In many role-playing games (although I much prefer the genre title “dungeon crawlers” due to no actual role-playing happening in most of these games), the player chooses a number of characters to join his or her party. Then he or she goes out and levels these chosen characters up to level awesome and everyone who stayed home remains level noob. Every once in a while a contrived story event or a desire to switch things up will cause the player to dip into the reserves (oh no, you can’t use Aeris anymore), but often you just get the characters you start with, whether that was a good initial choice or not.
What attracted me to Darkest Dungeon was that it eschewed a few of the standard tropes of indie procedural dungeon crawlers. One of the unique mechanics is that characters get stressed out when having to deal with monsters, when injuries to party members happen, even when walking around in darkness. If a character gets too stressed out, he or she develops some sort of mental or personality defect.
After each dungeon trip, instead of zipping to an inn to heal up and repeat, characters need time to process what they’ve been though. Characters do this in different ways: some pray, some self-flagellate, some turn to booze or gambling. But these methods of mental healing take time and so the player must dip into reserves for the next trip. This is a great example of a mechanic supporting a unique dynamic. Many games have had switching out characters or permanent injuries before, but few have made it a part of the core game loop to keep the character choice interesting.
Sometimes these personality effects are mild. I have seen characters that are paranoid and will refuse to be healed by other party members, characters that are kleptomaniacs and will take treasure for themselves instead of the party, and characters that will only go to brothels to heal when going back to town, leaving that option unavailable for other characters. While the characters are randomly generated and every character of a given class looks alike, these quirks and foibles end up being meaningful. I have a healer that I just don’t take out unless he is the only option because his stress levels build too quickly in the environment I’m exploring.
There are other attractive differences. Combat is based on one-dimensional positioning. Your party lines up in single-file 4 deep and enemies can line-up single-file 4 deep. Some attacks only work if you are in positions 1 or 2. Rarer attacks hit the back characters, so that’s a smart place to keep weaker characters. However some attacks affect the order of your characters, pushing your warrior to the back line or your priest to the front. Then you must decide whether it is worth it to spend turns rearranging or make due with what you have.
Since one of the main mechanics is the party’s torchlight levels, most of the game is played in washed-out shadows. The palette of burnt orange and browns gets tiring. The narrator should be annoying when he repeats lines, but the delivery and the awareness of game situation make it less irritating.
The UI is a bit confusing in a number of places. The map window should know to focus in the direction of unexplored rooms, but for some reason you have to use your right mouse button and drag to manually move the map around. There’s no way to navigate to new hallways from existing rooms without using the map widget, despite being able to exit through doors in the hallways. Some menus have two options and the coloring makes it unclear which is the selected and which is the unselected option. The game shows you a lot of data, but doesn’t prepare the player to receive it as information. It’s clearly a game that was developed by a small group who understood it and tested with a small early access group that watched it grow because some of the mechanics are entirely inscrutable without referring to a wiki.
For example, I had played for three hours before knowing that I could heal traits in the sanitarium. Obviously, the text in the UI told me I could. However, when I dragged a character in, I received a list of traits in yellow text. When in the dungeon though, yellow traits are positive and red traits are negative. I did not realize that my negative traits were mixed in and could be selected by clicking on them as they looked like static text referring to positive traits. There are many small usability nightmares haunting this game.
As you earn money, you unlock abilities of the town to heal and upgrade your poor adventurers. This is a straightforward gameplay hook. However, a few hours in, I felt that I had seen everything there was to see. The power of your group scales very slowly. Items earned tend to be balanced such that they all involve tradeoffs, increasing one stat while decreasing another. This is fine in a multiplayer setting, but I do not feel much more powerful at level 4 than I did at level 1.
Dungeons can end up being exercises in long backtracking sequences as there is no way to jump to completed areas, especially in large branching dungeons where the goal is to explore 90% of the dungeon’s rooms.
In retrospect, I seem to be complaining quite a bit, however I quite enjoyed Darkest Dungeon for about six hours of total gameplay. If you really enjoy the dungeon crawling genre, you will likely get a lot more playtime out of it. It takes some big risks in a number of places. In some aspects, it whiffs embarrassingly. In others, it knocks it out of the park. I think the attention to character choice dynamics is particularly admirable. It is a game worth playing.