Another game has broken the stranglehold Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft has on me in recent months. That game is Darkest Dungeon, and you can download it right now for an affordable $25 on PC or Mac.
You should do that right now – or at least after you read the rest of this article.
Darkest Dungeon features many elements of a successful roleplaying game. The RPG formula works so well because it is based on the backbone of behavioral psychology. When a player is rewarded for a certain behavior, then they are more likely to engage in that behavior again – and again – and again. Whether it’s Dungeons & Dragons, Diablo, or the endless variety of mobile games that are Skinner boxes in disguise (I’m looking at you, Mola! Mola!), the formula of taking a character and leveling that character up through repeated quests and objectives is brutally effective. It works amazingly well! Darkest Dungeon takes those successful RPG elements and blends them into a system that constantly asks the player, “Is the potential risk worth the possible reward?”
The heightened tension created by these, “Should I or shouldn’t I?” moments is palpable. Darkest Dungeon is relentless as it even turns the RPG troupe of finding items in crates, cabinets, and bookcases into a risk/reward dilemma. For example, searching through a bookcase could yield valuable treasure, which can be used to upgrade heroes. But it could also result in the hero reading a book that contains a disturbing passage, which imposes an ongoing penalty that requires treatment to cure back in town.
The game forces the player to re-evaluate how he or she typically approaches RPGs. If the player simply searches through every crate, cabinet, and altar they find without any care for consequences, then they are left with heroes that are riddled with problematic quirks. Those quirks cost gold to treat, and gold is a precious commodity used to upgrade heroes, services in town, and is also needed to buy gear such as food and torches before each adventure. The player must balance managing the needs of their hero roster while also looking ahead to the next challenge in the dungeons.
Yes, there is quite a bit of middle management in the game and the reviewer from Wired offered, “Darkest Dungeon is a mean, capricious game. Success is a gambler’s thrill, addictive and illicit. It comes rarely.” Below I outline the reasons why I find Darkest Dungeon so enjoyable because “each expedition is a slowly unravelling disaster.” I conclude with tips on enhancing your Darkest Dungeon experience based on my time playing the game thus far.
Ruin Has Come to Our Family
The premise of Darkest Dungeon is straightforward. The player is tasked with restoring a Hamlet to glory and riches. To accomplish this, a vast list of objectives requires completion in the form of exploration and monster slaying in different regions. There is the crypt-like Ruins, the aquatic Cove, the woodsy Weald, and the underground Warrens. The game is structured by time; each delve into one of the regions takes a Week in the game regardless of success or failure. Defeat all the monsters and gather a bunch of gold? One week. Enter a dungeon, lose a hero during the first battle and abandon the quest altogether? One week.
Each week, new heroes arrive in town through the Stage Coach, which is one of the buildings players can upgrade in the game. Without any upgrades, the Stage Coach brings two new heroes to recruit each week, and the player’s hero roster allows up to 10 heroes. An early priority should be to be upgrade the Stage Coach, which can bring as many as 7 new heroes each week with a roster of up to 25. Other structures in town must be unlocked and can soon be upgraded. The Abbey and Tavern can reduce hero Stress (more on this later), the Blacksmith can improve weapons and armor, the Guild and Survivalist can improve hero skills, the Nomad Wagon sells powerful items, and the Sanitarium can treat hero quirks and diseases.
All of the structures can be improved to reduce the cost of upgrades and increase their effectiveness. Structures in town can be upgraded with Heirlooms that are recovered from dungeon delves; the four types of Heirlooms are Portraits, Statues, Crests, and Deeds. The Heirlooms link to the main objective of restoring the Hamlet to its lost glory. Staying with the Stage Coach example, the player needs to find 3 Deeds and 3 Crests to upgrade to Level 1 (3 heroes come to town each week), 8 Deeds and 8 Crests to upgrade to Level 2 (4 heroes each week), and so on. Each delve offers a combination of Heirlooms as a reward, in addition to gold and items.
The player’s task is to collect Heirlooms, build up the Hamlet, hopefully level up Heroes to battle against bigger and bigger threats, which in turn leads to greater rewards, and eventually conquer the Darkest Dungeon. The tried-and-true RPG formula works.
There Can Be No Hope in This Hell… No Hope at All
Darkest Dungeon breaks from the RPG formula in a significant way because permanent, it-can’t-be-undone-even-if-you-turn-the-game-off death lurks in every room and passageway during the dungeon delves. The game is auto-saving constantly, so actions are permanent. There is no option to save the game immediately before a big boss fight and reload if it does not go well. The player can choose to retreat from combat or abandon a dungeon altogether; both of these options increase the heroes’ Stress level, which will impair them during future missions unless it is reduced.
I previously discussed the benefits and consequences of instant-death effects and a wonderful, high-profile example of player grief for their character in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. The player engaging in an RPG typically forms an attachment with their character, and some of the best gaming experiences blend the experience of the player with the game’s character in such a way that the result can be disorienting and leave one asking serious questions about themselves.
Darkest Dungeon views heroes as significantly more expendable. For those of you playing the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons, consider combat encounters for a group of Level 1 characters. The characters do not have many skills, their gear is basic, and they are fragile. Any combat situation could take a major turn for the worst if a few bad rolls stack up or one monster decides to land a critical hit at the wrong time. Some Dungeon Masters advise to skip Level 1 in the new D&D entirely because the game seems too far tilted away from the players; the threat of death is too high. Playing through Darkest Dungeon feels at times like those Level 1 encounters in the new D&D when a simple encounter with a swarm of rats can result in a total party kill.
