One big Gothic family: A critical review of “Darkest Dungeon” (2016)

You might think this blog would save something special for a day when Halloween herself lines up with our posting schedule. Well, you’d be right. Sorta RPG sorta turn-based strategy maybe rogue-like if I’m getting my terminology correct “Darkest Dungeon” is, uh, a dark fantasy dungeon crawler. It also happens to be one of my favorite recent discoveries, a perfect translation of nihilistic pulp Lovecraft that manages to sidestep most of the contemporary Lovecraft dressings. Intriguing.

Like the corporate world, “Dungeon” is all about team management, albeit in a fantasy/horror way. The plot concerns a crumbling manor built upon a series of catacombs that may lead to unspeakable horrors from another world. Those horrors have been spilling into the countryside, and you’re in charge of cleaning up the place. Not personally, of course. As the last living scion of the estate, you let your purse strings do the talking. The cleaning is done by squads of hired heroes – shifty mercenaries, misguided zealots, callous mystics and warriors with nothing left to lose – who march through swamps and ruins and attempt to map, burn and kill anything in their path. You steer them through ever-shifting levels representing the labyrinthine surroundings of the mansion, overseeing their combat, health and sanity.

Overseeing combat and health is pretty straightforward. Heroes fumble around enemy-haunted levels until they bump into the things going bump in the dark. In combat, they can attack, heal or inflict status effects on enemies. Sanity is a different affair. Well, it’s not quite sanity. The developers – who emigrated from Backbone Entertainment, a somewhat generalist developer with a vague specialty in updating old games or franchises to new consoles – were adamant that “Dungeon” would not have a sanity system the way a number of psychological horror games have over the years. Instead it’s stress, which gets its own bar like health.

Heroes can acquire stress in combat by taking sudden heavy damage or being attacked by psychological, rather than physical, attacks. They can also take stress outside of combat by encountering frightening random events or if the lights go out. Arguably, the stress system is just a sanity system in overdrive. Instead of jarring interface screws, you get management screws, with heroes who’ve undergone terrific stress breaking down mid-combat and skipping their turn, injuring themselves or demoralizing the other adventurers. The system is logical, tense and brilliantly executed.

The character classes undergoing this stress all mesh, which is actually surprising. The game doesn’t take place in any specific time or space, and the heroes reflect this. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses, fitting neatly (and not so neatly) into a tank/assault/healer/support system, but they also have their own cosplay periods. Medieval characters like a Crusader, a Plague Doctor, a Leper king and a presumably lost Renaissance festival musician are in lockstep with Gothic tropes like a Highwayman, Grave Robber and lycanthrope, not to mention an Occultist who straddles the 19th and 20th centuries. On paper, it shouldn’t work. In practice, it does.

It probably helps that there’s a unity of style. It’s most apparent in the visuals, which all follow a somewhat lo fi woodcut/Mike Mignola presentation. The outlines are sturdy and dark, and the color scheme is muted, all stone grays and burnt reds and woodsy greens, with occasional splashes of sunset purple and neon blue to suggest an otherworldly ill health.

Part of the unity is that same blend of dark fantasy/Gothic/cosmic horror tropes is present in the environments. The individuals dungeons crawls are set in a dark forest, a haunted mansion and an oceanic grotto, the latter of which contains both ghost pirates and Deep Ones. Enemies likewise span sympathetic genres, and your team of hired heroes will face human highwaymen, resurrected skeletons in armor, mutated fairy tale giants, giant spiders and unplaceable monsters from beyond the stars because you touched the damn artifact, didn’t you? There are also a ton of spooky details to keep up the atmospheric pressure. The pirate cove is populated with alien bunches of coral and rotting whales. It took me a couple of times looking at that level’s rest screen to realize there was a corpse flopping out of a wrecked ship.

