Early Access Investigations: Darkest Dungeon

I put off writing about Darkest Dungeon because, frankly, it was pissing me off. The game, in case you hadn't been made aware, relies heavily on random number generation for a lot of its systems; the chance of your and your enemies attacks landing and the potential of them landing critical hits, the chance of encounters and whether or not you surprise your enemies or they surprise you, the several events you encounter throughout dungeons also present a successful option or failure state.

Suffice to say a lot of this went against the player. Regularly. 

The game's central mechanic revolves around how well lit the environment is. As the light levels are higher the RNG (random number generation) is, slightly, in the player's favour. As soon as the light levels drop then those chances shift against you. You can find the odd torch to top up the light while you explore, but the main source is before exploration even begins in the game's "provision" phase. During this you spend gold on what you think you might need for the upcoming dungeon. Food, bandages, shovels, potions etc are all available; but all have a cost.

Every aspect of Darkest Dungeon is about risk vs reward; do you spend extra money taking a few provisions that you might not need? Do you leave your best character in the Abbey to reduce his stress levels (at a large cost) or risk taking him out once more to help complete a level? Do you spend you relics upgrading your stress relieving facilities or buildings in which you upgrade your characters themselves? In fact, I would go as far as to say the game is about minimising risk, and that's to the game's detriment.

A successful roguelike rewards, and punishes, players who push that little bit too far, but every single system in Darkest Dungeon feels designed to punish intrepid players. The game's primary annoyance is the game's Stress system. Your characters, in addition to having a health bar, have a stress level which, when it reaches its maximum, challenges that character. A failed challenge will see that character afflicted with an ailment; paranoia, masochism etc which, in addition to having real affects in the game (refusal to respond to commands), also increase the stress of the rest of your characters.

Stress increases quickly from a number of avenues. If you spring a trap you gain stress, if the light is too low you gain stress, if your character takes damage, or a specific skill is used, or even if you get critical hit. The last two, in particular, can add an enormous amount to your stress levels. You can reduce the amount of stress your characters have; certain skills reduce it or gaining critical hits yourself, though both reduce your stress levels minimally. It makes the use of a stress reducing skill a waste of a move; rather than a calculated risk.

So those are the reasons I didn't want to write about it. But given the game's multiple updates, including the most recent one which features a number of big changes and additions, I thought I would dive back in. The question is; does Darkest Dungeon still suffer from the same problems? Or has the game's enormous potential finally shone through?

The answer to both of those is yes. The early game's reliance on punishing players with unfair rolls of a digital dice is still there, if a little more forgiving (but it's difficult to say given the randomness of the game.) And the game's stress mechanic still feels heavily weighted against the player. If you can get through the early game slog then the game starts to show why everyone was so excited about it.

The game is gorgeous, moody and has a fantastic use of persistence. The town is the star here; everything you do, successful or otherwise,  goes towards the upkeep and improvement of your town. Characters come and go; either dismissed for being rubbish or through their death, but the town remains. If you can let go of characters, and suffer through a couple of the game's more... "unforgiving" systems then there's a lot to admire here. The game still feels a couple of patches away from a better balance though; so the choice is up to you.

You can buy Darkest Dungeon from the developers here, or from Steam here.