By William Shelton
Release Date: January 19, 2016
Systems: PC, Mac
Developer: Red Hook Studios
Metacrtic Score: 86 (PC)
Mental health is a topic a lot of games deal with, but few do well. For all the “Sanity Bars” and cheap jump scare hallucinations we get in games, few if any games have ever do anything really unique with these mechanics. Most games don’t deal with the root cause of mental illness or explore the metal scaring seeing the kinds of horrific sights that often accompany the kinds of quests video games regularly send us on. Well it would seem like the team at Red Hook Studios have noticed this fact and have taken it upon themselves to change this by releasing Darkest Dungeon, a game arguably more about the mental aftermath of questing than the quest itself.
The game opens with you receiving a letter from a long distant relative asking you to claim your birthright: your families ancestral home which now plays host to a horde of unholy horrors he himself unleashed in a mad pursuit for glory and power. Before ending his own life your relative begs you to come home and undo what he has done. And so you and and army of mercenaries go marching right into the mouth of hell itself.
There’s not a whole lot of story here, but the game is amazingly written and is accompanied by some brilliant voice work by actor Wayne June. While most of his voice stabs are reused a little too often I never grew tired of hearing the man’s voice. I know I tend to do voice acting and sound design stuff last, but this guy is at least half of what makes this game so damn powerful. June sells the hell out of both his laments over his folly bring doom to the world and his questioning encouragement of your journey. Hearing him claim, even after the 100th time “these nightmarish creatures can be felled, they can be beaten” when landing a critical strike always made me want too push on, where as hearing “Success, so clearly in view. Or, is it merely a trick of the light?” reminded me that, no matter how well I was doing, the road ahead would be long and not easily won. While it would have greatly benefited the game to have recorded more dialogue, it’s not something I can really hold against the game as every line is gold and is perfectly delivered.
As great as the voice acting is, no game can survive without game play, and that’s where Darkest Dungeon shines the most. I said at the beginning of this review that the game is arguably more about the mental toll adventuring would take on video game protagonist and that is expressed early on with one of the games best mechanics: the stress bar. This fills under a number of different circumstances, like taking damage, low light, going hunger and more. Once the bar is filled the first time the character gains a positive or negative (most often a negative one) “quark”, that range from becoming focused and determined to becoming paranoid and delusional. If this bar fills up a second time the character runs the risk of having a heart attack. This means that you can have a full party at the level cap not take any damage still die if you ignore their mental well being for long enough.
Unlike “sanity” stress is a thing that can both be reasonably “measured” and manged, so right from the gate Darkest Dungeon has a leg up over it’s competition by demonstrating that they have a better understanding of Mental health than other game developers. This also allows for more diversity in the realm of mental afflictions they can cover. Instead of relying on only visual and auditory hallucinations (the main ways “insanity” is represented in games) characters here have a range of mental afflictions. They become paranoid and refuse healing from party members, they starve themselves or over eat, the become fearful and run to the back of the party. There are a number of ways to reduce a characters stress, but most of them revolve around assigning a character to a leisure activity in town (like a bar, brothel, meditation or prayer) which takes time and they won’t be available to go on quests until they are rested.
Each of these, along with other town based shops, can be upgraded with family heirlooms you find while questing. And unfortunately these are often in short supply and upgrades are expensive. Worse yet, everything is worth upgrading. Just in the area of stress release you can upgrade each of the 9 activities to cost less, reduce more stress or open up for more than one person at a time. But you also have to upgrade the guild to open up more attack for each hero, the blacksmith to upgrade weapons and armor and the stagecoach to bring more people and open up more slots in your roster. Neglecting any of these could be the beginning of the end, but you won’t be able to do everything.
And I haven’t even begun to talk about combat yet.
Out of all the characters you have in your roster you can only bring four into any dungeon. This is pretty standard for RPG’s. However, where a character is placed matters just as much as who you bring. Some skills can only be used in certain places, and they can only hit enemies in specific spots. For example my main knight could only attack if he was in the first or second position, and he could only hit enemies in those same position. So I always had to have a long range character in the back who could pick off anyone who was in the third or fourth positions on the enemy line. But both the healer and the Plague Doctor (who can poison enemies) I wanted on my team could only use the skills I needed them for in the third position. So every time I went into a dungeon I had to ask myself, do I want to be able to do some extra damage, or do I want to spend more money on food and healing items? This was never an easy choice and I often felt I made the wrong one. I also felt that making the other would not have helped as much as I would have hoped.
I only have two real issues with the game. The first is that there are a number of difficulty spikes that seem unfair most of the time. While this was mostly an issue with boss fights (which I understand are supposed to be hard) but when a game says the mission is suggested for level 1 characters, and my level 3+ guys refuse to go on the mission “because it’s beneath them”, I expect a full team of level 1 characters to be able to get through. And yet on just my second boss fight I was forced to abandon the mission numerous times because my team just were not going to make it, each time gaining more stress for suffering the defeat which only served to make the next run harder as I was either going in more stressed or with less money for provisions. Speaking of provisions, whatever you don’t use gets sold and turned into part of your earnings after each mission. This annoyed the crap out of me. It’s a small thing I know, but god damn, why do I have to buy more torches and food before each mission? Why can’t I at lest have the option of keeping these for next time? Am I going to magically not need food and torches next time? No, of course not. And as seeing that I hadn’t just gone and beaten the final boss it’s not like there isn’t more to do, so why does the game think it’s ok to sell all my stuff?
If you’re thinking this seems like a lot of time and energy for very little reward, you’ve hit the nail on the head. But that is one of the best parts of the experience. In most other games if things went wrong as much as they did here I’d be constantly pissed off and angry. That’s not the case here because it’s clear from the outset that this is a fools errand. This is not a game you breeze through, it’s a game you scrape by. This isn’t a game you beat but one you claw your way through with bleeding fingers and broken nails. I highly recommend this game provided you can manage your own stress. No joke I could only stand to play this for an hour or so becuase every time I sat down to play because I quickly found myself needing a breather.
*All pics here were downloaded from Red Hook Studios Press section of their website. I do not own these images and will remove if asked by the contents creators.