I discovered Darkest Dungeon a few days before it hit Steam’s Early Access and was instantly intrigued. Even though I’m not a fan of Steam’s Early Access, a PC video game release platform that allows developers to publish and sell unfinished games, I bought Darkest Dungeon as soon as it was released last February.
No one was disappointed when the game first hit Steam. Sure it didn’t have a ton of content and was pretty imbalanced, but those were minor issues for a game that wasn’t even half complete. Darkest Dungeon was herald by many as the pinnacle of Early Access done right, providing an unfinished gaming experience already well worth its $20 price tag.
But that was almost nine months ago. The game has seen a vast amount of patches and updates since then, and more than its fair share of controversy.
I binged on Darkest Dungeon when it first appeared on Steam. The community response reminded me a lot of Demon Souls in the way people were quick to praise the game for its difficulty, some going as far as to call it one of the hardest games ever made. A self-proclaimed “challenging gothic roguelike” experience according to its Kickstarter, which crushed its $75,000 goal in less than a day before earning over $300,000, Darkest Dungeon delivered on most of its promises right out the gate.
I found the game’s art style and gothic tone a unique breath of fresh air. The superb writing and voice-over work coupled with the detailed and appropriately toned narration set the gothic scene beautifully while never becoming tiresome. I never felt the desire to mute the game and listen to music while I played even after running the same dungeon for hours on end.
While the game was a little difficult at first, I quickly figured out an optimal way to play that made the game a rather easy affair. My biggest issues with Darkest Dungeon were that it was heavily imbalanced and desperately devoid of content, with higher-level bosses being bullet-sponge copies of their lower-leveled selves. These were minor concerns at best though and expected during the beginning of its Early Access period.
After playing the game for a dozen or so hours I decided to let it lie and give Red Hook Studios, the developers of Darkest Dungeon, time to perfect their game. They still had a ways to go and I didn’t want to wind up burned out before it was complete.
Darkest Dungeon’s Corpse Controversy
Back in July, five months after the game was made available through Early Access, Red Hook Studios added a new feature to the game – corpses. Now when enemies died they left behind a corpse instead of closing the distance between your party and enemies that were further away.
Darkest Dungeon’s combat system is heavily reliant on position. Your party members can only use certain attacks on certain enemies depending on where they stand in the party and how far away they are from their target. Before corpses were introduced players could get to enemies outside their party’s reach by simply killing the fiends at the front and causing the enemies in the back to move up.
Corpses made the game more punishing because now players had to kill the frontline enemies then wipe out their corpses before being able to reach the backline, resulting in more damage than usual. Even if that only meant two or three more hits, the extra health and stress damage was quite significant.
Insert Heart Attacks
To compound the issue further, the devs also introduced heart attacks.
One of the most unique aspects of gameplay in Darkest Dungeon is its Affliction System. Not only are your characters susceptible to pain and death through physical means, they’re also constantly combatting madness.
Basically, it’s possible for your characters to develop PTSD. They accumulate stress as they trudge through the dark, dank corridors and narrowly survive wave after wave of abominations. This stress takes on a numeric value that triggers an affliction dice roll when it hits 100.
The most likely outcome of acquiring 100 stress is that your character goes insane, becoming Masochistic, Hopeless or taking on a variety of “afflictions” that cause him/her to act out and become an incredible detriment to your party. Every once in a while they receive a heroic virtue instead, taking on positive attributes like Courageous and becoming an incredible asset.
Many enemies and situations that occur throughout each dungeon crawl focus on afflicting your party with stress, which is largely only possible to relieve by letting your party members rest in town between dungeon runs. This in turn forces you to take less experienced people rather than sticking with the same four characters from beginning to end.
Heart attacks built on the Affliction System even more, making it possible for party members to become so stressed they die from it. Death in Darkest Dungeon is permanent, resulting in the character you spent hours leveling and thousands of gold upgrading becoming little more than a tombstone in the central hub’s graveyard.
Red Hook Studios Acquiesces to Peer Pressure
People weren’t happy, creating Steam discussion pages titled “Corpses make no sense and aren’t fun” and up-voted Reddit posts saying “Corpses feeling more tedious than atmospheric”. (Fans were much angrier about the corpses than heart attacks.)
On August 20th Red Hook Studios posted “Let’s Talk About the Corpse in the Room” to respond to the fan reactions. The development team stated, “We believe that corpses and heart attacks are important mechanics for the game,” just before announcing, “today we are introducing a set of gameplay options (accessed via the normal Options menu) which allows you to turn them off.”
The internet blew up. The angry mob had won. Articles were posted all over gaming sites talking about how Red Hook Studios had caved under the pressure of the masses.
I watched this all happen with interest, like I’ve been watching the recent Payday 2 safe fiasco. I thought about picking the game up again and checking out the new features for myself, but I wanted to give it a bit more time. We were already in August and the developers had originally planned for the game to be officially released around Halloween this year, so why not wait?
