Crawling in the Dark is a weekly diary of my experience with the permadeath dungeon crawler and frustration simulator known as Darkest Dungeon. Half role-playing, half story-telling, and half review, join me on a math-challenged journey through heart attacks, Eldritch horrors, and the year’s best narrator. Obviously, spoilers. Check out our Early Access review of the game here (which still holds true, even though the game is now in its release build).
“Ruin has come to our family…”
That’s how the letter begins: the old man begging you to return home and fix what he has done. Then he kills himself. Insanity and all that.
Darkest Dungeon is unlike anything I have ever played. On the surface, it seems comically simple: move from left to right, engage in turn based battles, don’t die. There is so much depth of strategy to this game, however, and an even more insidious element as well. Just like in real life, sometimes it doesn’t matter how much you have planned and prepared. Sometimes bad luck crops up and you have to completely replan, rethink, or even give up and regroup. Or, like my grandpappy always used to say: “Sometimes an aristocratic skeleton spills wine on your friend, then he has a heart attack and dies.”
The game even warns you against attachment to your heroes early on. It warns: “Heroes will die. And when they die, they stay dead.” For people who desire the “perfect” game run, Darkest Dungeon can be an infuriating battle with randomness. It is a game where best case scenario is still sometimes not good enough. It’s also a helluva lot of fun.
After your father begs your return to stop the Lovecraft monsters he let out, you find yourself with two heroes on the Old Road, battling a few brigands on the way back home. Other than a trapped chest at the end, the tutorial mission hosts no true surprises. Once you arrive in the hamlet, it is time to hire a few more heroes and plan for your first true dungeon crawl. Battling my better judgment, I decide to start naming heroes after myself, my friends, my loved ones. Your original heroes will be strong enough to survive until the end, right?
I take the role of Highwayman for myself – the most rogueish of the initial classes. I’ve got a hard head and quick reflexes, and I may be a bit of a known cheat. I can slice or shoot my foes as well as disarm traps. My Crusader is a God fearing kleptomaniac, my Plague Doctor is an eagle eye with a bad case of the yips, and my healer is terrified of people and has a torn rotator cuff. This merry band of weirdos is going to stop the nameless horror festering underneath the town? Whatever’s clever.
Darkest Dungeon is a game that oozes flavor. From the spot-on narrator to the dark, minimalistic art design, you buy into this twisted world. As I pick out supplies from the toothy shopkeeper, I try to determine what troubles I need to prepare for. I decide to play conservatively until I have built up a bit of a nest egg to start splurging with. Food and torches should be enough to get me through the first mission.
Entering the ruins, I am unsure what to expect. I haven’t played Darkest Dungeon since very early in its Early Access period, and do not remember the game very well. I immediately find a torch. Essential for keeping the difficulty of battles down at the outset, torches help out immensely when you have relatively few, underpowered fighters. Not much further and I find a shovel, which I immediately use to dig through rubble. And here I thought this game was going to be difficult!
In the first room, I encounter my first battle: two skeletons with clubs approach and try to bash my head in. They are dispatched quickly, with little loss to health or sanity. I do find it curious that when I kill the first, he leaves a corpse behind that my party finds extremely difficult to step over until I bash it some more. Undeterred, my party ventures deeper into the ruins. We come across yet another chest, this one with a few portraits that I can use back in the hamlet to upgrade my buildings. It is here that the cracks in my party begin to form.
As I attempt to claim my loot, Drew the Crusader begins to whistle. Then he claims the portraits for himself. Confused, I check his character info and am reminded that he is a kleptomaniac. I try to contain myself by reminding myself that it is a mental disorder. He didn’t want to steal from me – he had a compulsion to do so. I then remember that I am trying to collect as many resources as possible before difficulty spikes, and have trouble reconciling him. Oh well, he’s the tank on the front lines. He’ll probably die first.
As I continue exploring and dealing with easy fights, I start analyzing ways to take advantage of aspects when the going starts to get tough. Critical hits are extremely swingy, so maximizing my chance at those could be a viable strategy. However, I’ll need to face a true challenge to see what the most difficult game aspects are. I think I may have found it in the last battle I face in the ruins.
Four skeletons block my path to success, including the aforementioned wine-slinging aristocrat that my grandfather warned me about. He keeps targeting my Plague Doctor, driving his stress level nearly to the breaking point. Luckily, I am able to finish off the skeleton crew before things get to out of hand, and I have a deathless first mission under my belt. David, the stressed out Plague Doctor even gets a positive quirk added to his character: “Warren Explorer,” which will make him more effective when I get to the warrens.
I return to the hamlet, hire a few new heroes (including two new classes – an axe-wielding Bounty Hunter and a heavy hitting Arbalest), and send my two most stressed heroes to decompress in any way they can. David, the Plague Doctor, apparently wasn’t too put off by all the wine that was spilled on him. He heads to the bar to drown his sorrows. Danielle the Vestal, in an odd choice, heads to the brothel. “Just hold me… for now,” she says. Maybe her class will change when I return from my next adventure?
I equip a Bleed Stone trinket on my Highwayman and make to delve into my next expedition. I’m feeling pretty confident at this point – no major setbacks or issues have slowed me down yet. Maybe Darkest Dungeon is not as tough as everyone says it is. Join me next week to find out how wrong this assumption is.