Gothic horror had quite the calendar year in 2015 with Bloodborne, Sunless Sea and the Order 1886 all taking elements from that particular genre of horror to make their game worlds seem that little bit more uncomfortable. Among the Gothic crowd was an Early Access title called Darkest Dungeon, a devilishly hard dungeon crawler that took heavy inspiration from the work of Lovecraft to show just how arduous the experience of delving into the depths would be on the mind. Having finally come out of Early Access and been through a myriad of both positive and negative changes during that development period, has Darkest Dungeon emerged as an ascendant being that glimmers in the pale moonlight, or is it a festering husk that should return to the depths from whence it came?
My personal opinion on Darkest Dungeon has been all over the shop during its development. When it was initially released, I thought it was at the mercy of an RNG system which was heavily against the player. It needed some in-depth balance changes in order to stabilise the game to place it in that nice area of being punishing but fair. As a result, the balances went too far the other way, with certain heroes and party compositions becoming unstoppable and making difficult dungeons a breeze to run through. After that, the balance swung back to the unfair end of the spectrum. The addition of Heart Attacks, which instakilled overstressed adventurers, and corpses, which blocked enemy on the backlines, made late game encounters a micromanagement nightmare. So many variables had to be balanced in order to ensure successful combat encounters, that most dungeon crawls would either result in squad wipes or retreating parties coming back utterly debilitated. Luckily, the difficulty has been fixed for the most part and Darkest Dungeon is now inhabiting that difficulty Goldilocks zone, which makes each dungeon crawl a struggle but never an absolute slog.
This is key as making Darkest Dungeon too easy would destroy much of the atmosphere and sadistic charm which surrounds Red Hook’s dungeon crawler. As the title screen states when you start each session, heroes will die and you will fail at times so striking that careful difficulty balance was crucial in enveloping players within the cursed lands of the Hamlet. So, enough about difficulty, let’s talk about what you actually do in Darkest Dungeon. After your family’s estate falls into disrepute due to vice, sin and experiments with eldritch abominations, you are called in as the inheritor of the estate to come and clean up the Hamlet. You must purge the surrounding areas of any vile corruption and eventually work your way up to delving into the Darkest Dungeon itself to cleanse it of whatever horrors caused this curse upon your house. The set up does feel suitably Lovecraftian, falling somewhere between the Fall of the House of Usher and At the Mountains of Madness, with the game’s grim opening cinematic keying you into the hopeless environment which now exists thanks to the Dungeon. The narrator helps massively in establishing tone, with his grave voice selling you on the setting and providing just the right amount of narration during battles and gameplay to keep you immersed in the grim events which you are fighting through.
Darkest Dungeon is split between two gameplay phases, the Hamlet phase and the Excursion phase. The Hamlet is where you try and rebuild your estate, managing your roster of adventurers and building up your base of operations as it were, so you can make grander assaults on the surrounding areas. Everything in the Hamlet is a potential resource to be utilised or wasted, especially during the early stages of a campaign. Upgrading elements of the Hamlet like your Blacksmith to get better weaponry, your Sanitarium to cure Diseases and negative Quirks your adventurers have picked up during their sorties, the Church to soothe the soul etc. requires you to collect either Deeds, Portraits, Busts and Crests from dungeons in order to improve elements of your home. This means you need to target certain areas as they give out one of these specific resources but that area may only have Level 3 quests available, meaning that you either have to forgo that area until your party has levelled up or risk your most powerful heroes in order to get the components needed to upgrade your Guild so you can enhance your battle skills.