Darkest Dungeon is a lovecraft-themed dungeon crawler about depression, death, hopelessness, and the fight against impossible odds. It centers around a hamlet built in the shadow of the castle of a mysterious figure known as The Ancestor, who is also the game’s narrator. After The Ancestor’s death, his will bequeaths his estate to the player, who must assemble a team of heroes to cleanse the monsters summoned by The Ancestor’s dark rituals and then find what he left at the bottom of the Darkest Dungeon

The main gameplay loop of Darkest Dungeon is about trying to do the best you can in a situation that never allows for maximum effectiveness. High-level heroes will refuse to embark on low-level quests, meaning your newbies will always be in danger as they try to level up. A limit on the total numbers of heroes in your roster means that you cannot have one of every class in every level tier, so your party compositions will always be limited by what you have available. Heroes fully heal between quests, but their mental stress remains, requiring expensive stress treatment lest they be already fatigued when you deploy them again. Keeping heroes alive is expensive, but new arrivals are free, making it viable to send waves of apprentice characters into the dungeons and then only keeping the ones lucky enough to survive and gain a few levels.

Heroes have two health bars: a standard one and one that fills as the party takes damage or as enemies use attacks to inflict stress instead of damage. At 100 stress, the hero will have a mental break and occasionally act out by refusing healing, damaging himself or the party, passing turns, or using random moves. But even beyond 100 stress, a hero may carry on, dealing with the effects of his damaged psyche, until 200 stress when the hero has a heart attack and falls to 0 HP. This, however, is still not the end for a hero. At 0 HP, whether through battle or a heart attack, a hero enters Death’s Door, a special state where the hero stops taking damage and instead every hit against him rolls for the possibility of instant, permanent death. Any healing at this point will bring him off of Death’s Door, but he will suffer intense stress and debuffs for the rest of the mission. At a glance, this system is actually more generous than it seems. A hero who drops from 50% HP to 0 from a random enemy crit can still be saved from Death’s Door with any healing or by ending the combat before he gets hit again. This, combined with the generous system to retreat from any battle at a medium stress cost, means that cutting your losses and bailing from a hard mission is actually very easy, but the layers of second-chance systems encourage you to push your luck just a little bit further with each battle you survive.

The real stars of the game are the heroes, each of whom comes with a unique set of strengths and weaknesses as summarized briefly in Part 2 of this review. The team at Red Hook, Darkest Dungeon’s developer, did a great job at making each hero feel distinct and specialized at whatever job he is most suited to do. But beyond even the personality apparent in each class, different heroes of the same class develop unique personalities through Quirks. 

Quirks are personality traits that affect the stats of a hero, coming in both negative and positive varieties. Each hero can have a total of five positive and five negative Quirks at a time; after that, new Quirks will, mostly, replace old ones. The genius of this system is how well it reinforces the game’s thematic and mechanical elements at the same time. In the narrative, as a hero spends more time in the Hamlet, his mind stretches to the breaking point, and he becomes more erratic, while at the same time he develops the potential to slowly become a true hero who turns the adversity he faces into strength. Mechanically, the Quirks a hero rolls are totally random, but you can, for a hefty fee, lock them in at the Sanitarium to make them effectively into permanent buffs. This allows your veteran adventures to not only increase in power linearly, but also based on the positive Quirks you lock in and the negative Quirks you allow to remain. 

Darkest Dungeon’s most versatile feature is its system of four ranks. Each hero has abilities which can only be used in certain ranks, meaning that the same hero can serve different roles based on where in the rank he stands. Heroes like the Jester and Grave Robber have abilities which change their rank mid-battle, opening up opportunities for powerful attacks like the Highwayman’s Point Blank Shot. It deals +50% damage but can only be fired from the front rank, targets only the front enemy rank, and pushes the Highwayman back to the second rank. This necessitates either the Highwayman’s Duelist’s Advance to move himself back to the front or a hero with a backwards movement ability in the second rank to swap the Highwayman back to the front before his next turn.

Each hero has eight abilities but can only equip four at a time. This reinforces the game’s central mechanic of trying to make the best of a terrible situation, as most heroes have one or two roles they fill very well and several roles they could fill, though not as well as another hero better suited to that position. Because of this, if all your dedicated healers are too stressed to embark, you could make one of them embark nonetheless and suffer the consequences, or have your tougher heroes double down on tanking and self-healing abilities at the cost of versatility and damage, or forgo healing in favor of maximum damage per turn, relying on healing between battles with food items. 

Even more granular than a hero’s abilities, their two trinkets can reinforce whatever role you choose, as any hero can take generic buff trinkets to slot them more comfortably into a role that’s not their forte, but for even more options, each hero has class-specific trinkets which support certain hero builds. For example, the Crusader, depending on his build, can heal damage, heal stress, tank, deal damage, stun enemies, or shift himself forward from the back ranks. The Crusader-exclusive trinket Swordsman’s Crest gives +10% damage to all melee skills at the cost of -50% healing done. The Paralyzer’s Crest gives +20% proc chance to Stun skills at the cost of -2 dodge for overall reduced survivability. These effects push a Crusader towards being a less supportive damage dealer and a more supportive, but less sturdy, debuffer respectively. As the player accumulates rarer and more powerful trinkets, these types of effects are sometimes too good to not use, motivating you to switch to a skill set which is reinforced by that trinket.

It’s impossible to build a party that does everything. Ideally, you want some healing effects, good damage, a damage-over-time type that matches your area’s weakness, abilities to reposition your heroes, abilities to change the positions of enemies, abilities to give buffs, abilities to clear debuffs, abilities to redirect damage away from your squishy heroes, abilities to prevent stress, and so on. With only four heroes, who each do, at best, two things at a time really well, any party you make will necessarily have weaknesses, forcing you to constantly adapt to enemies which exploit the factors you neglected.

Certain features, such as the “Marked” condition, which can only be placed by the Arbalest, Occultist, Houndmaster, and Bounty Hunter, and can only be exploited by the Arbalest, Houndmaster, Highwayman, Grave Robber, and Bounty Hunter, encourage synergistic party composition, forcing the player to plan ahead to scrape together a party of four specific heroes for a mission. Of course, each of these heroes could simply not equip their Mark-specific abilities and fit into any number of parties, but the reward of watching a perfectly assembled Mark party melt through a tough boss is a considerable pay off for the meta challenge of getting all four in condition to embark at the same time.

The main problem, though, is that the game doesn’t always manage to keep you making tough decisions and succeeding in the face of adversity. Sometimes things are just fine, and you’re just going through the motions grinding up your new batch of heroes. This can be countered somewhat, as in progressing through the game pre-leveled heroes will start to spawn, but this doesn’t change the fact that a well assembled party on the upper edge of the level cap for their mission can even trivialize some bosses.

Because of the gulf between the game’s highest highs and multiple, mission-long lows,

I give Darkest Dungeon

Like it/Love It/Gotta Have It