Party order is also crucial in Darkest Dungeon, both for combat and general adventuring. Your Graverobber may fight best towards the back of the pack, but she’ll also be better at spotting and disarming traps if you put her out in front while adventuring. At the same time, if you get ambushed by monsters while you’ve got your Graverobber out front, she’s likely to take a beating before you can shuffle her back towards a more optimal combat position. It’s all about trade-offs.
Combat is turn-based in Darkest Dungeon and, again, party order matters. Each character’s abilities can only be used from certain spots within the party order and this applies to your enemies as well. Your Vestal will only be able to heal from the back of the party, for example, and she’ll need to move up front to hit enemies with her mace if you want her to do that.
Abilities employed by both you and your enemies can shift characters around, too. The Bounty Hunter can use a grappling hook to pull enemies hiding behind a tank up towards the front or his Uppercut can be used to knock the tank backwards into the group. Some enemies can’t attack at all unless they’re in the back, so pulling them up towards the front can have a dramatic effect on the course of the fight.
If a party member’s health is reduced to 0 they go into ‘Death’s Door’ mode. Every hit or damage-over-time tick endured while in Death’s Door can result in a Deathblow, which will permanently kill that character. That’s right, true to Darkest Dungeon’s roguelike roots, you will have to deal with permadeath.
Probably the most important aspect of combat and adventuring we haven’t discussed too much yet is stress. We mentioned how you deal with it in town, but how does stress affect you in the field? Well, just about everything that can happen in a dungeon run is stressful to your characters, and this can be modified further by their quirks. Is your Highwayman afraid of the dark? He may incur additional stress as the light fades. In combat, taking damage or seeing fellow allies fall or lose their minds will also add to a character's stress level.
Once a character’s stress meter fills to its maximum, the game will test their resolve. Should your character’s resolve falter, they will find themselves affected by one of many different types of afflictions. Maybe your character becomes abusive and starts verbally abusing the rest of your party, increasing their stress levels, for example. The most annoying affliction I’ve encountered so far is when a party member becomes irrational. Irrational characters may do ridiculous things like refuse heals or buffs, reject switching party order, and so on. There’s nothing quite like having your Highwayman at Death’s Door and refusing to take three heals in a row, resulting in his completely avoidable death. Selfish characters may pass turns, wishing for other members of the party to do their work for them, characters afflicted with masochism may cut themselves in combat, and the list goes on.
Believe it or not, there’s a plus side to stress, too. Sometimes your character doesn’t break under the pressure. In this case, your character will actually gain a variety of positive buffs that will make them directly more powerful or hardy in combat or even allow them to inspire their group mates. In one instance, I lost all of my party but my Vestal and my Bounty Hunter, and instead of buckling under the pressure, he manned up and told my hopeless sobbing Vestal to stop whining while he crushed the entire field of enemies before him, basically winning the entire fight by himself.
Managing stress is what makes Darkest Dungeon as brutal as it is. I’m not one to shy away from brutally hard games. I love a challenge and I crank every game I play up to its maximum difficulty, but Darkest Dungeon is no joke at present. I’ve restarted my campaign entirely enough times at this point that I’m willing to bet that things may even be a bit overtuned right now. Things can go from fine to catastrophe in the blink of an eye. It’s pretty easy to feel confident enough going through a dungeon. You’ve got two healers, everyone’s topped up on health and provisions, and there are only a few rooms left. But then you go into the next room, get into combat, and one party member craps the bed after incurring a bunch of stress, kicking off a chain reaction of chaos that results in a full party wipe. This happens. A lot.
To give you one example, I’ve had a masochistic Vestal insist on moving up to the front of the party because she feels the lashes will make her tougher (and thus making her unable to heal), while my Jester is simultaneously belittling my Graverobber for being a terrible knife thrower, including going so far as telling her to kill herself. Meanwhile, my hopeless Occultist is crying uncontrollably in the backline as this all transpires and my enemies are just pummeling them all as they fall apart one by one. It’s often simultaneously hilarious and pull-your-hair-out frustrating.
One thing I’ve learned to do is to only go as far into a dungeon run as I feel I can comfortably handle before I feel things may go haywire. If you willingly abort a run, you can return to town with whatever goodies and gold you’ve picked up, even if it means not finishing the quest. Sometimes, you’ll need to pull out to ensure your party doesn’t die or go nuts in the field. Feeling out for how far you think you can take things before you need to head back to the surface is often a costly experiment in trial-and-error. I’ve been one or two rooms away from clearing a run only to end up wiping my party more times than I care to admit at this point. However, pulling out too early can end up eating into your continuously dwindling gold stores as you send your heroes to get some R&R and purchase a whole new set of provisions before the next run. It sometimes feels like you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Even so, I must be a bit of a masochist myself, because I can’t stop going back to the game.
Overtuned or not, one thing is for sure: Darkest Dungeon is not for the faint of heart.