Darkest Dungeon

Yes, I finally got around to this one! I’m… rather ambivalent towards it.

Darkest Dungeon is a party-based RPG roguelike where you compile a party of 4 from 17 different classes and send them on expeditions into Lovecraftian nightmare dungeons. The key mechanic is that mental health is just as important as physical: Events like low light, critical hits, and certain enemy attacks will degrade your characters’ sanity, and when it gets to be too much they will go insane, followed by dying of a heart attack if pushed even farther. (Permadeath is, of course, a feature.) Insane characters create a death spiral where they will stress out the rest of the party with every action, as well as randomly disobeying orders or skipping turns. It’s very easy for even a well-balanced party to be completely destroyed if too many characters start going insane.

I found it to be an interesting idea, but the actual gameplay I found very grindy and frustrating, and I’m left feeling that the designers did not succeed in conveying their intended message at all.

The combat was the high point of this to me. There’s a lot of depth and strategy to each of the classes, and I enjoyed playing around with them to find effective strategies. The problem is that you almost never get the opportunity to do so, for one simple reason: Limited resources. Your characters have absurdly low HP, with regular attacks frequently taking off a quarter to half of squishier classes’ health, and all damage (and mental stress) is retained after battle. Your only means of restoring health outside of battle are by eating provisions, which heal almost nothing and your heroes will refuse to eat more than a few before they’re full, or by camping, which is limited to once or twice per mission and also takes up lots of food. The conclusion is obvious: You must bring a class with healing abilities or you are doomed, unless you are overleveled or very, very lucky.

You would think that, given this, most if not every class would have some kind of healing ability. You would be wrong! There is exactly one dedicated healer class. Six others do have healing abilities, but they all heal so little as to be effectively useless. You have a decent chance of limping to the finish line if you bring a few, but going into any expedition without a vestal is courting death. If you bring a vestal most expeditions are trivial, if you don’t you will only succeed by the throw of the dice. (And don’t even get me started on stress healing, which is handled by a different class — if you bring both you’re virtually invincible because you’re effectively safe from an insanity death spiral, but then half your party is already decided for you.)

Because oh yes, everything in a throw of the dice in this. The RNG is relentlessly frustrating, with incredibly high miss and crit rates. I understand that unpredictability is a cornerstone of roguelike design, but when the game gives you such little margin for error that a few bad rolls can completely ruin your run, it’s just unfun. (I quickly got fed up with it and hacked the game files to remove damage variance in attacks, but misses and crits still regularly screwed me over.) There are far too many situations where you are simply not given any way out, no matter how skilled of a player you are. You mathematically do not have enough hit points to survive a string of unlucky enemy crits, and if even a single character dies and you’re not on literally the last battle of the mission, you may as well give up because now your action economy is screwed.

In particular, I really don’t like the virtue vs. affliction mechanic. There’s a 1 in 4 chance that instead of going insane, a stressed hero will gain a virtue that resets their stress and makes them stronger, which is way too much variance in outcomes. Either you enter a death spiral or you gain a massive extra bank of stress and significant combat buffs, based entirely on the throw of the dice. There’s no way to rely on it because it’s so random, but it almost always makes the difference between victory and defeat. The game needed to either ditch that mechanic and balance around afflictions being the only outcome, or significantly up the chances.

That’s not all there is to talk about, though. When the game first game out, reviewers made a huge buzz about the macro-economy aspect of the game, not just the combat. See, you play not as one of the adventurers you send out, but as their manager. While heroes fully recover their wounds when they return to base, they retain any mental stress and insanities they accrued, and to alleviate it you have to pay out the nose for their rehabilitation. Gaining new recruits, however, is free, as more adventurers flock to your town every week hoping to make it big with their share of the treasure. The game is clearly tempting you to make the pragmatic but unethical choice to wring everything you can get out of new recruits, then turn them out onto the streets and replace them with fresh-faced newbies to start the cycle anew.

