Health isn't the only thing you'll need to worry about either, as every hero has a limit to the stress they can take. While exploring the passageways of each dungeon, a two dimensional hallway you walk forward or backward through, your heroes' stress will be continually growing, eventually climaxing in a deciding moment where they can succumb or overcome the stress, gaining extreme debuffs or buffs in the process. If a hero falters under the stress, they might become masochistic, goading the enemy into focusing their attacks on them. Likewise, they might become courageous, gaining permanent bonuses to damage. If a hero takes too much stress, they even risk having a heart attack and dying right on the spot.
On the surface, it's that constant battle to manage a dozen systems that are slowly working against you that makes Darkest Dungeon compelling. A war of attrition. What's fascinating is the way each of these systems influence each other, like when a masochistic character chastises another member of the party, increasing their stress in turn. There's rarely a moment where you won't feel like you're constantly on the brink of total disaster, and that juggle of managing stress, health, and the general well being of each character is a taxing process I suspect will break weaker players altogether.
While exploring each of the five dungeons, the game will also taunt you with better rewards if you let your torch burn low. The result is a creative and fluid difficulty meter that allows you some measure of control over how dangerous each encounter could become. If you bring plenty of torches and keep them burning brightly, your party will take less stress and has a chance of surprising groups of enemies. If you let it burn low, enemies will hit harder and more accurately, but the rewards from defeating them will be better.
That constant tension between risk and reward makes Darkest Dungeon a captivating experience, especially when you need to decide whether to abandon an excursion because your heroes are breaking under the stress or to keep pressing on at the risk of doing serious permanent damage to them.
It's undeniable that just about everything you do is at the mercy of random chance, and for many players I suspect this constant chaos and uncertainty will drive them away from the game before long. Having a hero that you've invested hours and gold into suffer a fatal blow or contract tetanus because you wanted them to see if there was anything valuable inside of a torture device you found while prowling through the depths, is absolutely frustrating. And it's entirely possible you could spend dozens of hours grooming a select few soldiers only to have each one of them die and disappear forever. Or worse, suffer so many afflictions that you have to cut them loose.
But even if I never see the credits of Darkest Dungeon, I won't walk away from the time I spent feeling ripped off because every catastrophic event always felt like the result of a decision I made—even if it was a dozen hours ago when I decided that James, my gun-toting highwayman, didn't need to have the negative quirk that affected his accuracy treated and I missed that crucial final blow against a boss that would consequently spell defeat for my entire party.
Darkest Dungeon's presentation is every bit as memorable as its complex layer of strategy, a oppressive concoction of somber music mixed with eerie atmospheric rumblings and vicious sound effects that let you feel every blow. A narrator commentates your entire adventure too, adding salt to the wound when he chastises you for a poorly made decision or dampens a victory with a grim reminder of the sacrifices that made it possible. Environments and characters are drawn like comic-books, but there's nothing lighthearted about the expressions of anguish traced across the faces of your soldiers as they suffer at your hands.
If I can find any fault with the game, it's that the user interface could use some more tweaking to be more effective and responsive. A few windows seemed reluctant to open without multiple clicks, and finding the information you need might require flipping back and forth between different windows. I also wish that there was a more informative detailing of your expenses, so that I could keep track of how much I spent equipping a party to balance against how much they found, or lost, in the depths
In the end, your ultimate opinion of Darkest Dungeon will rest solely on how much punishment you're willing to take. There are times when the game can feel absolutely abusive, as small victories turn to dust in your hands moments later. But this isn't some insidious design waiting to pounce on you when you least expect it. After all, every time you open the game that same message will warn you of what you'll be sacrificing.
What makes Darkest Dungeon a fascinating experience isn't the rich character progression and overarching strategy, but the way it manages to make each character feel like a living, breathing human before asking you how much you'll ruin them to increase your bottom line. There's pockets of subtext that I continually filled with my own moral struggle. Spaces left ingeniously blank where, when I allow myself to reflect on my actions, I realize that the greatest evil isn't waiting at the end of a dimly lit crypt. It is sitting right in this chair, typing these words.
- GAMEPLAY: 9 – The distinct tension between risking the lives of your heroes to build your estate is a demanding, neverending struggle. While some might find Darkest Dungeon overly abusive and frustrating, those who master the strategy of building complementary parties and maintaining their heroes' well being will discover one of the richest dungeon crawlers of recent years.
- VISUALS AND SOUND: 10 – Gorgeous comic book-style visuals bring the Lovecraftian horrors to life in vivid horror, while a moody soundtrack and pessimistic narrator haunt you every step of the journey.
- POLISH: 8 – The interface could use some work as some menus can be unresponsive while not always providing the information you need in a concise manner.
- LONGEVITY: 9 – Even if you never step into the depths of the Darkest Dungeon, there's hours upon hours to be had leveling characters, managing their mounting quirks, and strategizing for your next journey.
- VALUE: 9 – Not for the faint of heart, Darkest Dungeon saves its greatest treasures for those who don't balk at the idea of losing everything. But even if you walk away defeated, Darkest Dungeon will remain a memorable—if painful—RPG well worth every penny.