Paying for an early access game is kind of like paying a stranger for a second hand iPhone – at best it’ll be functional, at worst you’re a complete sucker with a void in your bank account and a decline in self respect when you realize you’re a complete dumb ass. The difference is that baiting a large amount of consumers in with the promise of an enjoyable gaming experience before throwing a buggy unfinished mess in their face and running off with piles of ill-gotten money is not only technically legal but an increasingly common trend among (shitty) indie developers.
Enter Darkest Dungeon. On the surface it appears to be a fairly standard indie developed turn based dungeon crawler RPG, but with a unique twist; your party characters have feelings. I’m not talking about them having tamagotchi-esque happiness meters that increase by scratching their bellies and feeding them treats, but that they suffer the stress and emotional trauma of exploring cold, cramped, poorly lit dungeons full of nightmarish monsters and other untold horrors on a regular basis. It was an original and refreshing perspective on a well worn genre, enough so to pique my interest.
The stress system itself is more than just an interesting idea, it’s an incredibly well implemented mechanic that adds a whole new level to the turn based combat. Should a character take too much stress damage, their resolve is tested, and should they fail, they will develop psychological afflictions. These can range from becoming paranoid and making wild accusations about other party members, to becoming masochistic, savouring battle damage and occasionally refusing to be healed. The general effect is that the afflicted characters will begin to stress out the rest of the party, in turn creating more afflictions until one or more characters hits the stress threshold for a heart attack, bringing them to the brink of death and applying a debuff for the rest of the quest. Alternatively, it’s possible that a character will pass the resolve test, instead making them virtuous and reducing the stress of fellow party members.
While most party-based RPGS give you a handful of characters to manage, Darkest Dungeon gives you a full roster – up to 25 characters once fully upgraded, made up of your hand picked selection of heroes that turn up at your estate on a weekly basis, ready to be sent into the dungeons for the first (and sometimes last) time. Each hero has a unique set of quirks – small personality traits that tweak their stats with minor buffs or debuffs. For example one particular hero may have an intense hatred for beasts, giving them a small damage bonus against beast type foes, but they may also be a kleptomaniac that occasionally pockets some of the loot that would otherwise go towards their stress treatment or making them less resistant to being dead. This adds a lot of complexity to the characters in your roster, though it pays not to get too attached…
It wouldn’t be a roguelike if it didn’t feature permadeath, so expect your roster to change fairly regularly. If you’re anything like me, this means you’ll have a lot of vacancies for squishy healer classes. As you progress and the quests get harder and more stressful, you’ll find yourself investing a lot of gold in your heroes, which is an even bigger incentive to not let them die. At the same time, when half of your party is an inch from death but they’re only a couple of rooms away from completing the quest, pushing them so that you can earn that sweet sweet quest gold is tempting. This is where the game becomes a balancing act – needing to collect enough loot to at least break even and meet the cost of a quest or turn a profit, while trying to keep your
money drains heroes alive really puts you in the shoes of a greedy capitalist.
Despite being an early access game, Darkest Dungeon already has a surprising amount of content to offer, with 14 different classes, 5 varieties of randomly generated dungeons, and a decent number of enemies, monsters, and bosses, each with varying abilities that will force you into all sorts of sticky situations (quite literally in the case of slime monsters). There are also a large number of collectible trinkets, small items that provide bonuses to heroes but often with some sort of compromise. The random generation of dungeons, heroes and loot add so much replayability to the game, it’s easy to forget that the game is technically “unfinished” as it is still in early access. I sank a good 50 hours into the game and absolutely have many more ahead of me – I haven’t even made it to The darkest dungeon yet.
Darkest Dungeon is a shining example of early access done right. Few bugs and glitches, a satisfying amount of content, refreshingly original combat and mechanics, and regular balance and content updates from the developers. All of this comes together to create a stellar roguelike RPG experience unlike any other, with enough depth and complexity to become completely immersed in the game. One thing’s for sure, when Darkest Dungeon is given a full release, you’d better get set to get stressed.