A heart attack is never a good thing, no matter where it takes place. In Darkest Dungeon, the newly released dungeon crawler (on PlayStation 4, it's been out on PC since the start of the year), heart attacks and other stress related injuries are commonplace and frequently deadly, but they're not the only thing you need to be careful of in this sinister and engaging tactical RPG roguelike hybrid.
It's the heart attacks that are without doubt the most frustrating part of the game, and our chief criticism of Red Hook Studios' otherwise lovely title is the frequency with which our characters would drop dead during combat because of a dodgy ticker. It happens because stress is a tangible mechanic that affects the mental and physical health of your party as they traipse through murky corridors in search of treasure. Overall it's a great setup, but we've had reasonably healthy characters suffer lethal heart attacks during battles we were comfortably winning, and often these moments (at least in our experience) come in pairs (or more), and we've seen the core of a well positioned party ripped out simply because a tipping point is reached.
It's supposed to be harsh and unforgiving, we understand that, but sometimes the outcome doesn't always gel with the action playing out on screen, and when the systems clash with our own narrative it can lead to a frustrating disconnect. It means we're sometimes left with a sour taste after enjoying what is in all other respects a delicious blend of ingredients. However, that's also the point, but it's just that it feels odd heaping praise on a game that's knowingly out to ruin your day.
Elsewhere it looks fantastic, with stunning 2D graphics and some eye-catching character and enemy designs. You party advances through dingy dungeons and at certain points engages in combat with similarly sized groups of enemies. It's moody and atmospheric throughout; during combat when attacks are heading back and forth, as you scurry through the various environments, and even the lighting (or lack thereof) is eerie. It's also bleak and foreboding back in the hamlet where you prepare for each excursion. Darkest Dungeon is wonderfully sinister and overflowing with macabre personality.
Death is fairly commonplace and it's not unusual to lose one or two (or three or four) of your party members during any given mission. You recruit new adventurers to your group and then pick which ones will go out looting. Each one has a different skillset, and they each have a preferred place in your lineup from where they are most effective. Even characters that look similar can be tinkered with and given different abilities over time, and there's some really interesting classes (we LOVED the one that can turn into a werewolf). Party members stand side by side as they move through the dungeons and they stay in line when battle begins.
Combat is turn-based, with blows traded back and forth between both parties. Each character has access to four different special attacks or buffs that they can only use during battle (there's other abilities that you can utilise when you're camping mid-mission, but this happens much less frequently than combat so we'll not dwell on it too much other than to say these abilities can ease the stress felt by your party). Combat is deeply tactical, with decisions to be made over who on the enemy team to strike first, which attacks to use, and as your own health bars start to whittle away, who on your team to heal. Despite the stress-induced death (and in a masochistic kinda way, perhaps because of it) we found the combat to be hugely satisfying, and you can easily lose hours in the dungeons as you search for treasure.
There are a lot of stats to take into account, and if you're a fan of numbers then you'll enjoy the level of complexity woven into the combat, as analysing the situation and playing your cards right can make a tangible difference, and it's all the more impressive as this part of the game seems fairly straightforward at first glance. Conversely, the number of different stats to take into consideration might be a bit overwhelming to someone looking for a more casual experience, so bear that in mind before jumping in. There's a lot of factors to absorb and consider at every turn, and impulsive play doesn't tend to end that well.
There's a neat strategical layer whereby certain items that you find in chests and whatnot while out adventuring can be used to upgrade the various buildings back at the hamlet, and these buildings each have a specific function. You can upgrade your equipment, train your party, and then have your various characters engage in certain stress relieving activities (visit a church, or a brothel, as required). There's lots of scope to refine your operation, and it takes a long time to upgrade and expand.
Darkest Dungeon has been called a roguelike, and it's true that it borrows a few genre mechanics. Dungeons are procedurally generated so each excursion is different, and there's permadeath, but other than that it feels very much like its own game thanks to its many layers of strategic and tactical depth, and the unique approach to party management and mental health. The roguelike elements that have been adopted certainly make for a tenser experience, and this is only amplified by the grizzly art-style and the foreboding atmosphere that permeates throughout. The narration of the story - you've inherited a mansion and you're hiring adventurers to clear out the surrounding area of the beasties that linger there - is yet another layer of polish that further immerses you in the world.
There's a lot of really interesting features woven together, but it's the stress mechanic that stands out. It's clear that a lot of thought has gone into this aspect of the game, and throughout their time in the dungeons your party reacts to the horrors that confront them. The stress that accumulates over time produces some interesting and thought-provoking results, with certain party members gaining negative traits that force a tactical rethink during battle (or worse, your carefully assembled party will shuffle around and cause you all manner of problems during combat with everyone out of position).
It's the stress that also causes the heart attacks, and it's this feature that we found particularly depressing. Watching a whole team wiped out by an enemy party that consisted of giant grubs (they were big, but not that big and certainly easy to defeat) was just plain rude, and it felt like overkill. This one element felt overpowered and a little blunt, and in the end we wanted them to return the "no heart attacks" option that was apparently there during Early Access (or even give us the option to reduce the frequency with which they occur), because apart from that one thing we thought that Darkest Dungeon was absolutely superb.
We've played for the most part on PC, but we did have a chance to sample the PlayStation 4 version following its recent launch. While the controls are adequately mapped to the DualShock 4 (it didn't take us long to acclimatise) we're saddened to report that the game crashed on us multiple times and in quick succession. Simply put, at the time of writing the PS4 version is unstable, and until Red Hook Studios fixes it we're going to recommend that you wait a little while before picking it up. However, once the game is fixed and it runs more smoothly, we'd be happy to recommend it to anyone looking for a stern and immersive challenge.
A heart attack is never a good thing, and four in a row can be catastrophic. Darkest Dungeon is a punishing, at times bleak affair, and it's not afraid to rip your beating heart out of your chest and hold it in front of you, tauntingly. But despite its sadistic edge there's so much to appreciate, and it's easy to overlook our minor grievances. The art is beautifully twisted, the presentation slick across the board, the combat deep and engaging, and the city management adds a thoughtful strategic layer on top of what's ultimately an outstanding tactical RPG.
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