Darkest Dungeon Now
A couple months later, in early October, I decided I wasn’t going to wait any longer. After hearing a new dungeon location, The Cove, had finally been released, I reinstalled Darkest Dungeon and prepared to see what had become of my favorite Early Access title over the past eight months.
The first obvious difference are the hundreds of balance changes. The classes still feel familiar, but are also noticeably different. My all-star line-up of Vestal, Occultist, Hellion and Leper isn’t as effective as it used to be, primarily because the Hellion was significantly nerfed. Everyone feels a bit more balanced overall and the new classes – the Man-at-Arms, Arbalest and Hound Master – are all intriguing and fairly effective in their own right.
The Cove adds a unique new setting along with new enemies and bosses that I find quite refreshing. It was clearly developed well after the original three locations, with enemies working in tandem more often than those of the previous areas.
The Cove was also the first dungeon to rudely introduce me to The Shambler, which quickly turned a perfect dungeon run into a failed mess – I was lucky my team didn’t wake Death after knocking at her door all at once. It was a unique encounter I certainly hope the developers include more of before and after the game’s final release.
Fans Grossly Overreacted to Corpses
The corpses don’t make the game much harder, instead lending it a bit of depth and much needed strategic difficulty. Their addition forced me to create more rounded parties with a large variety of skills, where before I would just stack frontline damage and take out enemies from left to right.
Because corpses don’t appear if enemies die by bleed or blight damage status effect focused classes like the Plague Doctor are a lot more useful, and many of the classes have abilities that primarily serve to clear corpses. Maybe these additions weren’t implemented when the corpse feature was first introduced, but if they were then I don’t understand where the major backlash came from.
Claiming “corpses are more tedious than atmospheric” is complete bullshit. You’re exploring dungeons in tight corridors. Not only are the corpses a great addition to the heavy gothic tone and setting, they’re also rather practical. Bodies don’t just dissipate into thin air when they die and if you’re in tight quarters then it only makes sense that they’d get in the way. Darkest Dungeon is the perfect game for such a feature.
I think many fans reacted the way they did because they were happy with the unfinished product as it was and didn’t want to see fundamental changes like corpses. These people forgot they purchased a game still heavily in development and had a knee-jerk reaction instead of taking a moment to truly evaluate the change for the flavorful addition that it was.
It’s Good, But Not Great
After 16 hours of game time I ended up with maybe three characters ever becoming afflicted. The closest one got to having a heart attack was 125/200, making the feature ultimately pointless in my experience.
The game is too easy even with corpses enabled. The only time it gets difficult is if I choose to play reckless, otherwise it’s just a careful grind to victory.
And make no mistake, it is a grind. MMO players like myself who have experienced eyeball-gouge worthy, migraine-inducing levels of grind frustration will find it easy to overlook Darkest Dungeon’s repetitive dungeon slog, but I could easily see less experienced gamers getting frustrated and bored after beating the easiest version of each boss.
The game’s biggest weakness is its utter lack of content. You’ve seen the vast majority of what the game has to offer after running each dungeon once and there’s only going to be five when the game is officially released. Sure there are many more bosses than there used to be, but they go through the same repetitive, bullet-sponge iterations that the last bosses went through. I would’ve rather had the higher level iterations of the original bosses replaced with the new ones to give me something worth working towards.
Ultimately there’s little reason to progress beyond beating the first wave of bosses in the easiest dungeon levels. Most of the “new” enemies in higher-level dungeons are just stronger versions of enemies you’ve already fought, with the same set of moves and visual appearance as their predecessors.
Darkest Dungeon doesn’t have any sort of progression rewards, which are arguably a staple of the roguelike experience. Players have sunk hundreds of hours into games like FTL and The Binding of Issac because they were taunted by promises of new spaceships and characters that changed and refreshed the overall gameplay again and again. Nothing changes in Darkest Dungeon though, and there’s no real incentive to use characters or party formations you don’t feel comfortable with – which is pretty sad considering something as simple as achievements could at least place a Band-Aid on the issue.
That being said, Darkest Dungeon is a good game and definitely worth $20.
I like the game a lot and have gotten my money’s worth out of it and then some. It gives players a one-of-a-kind experience they can’t really get anywhere else. It’s a unique game I think every gamer should try at least once.
Red Hook Studios has succeeded at creating a roguelike game unlike any other in the genre. I look forward to enjoying the finished product and happily anticipate whatever they announce next.
Darkest Dungeon is set to be completed and released on January 19th, 2016 for Microsoft Windows, OS X, Linux, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita. Those interested in playing the game now can purchase it through Steam Early Access for $20 or your regional equivalent.
(I originally intended to include gameplay tips with this article but decided against doing so. Let me know if you’re interested in a separate article concerning Darkest Dungeon gameplay tips and I’ll happily oblige. Thanks for reading.)