Heroism paved by Sacrifice – The Darkest Dungeon Review

ss_897ef292768a8e413ffe2dbf.pngBraving the depths of a dungeon to drag out hidden treasures and lost secrets is supposed to be the pinnacle of fantasy heroics. But then there are the horrific monsters. The filth and disease. Corrupted altars. Clinging to the very edge of your sanity.

When adventurers are carted in by the wagon load to stem the tide of an unspeakable malevolence, can it still be called heroism?

Darkest Dungeon tries to answer that question as you, the overseer of a small hamlet send band after band of hopeful faces into the maw of evil. Not many will survive. Those who do, will walk away broken and scarred.

Granted, these aren’t the shining knights and dashing rogues of fairy tales. Leper knights and agile Grave Robbers join with mysterious Occultists and meek souls with Abominations chained to their hearts.

And those are the good guys.

The forces they encounter are the festering spawn unleashed by the greed of a family ancestor and his need to plumb the depths of a dungeon for wealth and power. Heroes first arrive at a hamlet in the shadow of the narrator’s formerly glorious estate. The surrounding lands tainted, they explore the immediate vicinity for clues, powerful magic items, and the resolve to fight ever greater perils.

Darkest Dungeon was released in 2016, so I admit to being, once again, late to the party. But it’s been years since I’ve been so taken in by a game.

Atmospherically, the artwork, the narration tells a grim and engaging story. Heroes aren’t rendered so much as they are captured at a moment in time. Woodcuts pressed into deep India ink and washed in murky color – their actions animate in striking freeze frame. Every step in the dungeons and blighted wilderness evokes tension and dread.

Criticisms of this game are often that it’s too soul crushingly difficult. But after more hours than I care to admit, I’m convinced anyone who believes this hasn’t quite made the right shift in their thinking.

If you play this game like any other dungeon delver, you’ll be disappointed. Those precious adventurers are mere mortals. They aren’t meant to decorated with magic and ascend to prestige and power.

Adventurers in the Darkest Dungeon are a resource. They’re expendable. And should they survive, the deeper they go, the more wracked by plague and madness they’ll be. Each death however should bring you slowly closer to freeing the hamlet from madness.

You’ll want as many as possible to make it to the upper echelons though because the later levels can be maddeningly brutal. Higher level abilities are needed to face those horrors with any chance of survival. But the best way to make sure this happens is to pave the way with sacrifice.

The most efficient method I’ve found is to upgrade the stagecoach network which provides your steady flow of adventurers. Once you start attracting veteran adventurers, the tides will slowly turn.

See, the veteran adventurers arrive with all of their equipment upgraded and their skills maxed out for their level. Trying to build up the base characters who joined at level one or zero with a smattering of skills and the worst equipment is outrageously expensive. And by the time those heroes make it to the upper levels, they’l likely be weighed down by madness and disease.

So let the early comers die in service to your cause and…well…reap the rewards. It’s a cynical, uncommon approach to a game to be sure.

Underneath the Lovecraftian horror is a solid side-scrolling dungeon game based on tactics and well-balanced character abilities. Every combination of characters in the four person party will open new possibilities and new vulnerabilities. Each monster will offer their own unique challenge.

If I have any gripe, it’s likely in the sheer volume of “quirks” which the game piles on. As you adventure, characters will build up positive and negative quirks – up to five of each. They can be “locked” or “cured” but the cost is outrageous and with the frequency of character death, the cannon fodder tone of the game this isn’t the best allocation of resources.

For anybody who does feel overwhelmed by the darkness, they have a Radiant game mode which, while punishing, is designed to take less time. For the truly disturbed, they also have Stygian mode which not only features perma-death for characters, but for the entire campaign as well.

Once I recover from the normal mode, I’ll consider it…

Darkest Dungeon just dropped on Nintendo Switch and I hear the port is amazing. Otherwise, grab it on Steam if you’re up for the challenge.

 

 

 

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