I do not like who I am when I'm playing Darkest Dungeon. I'm pouring over the quirks of Bainard, one of the characters who I recruited fresh from the caravan, suited up with a group of other new adventurers, and then promptly pushed off into the depths of the Ruins on the outskirts of my estate. It was meant to be a relatively easy excursion, one well suited to my party of green adventurers. But like I learned early on, things rarely go as planned in Darkest Dungeon.
Now, Bainard is hurting both mentally and physically. She picked up a disease in the ruins, along with a few negative quirks, like agoraphobia and satanophobia that don't compliment her pre-existing mental conditions all that well. Not only that, but the stress of the excursion-gone-bad broke her, turning her into a coward. She was meant to be my front line of defense, but instead she was constantly running to the back of the party, pushing her weaker allies into the claws of the fiendish enemies attacking us.
I could send her to the bar to drink away the stress, but she also needs a few stints in the sanitarium to cure her other maladies before she'll be back into fighting shape. That's costly, and she's only just reached level one. Too costly, the inner business man in my head warns, while the humanist part of me feels utterly terrible. Just get it over with, I think. In a snap second judgement I dismiss her, sending her from the estate without so much as a pouch of coins to live out the rest of her miserable existence. At least she won't die in my employ, I try to reassure myself. It's little relief.
This is what Darkest Dungeon is all about: trading the wellbeing of your adventurers for the promise of riches and to reclaim your once glorious estate. And after spending a few weeks doing it, I'm not so sure that the horrific monsters in Darkest Dungeon are the real villains.
There's a reason that every time I boot up the game, a warning appears on the screen, somberly reminding me that failure in Darkest Dungeon isn't just a possibility but an inevitability. You will fail, people will die. But maybe, if enough people die, something good will come of it. Whatever that good might be I lost sight of many hours ago. Instead, I'm sitting here pouring over my roster of adventurers, wondering which one will be the next to go.
Darkest Dungeon lives up to its name in so many ways. Playing as the distant heir of a family estate, your mission is to clear away the evil festering in the various dungeons located in the area and reclaim your family's glory. You do this by hiring on an endless stream of adventurers, equipping them as best as you are able before shipping them off. But Darkest Dungeon is more nuanced than punishing failure with death. It chips away at your heroes, reducing them to wastes of human potential until they collapse in despair, leaving you rue the money you wasted on them.
Diving into a dungeon is a positively harrowing experience, and I can't remember the last time a game managed to elicit emotional knee-jerk reactions from me. When one of my party missed a crucial attack, my hands clenched until my knuckles were white as bone. When a hero persevered through a devastating ordeal, I slouched back, allowing myself a moment to praise whatever dark gods influenced the hidden dice rolls that made it possible.
But Darkest Dungeon is as much an RPG as it is a strategy game, as success will rarely visit those who don't think long and hard about every decision they make over the course of the game. You'll want to think long and hard anyway, because the sting of defeat can erase hours of hard work with an untimely critical hit.
Your estate is a series of buildings that you'll need to upgrade with the treasures that you'll find on your excursions, each one providing a way to strengthen or heal the various people in your employment. A blacksmith can equip heroes with better equipment, while a guild will upgrade their abilities or allow you to unlock new ones. Perhaps the most important feature of your crumbling home is the stagecoach, which can be upgraded to bring more recruits each week or increase the total amount of characters you can hire at one time.
But where you'll be spending the vast majority of your time at home is in the tavern and chapel, where you can send your recruits to de-stress after a particularly trying encounter, or the sanitarium, where you can lock them away to heal their diseases or treat the mental afflictions that they'll begin to acquire the more you make use of them. These might sound like a good thing, but there's rarely a sense of relief to be found in Darkest Dungeon, especially when you send your hero off to flagellate themselves and you hear the whips crack as you leave them for the week.
But it's the countless trips into the dungeon where you'll see any glimmer of hope snuffed out like a torch. The turn-based combat in Darkest Dungeon is gruelling. Even the weakest enemies can send your voyage spiraling into disaster with startlingly ease. Each of the four heroes you send on an excursion will need to be carefully selected, balancing their quirks—the characteristics that define their personalities and proficiency in combat—with their class and abilities. Each one is randomly generated, and there's a great diversity in both the types of classes, abilities they have, and the quirks they might already come with.
In a way, Darkest Dungeon can feel almost like a puzzle game where you'll need to balance everything as best as you can in order to ensure success. In combat, your heroes each occupy a position in a line, with those at the front usually being melee characters who can take and dish out a beating. The back of my party was reserved for weaker classes like the Vestal or Plague Doctor, who could lob debilitating grenades that poisoned my enemies.
Positioning is of crucial importance, as certain abilities can only be used when your hero is in the correct position. Fortunately, Darkest Dungeon provides an intuitive way of showing you where each hero is best used and what position in the enemy party they're best at attacking.
Even the best party can be undone by the many abilities both you and enemies have that can shift the positioning of heroes. A savage blow from a shield-using skeleton might send my man-at-arms stumbling to the back of the group, a costly outcome that will require me to either waste turns moving him back to the front of the group or clench my jaw and try to compensate with the new arrangement of my party.