Anyone who has read my horror game reviews knows that I have a soft spot for anything lovecraftian in nature. Games that are inspired by what I would consider the father of true horror are always at the top of my list to play. Of course, simply being lovecraftian isn’t enough, they also need to be great games in their own right to be welcomed into my library with open arms.
Enter Darkest Dungeon, a new horror RPG roguelike for the PS4. Roguelike games are notoriously difficult and unwielding, so does Darkest Dungeon balance the unfairness of sanity with the excitement of dungeon crawling, or is this crawling chaos heading in the wrong direction? Time to find out!
Dreadfully Good Writing Combines With Pitch-Perfect Narration
I don’t believe that excellent writing is solely dependent on the depth of the vocabulary being used, but I do believe that Darkest Dungeon’s penchant for eloquent vernacular is one of its strongest points. The game has an excellently released gothic setting that feels like it was torn straight from the pages of a Lovecraft story.
The game’s story, and just about every event, is narrated by Wayne June who ties the entire atmosphere together with a deep and rich style of narrating that breathes terrifying eldritch life into every one of his lines.
It also helps that the game’s writing feels like it was stripped directly from the era that it portrays. After all, why use the word “mercy” when you can use the term “clemency?” Or, during battle, why say a character is low on health when you can inform that player that they’re at “death’s door.”
It’s this added attention to detail that makes Darkest Dungeon one of the most well realized worlds I’ve experienced in the horror genre. I don’t want to spoil some of the excellent lines delivered by Mr. June, but it’s a treat for the ears to hear him inform you of everything from a trap, to the untimely demise of a character.
The setup for Darkest Dungeon’s story is solid. You have been called to this small hamlet to claim your birthright: a house built upon ancient soil that is steeped in eldritch mysteries that your ancestor was determined to uncover. In his search for answers to questions he never should have asked, he unleashed something ancient, indescribable, and wholly evil.
It’s your job to stop it by making your way into the depths of the Darkest Dungeon. It’s all incredibly well told in the introduction, but after this point the story takes a backseat as you start your pillaging and dungeon crawling.
There are milestones you reach where more of the lore and backstory is revealed, but with how incredible the intro was, I wanted the story to come at me constantly. Instead, I was treated to a strong, but continuous loop of dungeons until I could have another morsel of the excellent story.
Beyond that small gripe, I can’t complain with the world and the atmosphere that this game constructs. It is wholly dedicated to submerging you into its gothic lovecraftian hamlet, with its ancient and sprawling dungeons. I for one, was happy to drown myself in its incredibly well-realized world.
Madness Takes Hold as Dungeons Are Crawled
Darkest Dungeon has all the solid elements of a turn-based dungeon crawler, but it brings a few new things to the table. While not entirely unique to the genre, your characters cannot be revived. If they die in those unfathomable depths, they’re gone for good.
Furthermore, the game employs a sanity system which can be affected by a number of different factors. Even some enemies can attack your sanity instead of your health. When your characters are pushed to their wit’s end, they perform a check that can either steel their resolve with a bonus, or send them into one of several different insanity debuffs.
Combine this with intense combat and the ever-looming threat of permadeath, and the game has tension coming out of all the dungeon walls. Even environmental hazards and interactive moments can yield positive or negative results.
It’s intense, and honestly the only complaint I have here is that the systems can be finicky. Since much of the systems in place are random, there can be widely different experiences from dungeon to dungeon. Specifically, it can feel fair and balanced, or it can feel like the game just really doesn’t like you today and wants to make your life as difficult as possible.
There’s no denying the despair felt when a character you’ve built up and trained falls in battle, but that’s the way the dice roll in Darkest Dungeon. In between levels, you can visit the hamlet to recover sanity, recruit new party members, upgrade various skills, and augment them with different perks in the off-chance your resolve kicks in.
There’s some nice variety to the dungeons and the enemy types, but I couldn’t help wondering what the rest of this world looks like beyond the hamlet. The scope is a little limited in that sense, and the character models do tend to repeat more often than not. On one expedition, three of my party members looked identical for example.
These are all nitpicks in an otherwise solid gameplay experience. Since the game originated on PC, you’ll find that the menu controls can be cumbersome, but you’ll get used to them and you’ll never be in a situation here reflexes are needed (because it’s turn-based), so this is not a critical issue by any means.
Overall, the story and the gameplay are great, but it’s the presentation that ties everything together and makes this a truly special horror package.
A Winning Presentation That Sells The World
Darkest Dungeon employs an incredible looking aesthetic that perfectly encapsulates the world and the atmosphere it builds with the writing and narration. It’s a hard-edged style that sells the horrific monster designs and adds a weight to the combat that most turn-based games sorely lack.
All of this combines with top-notch sound design and it coalesces into a truly complete experience that feels cohesive. The pieces fit together, the mechanics, while occasionally finicky, are sound. The story and the narration are simply exquisite, and it results in a horror RPG that fans of either genre should absolutely play.
Final Score: 9.0/10
Article by - Bradley Ramsey
Insert Date - 10/01/16