Review: Darkest Dungeon – Gazing Into The Abyss

Given the long shadow cast by H.P. Lovecraft over the world of speculative fiction, it’s a wonder that his work hasn’t inspired more great video games. Sure, there are tons of games that draw from elements of Lovecraft’s creepy, otherworldly horror, but few have really encapsulated the themes of psychological and existential terror evoked in his books.

That is, until Darkest Dungeon, which could have very justifiably have been called H.P. Lovecraft Simulator 2016. Lovecraft’s influence courses through the game’s very veins, from its setting in a decrepit manor to the mind-ruining effects adventuring below has on its heroes.

Darkest Dungeon, which left Early Access January 19 after less than a year, is a turn-based dungeon crawler based on recruiting and caring for a roster of various heroes. Your job is to reclaim your family’s ancient estate from the dark forces that have emerged in the sewers and warrens beneath it, and hopefully unearth treasure and artifacts in the process.

Being the scion of the wealthy family that owned the estate, however, you’re not about to head into the caverns yourself. Instead, you’ll recruit traveling heroes that range from standard warriors (such as the crusader and hellion) to the weird and obscure (like the houndmaster or plague doctor). These you can rename, if you like, and over the course of the game it’s easy to become quite attached to them, as with veteran members of an XCOM squad.

You’ll outfit your party with food, torches, spades, and other tools to handle the dangers in the dungeons, which are procedurally generated and have objectives such as “explore 90 percent of rooms” or “kill all monsters.” Special dungeons will require you to slay a powerful boss creature.

So far, so standard, right? Well, there are some things going on that distinguish Darkest Dungeon from your standard evil labyrinth romp. First, in addition to a health level, your characters have a stress level – too much stress, and they’ll have a chance to develop a personality trait. These are usually negative, resulting in a character becoming abusive to other party members, or unreliable in fights. Other times, however, characters will emerge from massive stress levels bolstered by the experience, becoming better leaders who inspire the rest of the group. However, keep piling on the stress and party members can suffer heart attacks and die. And when characters die in Darkest Dungeon, they’re dead forever.

Stress builds up in different ways: monsters scoring critical hits will increase your party’s stress level, while critical hits scored on monsters will usually reduce it. Letting your torch burn too low will stress characters out, particularly any who have become afraid of the dark. Certain monsters will also attack your party with stress-inducing spells and incantations rather than physical violence.

To fight back, you’ll have to bring your party and their abilities to bear effectively. Each character can bring four special moves on each adventure, and they include melee and ranged attacks, buffs and debuffs, and healing. Abilities are also tied to characters’ position in the party, who proceed through the dungeons in a line. Planning your party’s composition and arrangement, as well as which abilities to bring and use, forms the game’s tactical backbone. You’ll discover synergies between characters, and party compositions that work for specific environments as you play, and it’s terrifically rewarding.

But there’s a strategic or management layer on top of that. As you bring treasure back topside, you’ll be able to expand your barracks to hold more heroes, as well as construct an inn, a blacksmith, a guild, and a sanatorium. These structures will help you develop your heroes, or cure them of the mental problems and diseases (they’ll pick up stuff tapeworms and syphilis(!?) during their forays underground). Heroes undergoing therapy will be unavailable for the next expedition, and sometimes you’ll have to send extremely fragile individuals back into the darkness without any time to rest.

In case it’s not clear already, there are quite a few interlocking systems in Darkest Dungeon. Fortunately, they’re all clearly illustrated, and navigating the game fairly intuitive. And this brings us to its presentation, which is, in a word, fantastic. The 2D artwork is heavily reminiscent of Mike Mignola’s original Hellboy books, and the gravelly narration by Wayne June is pitch perfect for the Lovecraftian horror setting.

But the best thing about Darkest Dungeon is its gestalt: how all the elements of the game work together to evoke the emotional and psychological terror of Lovecraft, pairing it with the twisted body horror of his sea creatures and evil cults, and the sense of privation afforded by the constant scarcity of resources. It’s a demanding game, and you will absolutely lose heroes along the way, and there will be many times when the only option is to flee.

Even “successful” missions are very often Pyrrhic, as valuable heroes will return to the manor devastated in mind and body, and you will frequently lack the resources to cure them. Darkest Dungeon pushes you the player to push your characters to – and often beyond – their limits, and it’s rare that I’ve played a game that’s made me feel so guilty for pursuing its apparent goals.

But this I would also chalk into Darkest Dungeon’s successes column, since Lovecraft’s work, in addition to being filled with tentacles and slime, is also heavily infused with themes of hopelessness and vulnerability. His expeditions always run afoul of forces beyond human comprehension, and the revelations his “heroes” discover always tear at their very sanity. Darkest Dungeon doesn’t just use the trappings and setpieces of the Cthulhu mythos, it demonstrates a deep understanding of Lovecraft’s intent and meaning.

The dour setting and difficulty may not be for everyone, but Darkest Dungeon is an excellent game. Games critics have been using the term “ludonarrative dissonance” to describe conflict between a game’s mechanics and story for several years now, and Darkest Dungeon represents the opposite: call it “ludonarrative synthesis,” an elegant pairing of ludic and story elements that creates an experience only possible in a video game.

Buy it.

Final Verdict

9/10

Darkest Dungeon was developed and published by Red Hook Studios and released January 19, 2016. A review copy was provided by the publisher; however, the author personally purchased an Early Access copy several months prior to writing this review. It is now available on PC, Mac, Linux, PlayStation 4, and Vita.