aside the difficulty of it, one of the scariest things about the final dungeon location is that you can't see more than one room ahead of you on the map. You will have no idea what is coming next, even with scouting.
Actually, maybe that's only the second-scariest thing about it. The scariest thing was that my mission was to get kill something called the "Creeping Horror". I didn't have the honor of encountering it on my short and ill-fated adventure, so I can't tell you anything about it. I can't even tell you how close I came to exploring everything that was in there. Maybe, just maybe that's for the best. After all, knowledge and madness are often one and the same.
Wyatt: Once More Into The Breach, My Friends...
When I originally got this game, I immediately was hooked, treading down dank corridors and winding, creeping woods for over twenty-five hours of gameplay in just a week. I had become manic, wanting to find ways to beat the system, to improve my odds, to perfect the characters that I had named after my friends. I had gotten several up to level five when I suddenly remembered that this game wasn't complete yet. Not wanting to burn myself out before the final product, I painfully put it away, waiting for the day to come to try the task over.
Now, the day is here, and I practically ran back to the house in order to start my game over again, to experience it from the start with all the alterations of the last few months. I can safely say that the game still has it's grip on me, even though I started over with a shoddy, empty town and with no trained adventurers to answer my call. I renamed them, mostly after friends and my co-writers here, and started the hard task of fixing the small hamlet that had fallen into disrepair.
Victory is a wonderful rush in this game, but can sometimes come with steep prices. Besides death and disease, your heroes can leave with mental disorders and injuries which cripple them on future explorations.
Darkest Dungeon feels smoother now, more polished. The art is just that little bit crisper, the map slides about with hits own small animation, and some combat systems, like the mark target mechanic, feel much more at home and nuanced. I genuinely think you can get enjoyment out of a game just by being there from the start, and taking note of how things have changed since you first booted it up. I'm certainly not bored, I'm entranced. The shaded art direction, the violent musical score, and the foreboding, over-wrought narration leaves you forgetting about what victories have come before or what may come after, leaving you and your crew to experience each fight like it might be your last.
...Which it might certainly be. On my second mission after the tutorial, a new boss I had never heard about before, called The Collector, appeared. With seventy health and the ability to summon specters of heroes, I found three of my four party members cresting over the dreaded 100 stress line, becoming afflicted with paranoia and selfishness. They stopped following orders, and to be quite honest, I'm surprised I didn't end up with a graveyard filled with my party.
One of my heroes was so traumatized, it wasn't worth trying to rehabilitate him, and I sent him away. The rest were so stressed that I spent 2-3 weeks with them in the abbey or bar, tending to their psychological needs while I hired as many new heroes as I possibly could to take their place. It did make me have to hire the Abomination, the newest profession in the game, and found them tough to use... but really intriguing. The fact that you can't use them at all with religious party members is interesting, and their alternating form will take some getting used to for maximum benefit.
This guy. Screw this guy. I'll leave it to you to find out exactly how mean he is.
In the hours I played after, I found the pacing in the fully published version brutal, but with light still at the end of the tunnel. Being able to name your champions is still one of my favorite parts to the game, because it becomes personal as they are wounded or die. I get a lot of satisfaction messaging my friends a screenshot of how their character met an untimely end, or curse at them for stealing all the healing potions because they became afflicted. As I prepare towards doing longer length missions and hunting down the first bosses of the game, I am fully invested again; I can't wait to see what happens as I delve deeper, and see what else has been added. I will beat it this time now, I have to.
Doomed to Fail, Fated to Try Again.
So there you have it, a consensus that this game is actively trying to invoke moments of hopelessness and misery. Why then, is it so damn popular? How has it managed to attract so much attention and so many players to it's clarion call? That is something we will talk more about in our full review of the game to be sure, but what is very clear by this point on is that Darkest Dungeon has struck a nerve with gamers. It speaks to to many of us, and the three of us above have definitely caught the bug of this game. I am convinced that, as the weekend comes, I have at least one 3 AM night waiting for me, as I keep feverishly muttering to myself 'just one more expedition', hoping that I will finally find peace among all the broken dreams.
There is so much to explore and experience. A fun small addition is how particular party set ups give you themed names.
I'm pretty sure that I'll find out that several of my friends, like Eric or Dana, will be online as well, doing the exact same thing. And, as we share our horror stories of what's happening in our respective games, we will realize again just how much fun it can be to lose in a game, and still press on.
Good luck dungeon-crawling, friends! Feel free to share with us your worst tragedies; misery loves company, after all.
Are you also stuck in a maze of hopeless quests for honor and glory? Do you have a favorite character death to share? Leave us a comment so we can participate in your misery. Want to read more of our articles? Check out our Facebook, or follow our Twitter. Help us rally the masses so that we won't be alone against the cruel dark of difficult games.