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.