There are a couple of audio touches that neatly tie everything together too. The music is at points stately, jarring and operatic, which is fantastic and fitting. But the real sonic star is the narrator. First off, the writing (by director Chris Bourassa? I’m not certain about that) is perfect. It is absolutely Lovecraftian in both rhythm and word choice. Just check the prologue: “salt-soaked crags” and “damnable portal of antediluvian evil” aren’t directly lifted from Lovecraft, but they might as well be. The narrator is voiced by Wayne June, whose articulation is – and I hate using this word – epic. His voice is deep and thick, and he takes the performance seriously, so what might sound silly with a different set of pipes is absolutely appropriate. Vincent Price and Christopher Lee would both be proud.

The script, acting and music all melts together in a stewpot of pessimism. The narrator provides commentary during combat. Victories are met with admiration, caution and dismissal. Defeats are wearily acknowledged. The narrator is not someone you phone when you’re having a rough day. The music stings back this up. Even victories sound grim.

In fact, the final stylistic thing that ties all the disparate elements is the mood, which is nicely crushing and apocalyptic. It’s interesting. Everything feels inevitable, both victory and some certain as yet unknown defeat. This blog loves that mood, as there are too few games that so fully commit to a pessimistic atmosphere while still making it seem organic. Go figure, a game called “Darkest Dungeon” is not a happy one.

Still, if I had to call out “Dungeon” on one thing, it might be that it does its job of downbeat atmosphere a bit too well. I have similar feelings about “Dark Souls” actually, that the crushing atmosphere is so ingrained into the gameplay that it makes caring and wanting to continue difficult at points. “Dungeon” is similarly hard. Even when you win a dungeon crawl, it takes a toll on your heroes. Most of them leave levels with gameplay disrupting personality neuroses and STDs. Management extends to the hub – a town below the estate that’s just waiting for a shipment of torches and pitchforks to come in – where you upgrade heroes attack and defense, as well as cure them of their ills at the sanitarium, or reset their stress at the bar or local meditation center. If you haven’t been grinding enough heroes, you can find yourself with nothing to do while your A team has the night off.

Then there’s always the chance that your team will wipe, and your heroes – including a level five crusader who you’ve been grinding for hours – will all die in one fell swoop. And that’s a perma-death, by the way. In theory, a few bad, or just poorly managed, runs can cut your roster of useful heroes in half, crippling your progression. And the game expects you to wipe. Literally. You get an achievement for it.

The saving grace of “Dungeon” is its relative speed and simplicity. Wiping only takes minutes, but getting back into the game can be a quick operation as well. It’s as simple as hiring a few more heroes and tossing them into the grinder. Load times are usually short, and since everything is based on immediate dungeon crawling, you don’t have to wander aimlessly around a map. If you’re sufficiently soaked with resources, you also have a chance to hire more experienced heroes right off the start, cutting down on some of the grinding.

What’s more, “Dungeon’s” lessons are brutal, but at least they’re clear. For boss battles in particular, I always knew why I was wiping. Why did I bring an Antiquarian to a boss fight? Why didn’t I bring adventurers who could hit the back row? Characters died, but lessons were learned. In short, it was always fair (except that one fucking time I attacked the wrong fucking enemy by complete fucking accident, fucking fuck, the boss was one fuck-diddly-yuck strike away from keeling over… fuck).

Most of “Dungeon’s” combat is simple enough – walk around, fight some dudes, follow the strategy you’ve developed based on your team – so it runs the risk of getting samey. Arguably, it’s the tension that spices things up. Boss battles in particular, where fights can stretch out, feel satisfying upon conclusion, but so can simply getting to the end of a level when you’re a sliver of health or stress away from losing a character.

“Dungeon” is difficult – which makes sense given its Gothic atmosphere, cosmic horror themes and commentary on stress – but it’s not unfair. If I’m to be fair, I must admit that I’ve sunk hours into it and I haven’t beaten it yet. It’s possible that at some point I will toss my controller aside and, much like the heroes on screen, silently scream in rage and fear at the crushing gameplay and slow progression. However, I think I’ll stick it through. Style and atmosphere welcomed me in; clever gameplay and tiny victories keep me going. Despite the dark and downbeat mood, I think the brightest takeaway is that I’m still playing.

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