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Darkest Dungeon: A Masochist's Dream

Updated on March 11, 2015
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A tutorial in a video game, or lackthereof, sets the tone for how the rest of the game will play out. The original Resident Evil doesn't have a tutorial. It simply thrusts the player into a seemingly deserted mansion and expects the player to figure out not only what's going on in the game but also how to play the game. The confusion of how to play reflects the characters' confusion within the game. In games like Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 the tutorials are clear cut. They tell the player exactly how to play the game, what every button does, and has the player practice each function before starting the rest of the game because as soon as the game starts it'll expect the player to be ready for anything and everything it throws at them. There are even some games whose tutorials can result in a "game over" if the player isn't paying attention or hasn't put everything together that the game has told them. Dark Souls is a perfect example of this unforgiving tutorial type. If the player doesn't pay attention to what Dark Souls is telling them, they'll end up seeing the "You Died" screen so many times that it becomes discouraging.

There is another type of tutorial that can result in the player seeing a "game over" screen not because the player did anything wrong, but because the game simply decided that it wasn't going to let the player progress any further. It forces the player to understand that no amount of skill alone is going to get them through its challenges and that if they want to make it anywhere then they are going to have to rely on something they have no control over; luck.

This is the type of game Darkest Dungeon is.

Created by indie developers Red Hook Studios, Darkest Dungeon is a side-scrolling, roguelike, dungeon crawler with a large focus on the psychological effects of adventuring. In this game, the player assumes the role of an heir of a rich relative who has used his fortune to open up a portal in search of some sort of ancient power. The player must traverse the darkest dungeon to uncover secrets and to redeem the family name.

The main gameplay mechanic is the stress level of the characters that rises and falls due to different elements in the game. Almost every action can, and usually does, result in stress levels increasing. Questing, fighting, resting, retreating and returning to town, and looting all have a chance to increase stress. Once the stress level of a character reaches the max, 100, that character has a chance to either turn insane or become heroic. If the character becomes insane he will acquire a random negative quirk that's permanent and until the player leaves the dungeon, either through abandoning the quest or finishing it, he will begin to say things that startle the other characters in the party and increase their stress levels. That's not all though, the character, depending on what negative quirk he received, can also begin attacking on his own, stealing items from lootable objects, and refuse to be healed by different means. On the flip side of this, if the character becomes heroic he will gain a temporary positive quirk and will reduce the stress levels of the rest of the party.

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The only place you're safe is when you're in the town. Here you can put different characters into two different places that reduce stress; the Abbey and the Tavern. Within these places there are three different stress relievers; drinking, gambling and the brothel in the Tavern, and meditation, prayer and flagellation in the Abbey. Some characters will start with a quirk or gain a quirk that prohibits them from using some of the facilities or forcing them to only be allowed to use one of facilities. You can also place characters in the Sanitorium to remove negative characteristics but this does not reduce stress. The cost for using these facilities is not only a hefty sum of gold but also means that the characters using these places are unable to be used until the next time you're back in town. This forces the player to not be solely reliant on just four core characters as it becomes harder and harder to keep the same four characters together for any period of time.

In the town there are also the Guild, Blacksmith, Survivalist, Stagecoach, Graveyard, and Nomad Village. The Guild, Blacksmith, and Survivalist offer upgrades to skills used in combat, weapons and armour, and skills used during camping respectively, while the Stage Coach is where the player can recruit new members to replace losses or add to party synergy. The Nomad Village offers different equipable items, usually for a specific class of character, for an incredibly high price and only available until the next time the player returns to town. The Graveyard, as the name applies, is where you can visit fallen party members... although after the fifteenth death the losses stop being tragic and start becoming acceptable.

Another interesting characteristic of Darkest Dungeon is that it goes against the old saying of "it's better to error on the side of caution" and this is evident with the way it handles the inventory management system before you begin a quest. You can only have so much inventory space to begin with and the more items you take the less room you have to carry loot back from the dungeon. However, this isn't the main issue you have to contend with. There is no way to store items that you don't end up using, so the game forces you to really think about what you're buying. Do you really think you're going to need that many bandages? Are you expecting to be poisoned that many times? Is eight rations enough or should you get another four? There's also no guarantee that you'll make your gold back within the dungeon, especially if you are forced into a situation where you have to make a hasty retreat out. So you're forced to balance between being cost effective but also not cutting yourself short of much needed supplies.

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The biggest criticism is also the thing that adds to the allure is the utter randomness of the game. The dungeons have a new layout each time you enter them, the battles are left up to whether you'll hit or miss, and pure luck if you don't trigger a trap if you decide to loot one of the objects in the dungeons. While it can be argued that perhaps the RNG is a little too unforgiving, that it tends to favor the negative results rather than being a bit more balanced, it can also be argued that this is the driving factor that makes Darkest Dungeon so frustratingly addicting. You can be having a perfect game and then one instance of bad luck, like a missed hit or an enemy landing a critical hit, can start a chain reaction that ends up with you heading back to town with two fewer party members. However, you can be down on your luck with your entire party either on the edge of death, on the brink of insanity, or both, and one of your party members becomes heroic instead of insane and the tides of the dungeon turns in your favor. This is what makes Darkest Dungeon and incredibly fun game, albeit an aggravating one, because it doesn't allow you to treat it like a mindless point and click type game by keeping you constantly aware of what's happening.

In Darkest Dungeon there is room for error, albeit a very small room, and most of the time the player is going to have to take some losses whether it be a significant increase in stress levels or in a few deaths. This game is about accepting that you are going to be losing, but not getting overwhelmed by those loses and letting them turn into larger losses that inevitably lead to defeat.

Currently still in Early Access on Steam, Darkest Dungeon is promising to be a game that will have you pouring hours of your time into it while simultaneously making you pull your hair out.

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