Early-Access games are one hell of a crapshoot. With most of these games (hopefully) still under development, one must resign themselves to the fact they are walking into a virutal minefield of bugs, glitches, lock-ups, crashes or developers pulling the good ol’ fashioned “take the money and run”. Suffice to say, they’re not always the smartest purchase. Though there are exceptions, two, actually, that come to mind. One is Crypt of the Necordancer which magnificently blends rogue-like dungeon crawling and the zen of rhythm games, and the other is Darkest Dungeon, another rogue-like dungeon crawler that has simply rocked my f***ing world. Let me put it this way, as nuts as this is about to sound, the monstrosites that are Metal Gear Solid 5, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Halo 5, and The Division need to be looking over their shoulder; because Darkest Dungeon is the current game of the year.
Pretty crazy right? Hell, it’s pretty crazy to me too. A game that isn’t even out is leading the pack even when a games like Evolve, Dying Light, and Final Fantasy Type-0 HD i are already on the market. But it is that good. I have 30 hours frittered away in it that can attest to that. The game takes place (surprise, surprise) in a dark dungeon where a wealthy relative has opened a portal in search of long-forgetten power, unleashing hell-born demons to run rampant all over the old family manor. In a letter penned to you, he tasks you with recruiting a party of adventurers to go uncover the secrets of the dungeon and discover a way to close it once and for all. You find out that shortly after this letter was sent to you, the ancestor in question had committed suicide.
Much like its name, the visuals of Darkest Dungeon feature a hand-drawn dark and gritty style that really gives a desolate feel to not only the dungeons, but the manor and nearby town and countryside. You get the feeling that a once proud house that stood prominently the top of a hill has had its very foundations crumble from underneath it due to a catastrophic event, and you certainly wouldn’t be wrong. It really instills an air of lingering and prospective despair that will surround your every action in and around the manor.
Before playing Darkest Dungeon the first thing you need to know is that it’s a Roguelike which means A) the dungeons you will be exploring will be randomized and procedurally generated before each excursion and B) at some point some bad sh*t is going to happen to you and may not be fair and you might die and it will be permanent so it’s best to get over it now, that’s the nature of these things. Before going into the dungeons you need to buy supplies such as food, bandages, anti-venom, and even torches as (respectively) your characters will get hungry, they will get hurt and bleed, they will get poisoned, and it will get very f***ing dark. Usually all during the same adventure. Food, most importantly, can make or break your adventure as during your jaunt into what might as well be the depths of hell your party will periodically get hungry. Eating food will recover some of their health and keep their spirits high but god forbid you run out. Your party will not only lose health but their stress will increase which leads me to one of the most interesting aspects of Darkest Dungeon.
The Affliction System is probably the game’s most prominent feature. As you adventure, your party’s stress will change dynamically. Exploring a well-lit dungeon will keep your party’s stress low which is where torches come in. When your torches go out it becomes….sigh….the darkest of dungeons. In this state, the dungeon is much more dangerous, making killing monsters and loot drops more rewarding while simultaneously putting your party on edge as their stress will slowly creep up. This, however, is not the only instance that affects your party’s mental health. As your party fights, their stress levels will fluctuate. As they do well, kill enemies, and land critical hits, their stress will remain relatively low. But if your party have critical hits landed on them, take continuous damage, go hungry, or see allies fall in battle, their stress will reach an apex that will either empower them or break them.
If they are able to master their stress, they get an attribute boost and their stress goes back down. But if they let it consume them, they develop traits that at best greatly hinder them in battle or make them useless altogether at worst. In one battle, one party member developed selfishness that led to everything from them keeping loot for themselves, or not allowing me to control or move them around the party and them pretty much battling on autopilot. At it’s worst, I once had a healer who developed hopelessness and then refused to battle or heal other party members because they felt that their death was inevitable and that they might as well get it over with. When this happens, you can choose to continue fighting in the dungeons or cut your loses and high-tail it out of there which causes all your party members’ stress levels to spike but allows them to fight another day. Back in town, you can send your party members off to relieve stress by either drinking at the town bar, gambling, or having some fun at the Ye Olde Town Brothel. Since stress management is so important, you will always have a multitude of different warriors, thieves, and mercernaries at your beck and call to switch out for adventuring as others recover from previous brushes with death. This mechanic, more than anything else, makes the game incredibly addicting and really drives home the point that when your adventurers head forth in search of gold and glory, they never return the same.
As I said earlier, this game is not completely finished. As an early-access game, it is still under construction and appears to be updated on a near weekly, and occasionally, daily basis. As of this writing, a patch has been released even today that improves such things as crash bugs, loading fixes, save states and various stability improvements. It appears the developers are targeting a Version 1.0 release for some time in the summer at which point their final dungeon will be added to the game. Of what I’ve played so far, it already feels like a highly polished and full featured product in which I’ve already gotten my money’s worth and then some. I’m incredibly excited to see where they take this game up until it’s formal release. To me, it is a Game-of-the-Year contender and every time I play it one famous quote is constantly ringing in my ears. He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.