Capturing the true essence of Lovecraftian Horror has always been a difficult to do. Sure plenty of books, movies, and games have been inspired by it, but that usually means slapping tentacles on their work and calling it a day. With Darkest Dungeon, Red Hook Studios managed to create a solid roguelike dungeon crawler that not only delivers on the horror found in the Lovecraft mythos, but also captures the feeling of dread.
We All Go A Little Mad Sometimes
Before you start seeing manifestations too horrible to describe, though, you inherit a huge manor perched above a decrepit town. From these humble beginnings you learn that your ancestor unearthed hellish beings that cursed this land and its inhabitants. It is up to you and the heroes you acquire to rid this land of the horrors.
Darkest Dungeon has the core elements of your typical roguelike: procedurally generated levels, permadeath, and punishing difficulty. However, it stands out from the crowd with its stress mechanic and the quirk/affliction system. Darkest Dungeon drives home the point that your adventurers are not overpowered deathbringers that can barrel through these dungeons while high fiving each other and chuckling throughout it. They are flawed humans that face horrors that they can barely conceive, and will leave them physically and mentally scarred.
Dungeon crawling leaves a toll on your party, causing permanent (well, permanent-ish) changes to them. Sometimes these changes can be beneficial. They may be able to navigate the Ruins better, or are faster at the start of a fight. However, most of the time they are afflicted with negative quirks like being more stressed in low torch light, or a drinking problem. The quirk and affliction systems create a personality for your adventurers, allowing you to grow attached to them, so it will hurt more when they die a brutal death. That's when, not if.
That Mortal Coil
Your characters are going to die. A lot. A lot more than you want them to. Combat relies heavily on randomness, which can turn a simple skirmish into an outright bloodbath. Combat sometimes felt unfair, hitting me like a slap in the face, but this is an example of when the mechanics of a game perfectly reflects its theme. It's supposed to be unfair, and you are supposed to feel underpowered and overwhelmed by the forces of terror baring down on you.
This is where the Lovecraft inspiration starts to flourish. In his stories the protagonists do not overcome these horrors with relative ease.They didn’t break a baseball bat over an Elder Thing’s head and then ride off into the sunset. They endured and hoped for the best. And that spirit is captured beautifully in Darkest Dungeon. You can prepare, plan, buff, and min/max all you want, but one critical hit, one too many stress attacks, one missed strike, and it is all over. There is nothing worse than seeing your high level party break down into chaos at a boss fight causing you to lose precious party members. Then you start all over with the Sisyphean task of leveling a whole new cast of heroes in the hopes that they survive the onslaught and continue what the dead have started. Which sounds like a negative, but this again highlights the themes of dread and overwhelming odds that the players face.
With a game that has such a punishing difficulty, the times that you actually succeeded feel like pure ecstasy. Nothing feels better than when your Crusader manages to pull of a critical hit, or when your Bounty Hunter dodges a blow that would most certainly be his last. These moments give you hope, enough hope that you are willing to brave deeper into maddening abyss.
Subtracting the dark themes and stress mechanics, the game alone is a tightly made strategic RPG. With fourteen unique classes with specific roles there are endless combinations to tryout. While there are teams with ideal synergy you are completely allowed to create a party that suits your needs and desires. The game is difficult, but not so difficult that I felt restricted from making my party my own.
And of course I have to mention the art and the sound design briefly. The art style is clearly inspired by Mike Mignola’s work of Hellboy fame, and Wayne June’s narration sent chills down my spine with his raspy voice and purple prose. It is all to create the dark settling tone that makes Darkest Dungeon a joy to play.
Darkest Dungeon takes the staples of roguelikes and adds the atmosphere and themes of Lovecraftian Horror and does so with incredible success. The game captures the feeling of battling an unending wave of nightmarish abominations with little to no chance of hope. But when you do succeed you feel like a million bucks. The difficulty may deter many people from trying this game out, but if you are brave enough you will be rewarded with a rich experience.