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Building an Old-School Roguelike with a Twist

Terry OBrien Posted:
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Today we'll be catching up with Darkest Dungeon, a game that first caught our attention at PAX East this year. Darkest Dungeon is an old-school rogue-like with a couple of twists. The first thing that grabs you is the art style, a very Gothic, dark style that looks like it was hand-drawn with a traditional crow-quill. Heavy black inking and rich colors give this game a really unique presence that absolutely suits the game's dark and somber themes. The second thing that really differentiates Darkest Dungeon from other traditional dungeon-crawlers is the affliction system. You see, these heroes don't merely suffer physical damage in their quests to find defeat the evils of the world, they can also suffer emotional and psychological damage, and this is often more dangerous to the party than simple cuts and bruises. But more on this later; if you missed it back in April, you can see our PAX East interview with the Darkest Dungeon dev team here.

The setup is this: you have inherited your family's ancestral estate. Unfortunately it has fallen into, well, let's call it a state of disrepair. Not only that, but your former patriarch appears to have been messing about with dark powers beyond his control or comprehension, and something dark has taken up residence within your families once-proud estate. It will be up to you to hire adventurers to take up the challenge of cleaning out the evil infestations, rebuilding the hamlet and ultimately defeating the darkness, purging the estate of evil, and reclaiming the honor and prestige of your ancestors.

Once a characters stress gets high enough all sorts of psychological issues can arise

Sounds like a tough job, but don't worry, you will be recruiting a team of hearty adventurers to help. Thus far there are some thirteen worthy souls to choose from: the Crusader, the Plague Doctor, the Highwayman, the Hellion, the Jester, the Bounty Hunter, the Vestal, the Occultist, the Man-at-Arms, the Leper (!!!), the Arbalest, the Houndmaster and the Grave Robber. With a few other classes waiting in the wings, like the Merchant, you should end up with about sixteen heroic archetypes to choose from upon release.

All these heroes aren't simple cookie-cutter types either, each of them comes with a unique combination of skills, gear and personality quirks to ensure that every character has a persona of their own. Another big difference between Darkest Dungeon and many other dungeon-crawlers is that your heroes aren't always perfect. In most games the heroes stand against incredible odds and unfathomable evil with nary a second thought. Your heroes can withstand crushing defeats, and return to the battlefield no worse for wear, with a simple push of the reload button. Not so in Darkest Dungeons.

In Darkest Dungeons your heroes suffer psychological, emotional and mental trauma, in addition to the physical abuses they undergo. All of these things add up to stress... and enough stress can lead to serious afflictions. Will your Crusader become a coward, afraid to stand up for his party? Perhaps your treasured Bounty Hunter, whom you have trained from his first day to be your party’s staunchest leader, will become greedy or selfish, stealing from his trusting companions.

There's no predicting the debilitation effects of the dungeoneering lifestyle, and it's up to you, as the team's patron, to protect their fragile psyches, holding them back and, perhaps sending in a different team member when your favorites become fatigued. Keep them in town, at the bar, maybe, to blow off some steam, or perhaps at the Abbey. Praying to the gods for the inner fortitude to continue. Each character will have his or her preferred method for decompressing, but you'll have to keep an eye on that as well, after all, you don't want your Jester, who likes a drink now and again, to become a full-blown alcoholic who only finds courage at the bottom of a bottle...or do you? I never liked that clown anyway. That's the real meat of Darkest Dungeons, the care and preservation of your team, both physically and spiritually, as they go about the dirty business of cleaning up your family's messes.

Two parties square off, preparing for combat.

Once you have put together your team, it's off to the dungeons you will go, where you can only have four heroes in your party at a time, so choose carefully. Each hero can learn several skills over time, but they can only slot four of them on a run, so choosing your skills and gear will require a great deal of forethought. There are quite a lot of neat combinations that can be put together, for example, using your Bounty Hunter's hook to pull vulnerable back-rank casters to the front, where they are within reach of the Crusader's blade. Remember however, that if you can do it to them, they can, and will, try and do it to you, so protect your own vulnerable party members and maintain your front line.

Combat in Darkest Dungeon is simple, but deep, with quite a few systems combining (gear, skills, and quirks, sometimes even afflictions) to allow you to come up with some really creative and interesting stratagems and tactics. Your party will line up four-deep, with your opponents standing opposite you. Room to maneuver is limited, and where each creature stands plays an important part in combat. Front-rank targets are easily hit, and can just as easily retaliate, while rear-rankers prepare devastating ranged attacks, or healing incantations, to revive their compatriots. Some opponents are so massive that they take up several spaces, perhaps making them easier to hit, but also giving them tremendous reach, possibly enough to allow them to hit any, or even every rank.

Combat is turn-based, with initiative being determined from round-to-round. A quick character, with a high Speed attribute will generally get to act sooner than a slow character, but the whims of fate are fickle, and one bad round could cost you dearly, so don't depend too much on getting your turn sooner rather than later.

Monsters and creatures aren't the only threats to your survival, there is also the dungeons themselves. Dark, intimidating and infested with traps and insidious and horrific accoutrements, your every step will bring you closer to the edge of insanity. A skeleton on the floor ahead sparkles with tempting jewels, but will it rise upon your approach? Or perhaps the rings that bedeck its fingers have been laced with a deadly toxin, which will poison any who attempt to retrieve the rings for themselves. Or maybe it's just a former adventurer who was unable to survive the dungeon, and those glittering prizes are available to any with the courage to claim them. There's only one way to find out, right?

“When the senses are shaken, and the soul is driven to madness, who can stand?”- William Blake

Darkest Dungeon is being developed by Vancouver-based Red Hook Studios, and is fast approaching Steam Early Access sometime in the fall. The Dev team consists of: Chris Bourassa as Creative Director and Artist, Tyler Sigman as Executive Producer and Game Designer, Keir Miron as Programmer, Brooks Gordon as Technical Art Director and Animation/FX, Stuart Chatwood as Composer and they are also using Power Up Audio for Sound Design.

A very successful Kickstarter was concluded in mid-March, which raised over $300,000, over four times their modest $75,000 goal, and involved almost ten thousand backers. While Red Hook plans on setting up their own Darkest Dungeon forums in the future, right now Chris, Tyler and the guys are pretty active on a fan-forum, so if you find yourself as intrigued as I am, get over and register and chat with the devs and other fans of the game. There is also a weekly livestream on Twitch, which airs on Thursdays, and can also be found on the Darker Dungeon fansite if you miss the stream.


Terry OBrien

Terry OBrien / Terry is a Features Writer at MMORPG.com, and resident Warhammer guru. He is old, he remembers playing Telengard on a Commodore 64 in the early eighties. He wants all you kids and your new-fangled video games off his lawn!