It’s astonishing how, eight years on and now freshly added to Game Pass, Darkest Dungeon still manages to feel unlike anything else. Blown up on my telly, this could easily be something new. That horror-movie voice over still shakes my bones, that paper-drawn art still oozes style. But it’s not that which really stands the game apart.
What stands Darkest Dungeon apart is an invisible line, drawn in the ground somewhere, that determines how far developers go – how far they’re prepared to go – to challenge their audiences. Cross that line and a game becomes unfair. Cross it, and you risk turning an audience away. Few do. But Darkest Dungeon doesn’t care; Darkest Dungeon delights in it.
The entire premise of the game is cruelty. Cruelty towards the heroes you send into the depths and cruelty towards you, the player directing them. Whereas in other games, you’re invisibly looked after until the game feels you’re comfortable with it and attached to it, here, you’re eternally, mercilessly, dragged down. In many ways, Darkest Dungeon doesn’t want you to win. Why else would it pit so much against you?
This game is timeless, I tell you, timeless. Also, I never fail to be impressed with the voice of the narrator while playing, who, I now know – I just looked it up – is a man called Wayne June. An extroardinary name for an extroardinary performance (and he’s reprising his role in Darkest Dungeon 2).
Think on it: in Darkest Dungeon, you send a team of four characters – I’m loath to call them heroes, actually, for most are anything but – into dungeons underneath and around the hamlet you’re rebuilding. And on those missions, a number of things can happen to them. They can simply take too much damage and die – as in, permanently die. They can take damage in battle, they can take damage from traps, and they can take damage from not having any food to eat, which is more common than it sounds. Your health, it seems, is always going down.
But there’s another danger to their health too: stress, and this is a key thing in the game – and it’s one of the only role-playing games I know that plays around with it. I wish more would, actually, because it’s a really interesting idea; delving into dungeons and being a hero would be stressful, wouldn’t it? Especially if there’s a powerful evil nearby, exuding an overwhelming sense of dread.
And stress is gained all the time in a number of ways: for taking damage, for simply walking along, as a result of certain spells, for not finishing a mission, for letting the dungeon get too dark, for being insulted – by your own team. And if you let it build too high and fill a gauge, a character will get a permanent negative affliction. They might become abusive, for instance, and start insulting other team-members while they fight, increasing their stress in the process. Or they might become cowardly and have a similar effect, as they cower during battle. Worse, if you let stress build high enough and fill a second gauge, your characters will have a heart attack!
This is what happens when stress builds up. Now, this character will think it’s all about them. Nightmare. Campfires are actually only one of the moments you’ll catch a breath, and each character has a variety of things they can do during them. Note the little squares underneath a character’s health bar. That’s the stress gauge. It’s hard to see here, but on my character roster on the right, two heroes are already stressed out and out of action. And there are others saying they need a break.
Do you see what I mean – which other games do that? This fascination with flaws and negative traits is something that makes tabletop RPGs so interesting, and which makes any character in any story interesting, really, and so it does here. It’s a wonderful idea – not that it feels wonderful when the game is piling stress on you and your characters’ gauges are filling, because inevitably in this game, when one topples, it’s like dominos and they all begin to topple too. It can feel desperately unfair.
On the other hand, it can feel incredibly rewarding when you succeed and make it back to the hamlet alive, or mostly alive. The challenge magnifies the achievement, and that’s the allure of the game.
As the game goes on, the hand around you squeezes. More of your characters will become unfit for service, and the taverns and churches and hospitals you’ve unlocked to deal with them – to rid them of stresses and ailments and afflictions – will overflow. You’ll be forced into risking volatile characters on missions instead, and you know that’s not going to end well – but what choice do you have? Juggle your roster well.
Darkest Dungeon is not always a pleasant experience, but it wouldn’t be what it is – what it still so dazzlingly is – if it was. It’s a game of singular malice and throaty malevolence. And putting it on Game Pass ahead of the fairly imminent (Q2 2023) arrival of Darkest Dungeon 2 – a game with some significant differences – is a canny move indeed.