I’m just going to say it: Many of the world’s ills stem directly from wealthy old white guys indulging dangerous whims. Is there anything more terrifying than a bored pensioner with inexhaustible resources, a highly evolved sense of solipsism, and general lack of accountability? In Darkest Dungeon, a phlebitic, grizzled aristocrat spends his inherited fortune delving beneath his family’s ancient manor. He’s searching for a legendary arcane power, because economic and social domination just aren’t enough for some folks. What he finds instead are eldritch demons, cosmic horrors, and woe to the nth power. Naturally, instead of taking responsibility for the unspeakable nightmares he has unleashed on humanity, he blows his brains out all over his expensive carpet, washing his well-manicured, uncalloused hands of the whole thing.
So it’s once again up to the common man to bail out this gutless aristocrat. In Darkest Dungeon, you recruit sundry adventurers—grave robbers, bounty hunters, crusaders, jesters, and others—to traverse the subterranean labyrinths. Groups of four kill monsters and acquire booty (not to mention rare, debilitating diseases and PTSD!) along the way. When venturing out into the dark tunnels, groups bring food, torches, balms, and bandages. Unfortunately, there’s no known cure for a massive pig monster bringing a giant cleaver down on your head. Scientists are no doubt hard at work on that one.
Darkest Dungeon is a huge asshole of a game—in a good way. It’s punishingly hard, and progress is made in small increments. The mortality rate is silly, especially in the early going, and dungeon layouts are randomly generated, making it a huge challenge to gear expeditions toward specific challenges. It’s constantly saving your decisions, so once you commit to an action, there’s no going back (sorry, save scum). It’s also difficult to grind your way to a strong, sturdy fighter. When these would-be heroes hit a certain level, they refuse to participate in easier quests. They only want challenges worthy of their experience. In Darkest Dungeon, it’s best not to get too attached.
As if things weren’t already difficult enough, Darkest Dungeon’s marquee feature adds another, unseen threat—psychological damage. Mental stress is at least as important as hit points when doing battle. When brain trauma hits a certain threshold, a character starts to unravel, giving in to various debilitating traumas like paranoia, fear, despair, and selfishness. At a certain point they break and will keel over from a heart attack, possibly dying on the spot. Even if party members manage to survive the dungeon crawl, that’s not the end. If you want a character fit to return, their mental health must be managed through a time-honored alchemical mix of prayer, drinking, leeches, and brothels.
Battle is turn-based, and the order you place adventurers in their four-warrior conga line of doom plays a major role. Too close to an enemy, and certain long-range attacks will be unavailable. Too far, and your sword may not have the reach to sheath itself in your enemy’s marshmallow-soft underbelly. Dead enemies can still thwart you as their bleeding carcasses remain as obstacles until you clear them. Sticking a quartet of your toughest knights in a group also isn’t a viable option. Teams need balance. Diversity isn’t a human resources issue in Darkest Dungeon—it’s an absolute necessity.
There comes a point in every expedition when you’re confronted with a decision. Do you press on, as short on torches and bandages as you are rich in syphilis, in the rapidly fading hope of completing the quest and reaping the rewards? Or do you cut your losses, pull your crew out of that living hell and live to fight another day? It’s a tough call every time.
The keys are patience, balance, and experimentation. Even if you do everything right, things could still go terribly wrong. Entire adventuring parties will inevitably be wiped out. You may think you’ve put together the SEAL Team Six of Darkest Dungeon platoons, but the game’s dedication to random outcomes has a curious way of upending even the best laid plans.
It feels unfair at times, but it’s actually the opposite. The best you can do is maximize your odds for success and (figuratively) roll the dice. The poet Theodore Roethke once wrote, “What’s madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance?” It’s a question worth asking yourself every time this excellent, deceptively complex game sends you into the depths.