As a general rule, we tend not to feature games still in early access.
One too many half-finished, half-broken indie releases, have somewhat put us off investing in titles that aren’t quite ready yet. But once in a blue moon, something comes along with a concept that’s just too enticing to ignore.
Darkest Dungeon is one such game, and after a highly successful Kickstarter campaign in February last year, Red Hook Studio’s Lovecraftian roguelike has been on our radar for quite some time. Last week saw the release of the game’s ‘Fiends and Frenzy’ update, adding new classes, new loot, and new Eldritch horrors to vanquish. So, like an apprentice Crusader hitting the upper limit of his stress-bar, we snapped; and kindly asked the folks at Red Hook if we could have a go.
Darkest Dungeon is a dungeon crawler, naturally; and one which fans of dark fantasy will want to take note of. Think turn-based, 2.5D, RPG set in Lovecraft’s ‘Call of Cthulu’ universe, and you’ve got a good idea of what to expect. Throw in a roguelike perma-death component too, and it’s obvious this isn’t a game for the faint of heart.
The opening cutscene explains that a wealthy relation of yours has carelessly opened up a demonic portal under his estate, and he’d like you to come help close it. To do this, you need to hire adventures, and thanks to the lure of loot and riches strewn about the game world, there are plenty on-hand to choose from. Pick four of them from the local caravan to make up your party, buy them some supplies for the expedition, and send them on their way.
As your party descends into the procedurally generated labyrinths, they’ll not only have to contend with eldritch creatures and monstrosities, but also the emotional stresses of adventuring. Push any one of them too far and they may become paranoid, hopeless or completely delusional. Whatever psychosis they succumb to stays with them, impacting on their performance and depressing their teammates. Once they’re out in daylight they can be fixed of course, but it’ll take a trip to the nearby sanatorium to ‘treat’ their mental illness.
Choosing when to push your team and when to back down, is a key aspect of what Darkest Dungeon is all about, and the success or failure of the mission depends on your decisions. Say for example, your inventory becomes full halfway through a quest. Do you make room for the loot you just found by discarding provisions? You need torches to see, and rations to feed your party, but if you don’t bring enough gold back, you might as well have not gone at all.
What if you’re one room away from that last alter that needs purifying, but your team is barely in a state to make it there? Do you risk an ambush en route? What if there are enemies waiting? A few oversized spiders you might be able to deal with, but if it’s cultists and brigands, you’ve got no chance. You won’t know until it’s too late. The alternative is to escape while you still can. Keep the loot and the lives of your team, but do so at the cost of morale and wasted provisions. Everything you do in Darkest Dungeon presents choice, and each one must be carefully considered if you’re to succeed.
Once you’ve raised a few heroes to their second or third levels, they represent a significant investment. By that point, as well as having dragged them through a series of successful ordeals, you’ve paid for their armour, their weapons and their training. And if they end up dead… they’re gone for good. A few bad rolls of the RNG are all it takes for a casual exploration of the nearby ruins to turn into massacre, as well as a waste of time and gold.
There’ll be plenty of moments where you hesitate to commit to your next decision, and when you do, it’ll be with gritted teeth and tense anticipation of the repercussions. Deciding to make camp in the wrong spot might see you favourite Plague Doctor unceremoniously cut down by some two-bit bandit in a cowardly night-time ambush, and it’ll be absolutely heart-breaking. You might quit out, shut down the PC, and confidently declare that the game is broken, unbalanced, and bullshit.
But the emotional reward for success is just as intense as the one for failure. Make a few good calls, get lucky on a few rolls, and you might see your hastily organised team of newbies stroll through that one quest you’ve been stuck on without even breaking a sweat. You might see your paranoid schizophrenic Crusader reach his breaking point against a Cthulu fish-monster; but instead of succumbing to despair and bumming everyone out, he belts out an earth-shaking war cry and hits with a critical so immense you didn’t realise a number that big could exist. And just like that, you’ll be hooked again.
Therein lies the beauty of Darkest Dungeon. Playing is a thrill. Every trip into every dungeon is littered with moments of tension and critical risk vs. reward decisions. For a game to illicit extremes of emotion as effectively and consistently as this, is a truly impressive accomplishment.
It doesn’t matter that Darkest Dungeon isn’t finished yet. For £14.99 you get a unique experience that boasts endless replayability and an old-school emotional intensity that’s tough to find these days. There are some genuine balancing issues here and there of course, but the team at Red Hook are releasing regular updates and fixes in preparation for the game’s “2nd half of 2015” release. With more classes, more areas to explore, and a resolution to the game’s story still on the way, the final version should be a substantial package when it arrives.
In the fourteen hours we’ve spent so far, delving the macabre depths of our dilapidated in-game estate, our bias against early access has been all but alleviated. Darkest Dungeon proves that when done right, a game doesn’t even have to be finished, to be utterly brilliant.