Except doing that will actually screw you over, because heroes level up from completing quests and you desperately, desperately need every single extra hit point you can get. It takes a huge expenditure of resources to get new recruits to start at higher level, and even then a) you have no guarantee of getting the class you want and b) they cap at level 4 (of 6). It is actually smarter in the long term to keep your heroes around as long as possible so they can keep leveling up and improving your chances of success. Even if it wasn’t and I did have to perform the descent into darkness the game intended, it’s hard to feel guilty because the heroes have no personality. Every member of the same class is an identical clone with the same backstory, same personality, and same dialogue. Despite characters supposedly accruing random personality traits through adventuring, they have no effect outside of gameplay. I can’t feel any attachment, empathy, or responsibility for them; the wires show too plainly. I never felt guilt at the many, many, many stupid deaths, just frustration at having lost a resource I invested in. (Largely because it was not actually my choices that killed them, but the RNG.) The game tries to cash in at the end with an indictment of your behavior, but it just fell flat for me.

So… eh, I don’t know. I liked the combat and the classes, but the game as a whole was extremely grindy, punishing, and repetitive. (Among other things, you have to fight each of the bosses three times, each time with the exact same tactics, changing nothing but their stats. Who thought this was a good idea?) It really needed to have ditched several mechanics like in-battle healing and THOSE FREAKING CRITICAL HITS ARGH. I’m overall left with the impression that the designers here simply did not run the numbers on how their great ideas would work out in practice.

Oh, also, the final boss was a total chump. I beat it so fast it barely had time to do its special gimmick. Bosses in general were pretty trivial due to the aforementioned resource management problem — I can kill an elder god beyond human comprehension without breaking a sweat, but ordinary bandits bleed me dry through sheer persistence.

4 Comments

  1. Roarke says:

    If I remember right, part of your complaint for the extra grinding forced by loss of progression is fixed by the game’s Radiant difficulty, which was designed to speed progression while keeping the combat intact. It allows things like getting the Experienced Recruit upgrade faster, making town management cheaper, and speeding up the dungeon leveling. I haven’t tried it out myself, but I’d recommend it to anyone who wants the experience without the time dump.

    I’ve never felt the Vestal to be required except in a few cases. Usually you could get away with two of the lesser healers, or even an Occultist solo healer. I do agree that healing wasn’t very strong, though. The game’s balance seemed inclined towards damage prevention rather than healing. I’d say the two most powerful characters in that sense were the Plague Doctor and the Hellion, given that they have abilities that stun two enemies. The action economy you get from that is really good.

    I too was a little disappointed by the heroes being cardboard cutouts, but each class still felt like it had enough of its own personality that I could get invested in the class itself, at least. Particularly, I almost got tripped up on the final boss because I sacrificed two characters who were willing to die but would have been much more useful for the last stage of the fight.

    The game’s combat does suffer from quite a lot of RNG, it’s true. Everything from the turn initiative to the damage variance to whether or not characters die when they are killed comes down to a roll of the dice. Personally I’m fine with RNG-based combat systems, but this could have stood for some tuning. I do love the virtue system just for the Rule of Cool factor, though.

    Speaking of Rule of Cool, I do feel like the game is really aesthetically complete, even if it’s mechanically not there. That is its greatest strength, in my opinion, and it keeps me feeling fond of it even if I’m not willing to replay it or buy the DLC.

    1. Oh, I did play in Radiant mode. If that’s “speedy”, I don’t want to know what the standard difficulty is like.

      The art is indeed the strongest part of this. I was really impressed by how many poses they drew for all the different attacks. The Cultist Priest in particular was an excellent use of obscured horror (the way it twitches in its idle pose is so subtly unnerving). I also found the mosquito vampires delightfully clever — bat monster vampires have become pedestrian at this point, so it’s great that the game went a step further to make its vampires seem truly inhuman and horrific.

      I actually found the final monsters to be the weakest aesthetically, to be honest. Generic flesh blobs are just kind of eh at that point. It’s the uncanny valley that’s truly creepy.

      1. Roarke says:

        I too loved the vampire mosquitos, and also the depraved noble aesthetic they had going. A lot of the area/boss backstories were about little sins or crimes that got out of hand and escalated under the Ancestor’s neglect or worse, attention. The idea that this orgy among his friends basically got so out of control it ate the manor’s gardens is hilarious to me.

        I also loved the demons being piglike because he summoned them into pigs, the only animal he could easily get in huge quantities for his experiments. That those experiments were failures is even better.

  2. For interested parties, I wrote a bunch of nitpicky mods tweaking really specific things, most notably removing damage variance, so give those a try if you’re into that.

    I do appreciate that the developers made the game files so transparent and moddable, though the organizational structure… left some things to be desired. Why did effects and monster AI have to be in completely separate files from the monster data?

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