Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Darkest Dungeon

Release date: January 19th, 2016
Developed by: Red Hook Studios
Published by: Red Hook Studios
Reviewed on: PC
Available on: PC, iOS, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita

Reviewed by: TheyKeepOnRising
Estimated play time: 50-60 hours
Completion: Defeated 5 bosses

"There can be no hope in this hell... no hope at all."

Lovecraftian horror is a genre that requires a deep understanding and delicate presentation to accomplish. While traditional horror tends to promote fear and quick scares, Lovecraftian horror uses nuances in storytelling and world-building to convey a lingering and more powerful emotion: dread. In the world of videogames, we have seen the rise of a handful of titles that deliver a faithful homage to the genre, such as Bloodborne, Amnesia: the Dark Descent, and Eternal Darkness. These games typically focus on a handful of the many themes presented in Lovecratian stories, but Darkest Dungeon takes the plunge and attempts to incorporate dozens of genre elements into a single gameplay experience.

Our story begins when you (the player) receive a letter from your ancestor, urging you to defend your heritage. Your family's ancient estate and nearby lands have fallen victim to a horrible curse, and are being consumed by an ever-growing darkness. The ancenstor states that his quest for knowledge led him to accidentally unleash a great evil, and begs you to correct his mistakes. Unable to cope with what he has done, the ancestor ends his life, shortly after sending the letter. More details about the areas and bosses are provided as you progress through the game, but in terms of story, this is the extent of it.

"The cost of preparedness - measured now in gold, later in blood."

Darkest Dungeon, in essence, is a dungeon-crawling, roleplaying game that aims to be combination unpredictable and unforgiving towards the player. The themes of hostility and madness are persistent in the story, in every gameplay mechanic, and in the various settings your heroes will drudge through. There is also a small town-management portion of the game, which exists as the permanence of the player's progress. The goal of the game is to grow a team of heroes strong enough to traverse where the source of all the evil lies: the Darkest Dungeon. At the heart of most of the gameplay mechanics is a system of randomness, meant to simulate the chaos and the uncertainty of the world.

After a couple brief introductory levels, you are free to assemble your own assortment of would-be heroes. You will always start with a full party of more traditional heroes, and will quickly expand your team for additional compositions. At the stage coach in town, you can recruit two additional heroes (before upgrades) per day to bolster your selection. The heroes provided by the stage coach are randomly assigned a character class, four class-specific abilities, and at least two quirks. Since there are fifteen total different character classes (each with several different abilities) there is a large variance from what type of party you will have early on. The personality quirks come in both good and bad flavors, and can range from powerful bonuses, to crippling weaknesses.

"Those who covet injury find it in no short supply."

Once your party is assembled, you will select a quest from one of four different areas: the ruins, the weald, the warrens, or the cove. Each area consists of a different assortment of enemies, traps, and rewards, and some heroes will have an advantage or disadvantage based on this. For example, a hero with a bleed attack will struggle against the skeleton soldiers of the ruins, but will deal high damage against the pig beasts infesting the warrens. These strategies are formed over time as the player completes several quests and gains a better understanding of each area. Unfortunately, the quests themselves offer very little variety, and most of them will be accomplished in the same manner: going room to room, fighting all monsters in your way.

Combat is turn-based and straight forward, but there are two mechanics that stand out when compared to similar games: positioning and stress. Stress is essentially a second health bar for your heroes that starts at zero and goes up when anything remotely negative happens. It goes up when your party steps on traps, when enemies cast an evil spell, if a party member says something that makes everyone uncomfortable, and many other triggers. Since it has so many triggers, stress can climb surprisingly quick, and can often be more difficult to manage than your party's health.

If a hero's stress reaches 100, they have a high chance of gaining an affliction, which causes them to act erractically, and stress out other heroes. When afflicted, a hero may intentionally hurt themselves, refuse healing, attack allies, or waste items. It's a very slippery slope, and once you have one afflicted hero, the others will follow suit shortly. If a hero's stress reaches 200, they will have a heart attack and possibly die. Basically this serves as a ticking clock to get out of the dungeon as fast as possible, because aside from a few brief remedies, stress can only be relieved back in the safety of town.

Your party is arranged into four positions your heroes can stand in: the front, the back, the front-middle, and the back-middle. The enemies also mirror this positioning as well, although some larger enemies can be in two positions at once. Each ability your heroes can use requires them to be in a specific position, and can only target specific positions on the opponents side. As an example, for the Crusader to use his melee attack, he needs to be in the front position, and can only target an enemy in the front or front-middle space. At first this mechanic seems reasonable, but enemies can use abilities to shuffle your team around, making some heroes unusable until they can be correctly arranged again. This same restriction is rarely useable against opponents, causing a one-sided and frustrating hindrance in combat.

"Suffer not the lame horse... nor the broken man."

As mentioned before, Lovecraftian horror requires a delicate presentation, and Darkest Dungeon succeeds in many ways to encapsulate the genre. The game features a narrator, the voice of your deceased ancestor from the introduction, who shares depressing but expertly crafted remarks throughout the entire game. The voice actor, Wayne June, speaks his lines with such powerful delivery that it raises Darkest Dungeon's level of quality as a whole. Fans of the narrator will notice that I used quotes from the game as my subtitles for this review.

Visually, the games 2D art style was the perfect choice for the depressing nature of its setting. Characters have no visible eyes, only dark shadows where eyes should be, which is a nod to the Lovecraftian theme of blindness to the horrible truth of existence. The environments are detailed and succumbing to entropy, while the monsters are grotesque abominations of many shapes and sizes. The distinct style of each area feels fresh when you alternate between areas, but individual rooms begin to repeat too much the more you progress. The musical score ranges from tense and dramatic in combat, to dreary and depressing in the village. Overall, the most successful feature of Darkest Dungeon is in its carefully constructed setting, and only gripes found here are minor.

Perhaps the largest reason I chose to stop playing Darkest Dungeon is how the game randomly and harshly punishes you. I am a huge fan of both Firaxis XCOM games, which similarly punish players for mistakes. In both those games I know my move was a mistake with a better alternative, and therefore I learn and grow as a player. In Darkest Dungeon, I have frequently had heroes killed or my party wiped becaused the enemies scored five critical hits in a row, causing my heroes to become afflicted from stress, and begin killing each other or themselves. There was no better way to approach the fight or compose my team, the only mistake I learned from was trusting the game to treat its player with respect.

Pros
- Excellent art style
- Great soundtrack and sound effects
- Fantastic narrator
- Challenging gameplay
- Many unique character classes
- Interesting stress mechanic

Cons
- Overabundance of mechanics
- Extreme difficulty spikes
- Many unfair deaths
- Random unpreventable punishment
- Tons of grinding required
- Repetitive gameplay

Verdict: Buy with Caution

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