The torch that burns twice as bright, burns - ARGH! What is that?
The air is cold, almost impossibly so. My small band of intrepid and somewhat disturbed adventurers have just breached the first room of the Darkest Dungeon. The torchlight is strong and burns brightly, shedding a pale illumination across the hall that stands before us. A Crusader, Highwayman, Vestal and Plague Doctor peer off into the darkness and move onward...BAM a trap, the Vestal takes a hit and her stress level rises!
I've been playing Darkest Dungeon, a rogue-like, 2d, psychological dungeon crawler with a unique hand-animated art-style and some of the best narration since Bastion. It isn't a full game yet, it's decidedly early access, but I can tell you right now that it's one of the BEST early access games that I've had the pleasure to play and it's packed with atmosphere from the excellent intro to the addictive dungeon crawling itself.
Rather than weigh you down with the story and the various narrative threads, I'd rather talk about my actual experience with the first few hours of this game. Thanks to a friend I was able to pick it up, it kind of materialised in my Steam Game Library and being fond of this type of game I thought: what the heck, lets fire this thing up!
I named my four heroes and got ready for, well, I didn't know what to expect. Except for some eldritch mind-bending horror and the threat of certain death...
Sir Haversack the Crusader, Shootyman the Highwayman, Claire the Vestal and Larou the Plague Doctor were a hardy bunch - or so they thought. I bought some supplies, since you need to manage that kind of thing in Darkest Dungeon and stocked up on torches, food and a few other sundries. I even grabbed a shovel because I am pretty thorough like that.
Off we went...
The first room is the entry room, choices choices, picking my direction from the 2d map in the well laid out GUI I decide that my team needs to go west. There's a long corridor between us and the next room, several squares and it's bringing back glorious memories of various tabletop RPGs from my youth. I'm pretty confident that the game won't be EVIL right from the outset. HAH, how wrong was I?
BAM, remember that trap? Yep, Claire takes a full on hit from a trap. She takes damage and her stress level rises - stress being a very important mechanic that I'll come to a little later down the line.
Still, the trap's clear and we're off again. A few moments later we're in a life or death fight with some undead denizens of the dungeon. Now the combat in Darkest Dungeon is turn based, YAY (big fan of turn based things here) and it's simple with a neat little tactical layer atop. I am reminded of a 2d side-on XCOM and I couldn't be happier to be honest.
Your characters have various attributes that define them, like traits. Good and bad, mostly bad in the case of my party. They also have a preferred target and position in the lineup. You can view their sheet at any time and see what they like/dislike in fights, planning accordingly. It's all rather clear and concise.
In this case I'd chosen wisely and put my party in the correct order, so the fight was evenly matched and over pretty quickly. As we battled the dark foes before us my adventurers grew in confidence, the narrator warned us that overconfidence was the first step on the path to failure, not his exact words but that was the sentiment.
This will be a breeze!
See those words, those are the words that proved my downfall.
A scattered pile of books, lets read them. Sir Haversack gets stressed because they are written in some dark forgotten tongue, that white bar is climbing slowly towards full. I'm not too worried, because I've cut my teeth on games like this (I haven't, because truly, there's no game quite like Darkest Dungeon and that's its strength right there).
Another trap, damnit, Claire again? Darkest Dungeon!!!! Now she's heading towards stressed too.
A few more rooms, some treasure and the light level dips. I get my torches and keep things nice and bright. Perhaps I should have brought more than 4?
I'm getting close to my goal, 90% of rooms explored and I'm starting to feel like I'm unstoppable. The party are all pretty happy, perhaps a little bruised from some minor scuffles. It's all going SO well.
4 more denizens of the dungeon show up in a corridor, a big fight happens that changes everything in a blink of an eye. My party are surprised and the bad guys get first whack, they open up with some horrendous blows, critical hits that send my party reeling. Shootymans is knocked onto death's door with a single blow, lucky he wasn't killed. His stress shoots up but he's still OK!
Sir Haversack is PUSHED hard right to the back of the line up, he's not happy with this, he reacts badly and his stress goes all the way. His resolve is tested and he ends up a masochist, this isn't good, he won't accept healing now... he must prove himself to his god and through glorious battle and acceptance of wounds he'll triumph or die!
Claire is hammered with a critical and she becomes paranoid, another bad thing.
Larou suffers stress and his bar gets ever closer to the top. Not to mention the hit point loss and the fact that he's now bleeding, did I buy bandages? Phew, I did. That sorts that, but he's perilously low on life to begin with!
The party fight back, Shootymans survives death's door and pushes past the pain. I heal him up the best I can, use my last torch and manage somehow to finally defeat all of the bad guys in this fight. I look at my party, they are in a right state.
I decide that discretion is the better part of valour and punch out, quitting the dungeon. Stressing the party in the process, but allowing them to return to town and lick their wounds - defeated in spirit but not dead.
I'm sitting at the PC, shocked that I gave a damn about these little avatars. It's XCOM all over again!
The town phase of the game is just as addictive, I don't have many options beyond the tavern and the abbey at the moment but as you progress further into the game and do more quests you'll be able to unlock and upgrade more buildings in the settlement. There are new heroes from the coach as well, no new classes yet and everything costs money and a combination of heirlooms and mementos.
I'm annoyed at the dungeon though, it has bested me for now. So I throw Sir Haversack into the Abbey so he can pray and reduce his stress levels. Hopefully removing his masochism as well.
Shootymans is given a fun time at the tavern/inn, the brothel is the place he wants to be, so I spend the money to hopefully sort him out.
I'm low on cash now, I've upgraded the coach and the tavern/inn. So the others are stuck with their bad traits until I can raise more capital.
To do this I recruit 4 more heroes and send them into the dungeon with the barest of supplies, perhaps I can get lucky and survive enough fights to make it out in one piece.
The screams can still be heard, the glow of the fading torch as the Crusader is the next to fall...his life's blood streaming onto the cold and merciless stone of the dungeon. The Vestal flees that horrible place and returns to town half-mad screaming and wailing...
Yep, that went well. Out of 4 new party members that went in, one came out alive. The Plague Doctor was one-shotted by a spider of all things 2 corridors into the dungeon that time. I'm loving it though, I'm going to beat at least one of those dungeons - I tell myself futilely - and I'm going to WIN!
But that's a story for another time.
Frankly, this is the best and seriously most atmospheric early access dungeon crawler I've played and if this kind of game is your thing, give it a whirl. It's dark in that dungeon, but it's also quite addictive and brutally hard. The rewards are worth it and survival brings a yell of triumph... I can tell you from experience - it is the best thing when you finally get a dungeon run to go right.
I've had one of those, just one, out of a lot of failures and hero deaths.
I've got time for one, two, three, a hundred more?
The Darkest Dungeon has me!