Heroes cannot be revived or resurrected. Whenever they crumble in a dungeon, the only contact the player can have with them is a brief message in the Graveyard back in town. I fought against this dynamic, “I’ll keep my heroes alive. I’m 5 Weeks in and no one has died yet.” Through 20 Weeks, I have had four heroes die – and the last one was perhaps the most shocking. One of my newly-recruited Jesters (think Bard from D&D) was slicing his way through monsters and I thought, “Wow, this is going extremely well. I have a good character here.”
Within two rounds, he was dead.
He went from over half of his health to death so quickly. A critical hit from a quarrel dropped him. Suddenly my quick-and-easy dungeon delve was in trouble. The other three heroes finished off the dungeon but the Jester was gone. The good news is that fresh heroes arrived in the Stage Coach for me to add to my growing roster. It reminds me of the book, All You Need Is Kill, which was turned into the unfortunately-titled-yet-spectacular Edge of Tomorrow (sans the last two minutes). Heroes will die, and sometimes the player will make calculated sacrifices of a hero to accomplish a greater goal. But there are always more heroes streaming into town. Attachment to any one hero is a dangerous proposition – and as I detail below, I’m doing that anyway!
The Mind Cannot Hope to Withstand Such an Assault
In addition to the fragile physical health of heroes, another vital factor in Darkest Dungeon is each hero’s Stress level, which can range from 0 to 200. When a hero is exploring a dungeon or fighting monsters, they gain Stress. Whenever a critical attack is scored against the hero or they set off a trap, they gain Stress. Whenever the light gets too low in a dungeon or a quest is abandoned, they gain Stress. On the flip side, heroes can reduce stress by landing their own critical hit, disarming traps, using skills, or recovering in the Abbey or Tavern back in town. The player has to manage not only hit points, but Stress level as well.
Heroes that reach 100 Stress during a dungeon delve have a chance of developing an Affliction, which will most likely be negative and severely impair the hero’s effectiveness. Afflictions can range from Abusive where the affected hero is mean to their companions, thus raising their Stress level to Selfish where the affected hero may steal treasure from the party or ignore commands. The worst I have encountered is Paranoid where the affected hero simply passes turns and refuses to attack or use skills.
This. Is. Maddening.
The Stress mechanic is a unique roadblock to using the same hero over and over again each week for missions because it is downright dangerous to the entire party to take a hero who already has above 50-60 Stress. If that rises to 100 during a mission, it complicates life for everyone. And if a hero’s stress level reaches 200, they immediately die of a heart attack; this is exactly how my first death in Darkest Dungeon happened. How was I supposed to know?
Thankfully, Stress can be reduced in town with colorful options like sending heroes to meditate, pray, or engage in a bit of flagellation (Abbey) or drink, gamble, or visit the brothel (Tavern). The Stress relief options take one week and cost gold, and can also produce new positive or negative quirks for your hero.
I had one Plague Doctor who disappeared for an additional week after a drinking bender; he was unavailable from my roster during that time. Currently, a Grave Robber is missing after praying at the Abbey; I hope she comes back at some point. Darkest Dungeon is constantly weaving in little wrinkles like this that are humorous in a macabre way. One of my strongest Vestals (think Cleric) has the Nymphomania quirk, which means she reduces Stress quickly if you send her to the Brothel for treatment. A recently recruited Highwayman (think Rogue) has the Deviant Tastes quirk, which means he is not allowed to enter the Brothel. I find these nuances in the game to be enjoyable, and the reliance on in-game (albeit off screen) sexual activity as a means of recovering health is certainly handled with more dignity and cleverness here than games like God of War.
Managing the Stress level of the heroes becomes a game within the game, and it certainly touches a nerve with me given my training in psychology. I like the idea that these dangerous missions and life-threatening circumstances result in mental strain; there is something greater to be learned from this! It adds another set of questions to each dungeon delve as the Stress level mounts for your players. Early in the game, I ran into a monster that has a Tempting Goblet attack; the skeleton splashes you with liquid from a goblet. The damage is minimal – perhaps 2-4 points at most. I initially viewed these monsters as non-threatening. It took a view delves to realize that in addition to the small physical damage, the attack resulted in approximately 20 Stress damage. A few of those in one combat and a hero is on the brink of 100 and earning a negative Affliction. Suddenly a harmless looking attack becomes dangerous and the strategy shifts to, “Kill those skeletons as quickly as possible!”
More Arrive, Foolishly Seeking Fortune and Glory in This Domain of the Damned
Darkest Dungeon encourages the player to view heroes as a commodity – as expendable as gold or the Heirlooms that are collected throughout the delves. Heroes that survive long enough will gain Resolve Points (think Experience Points) and level up, which allows the players to upgrade the hero’s skills and equipment. Once a hero advances to Level 3, he or she are no longer interested in clearing out lower-level dungeons; I learned this the hard way as my best Crusader (think Paladin) refuses to assist with some of the early boss missions, “I need to be challenged.”
I need you to get in the dungeon and fight monsters, you pompous jerk!
There are several ways to approach the heroes in Darkest Dungeon. The first would be to keep them at arm’s length and refuse to become attached, because the most likely outcome is sooner or later they will perish in tragic fashion. When the Stage Coach arrives each week, heroes are available to recruit as long as there is space in the roster, and the heroes come with a pre-made set of skills, quirks, appearance, and name. The player could take these heroes, barely remember their names, and run them through delves until they break. That is an option, and perhaps one that is better suited to avoiding grief when those heroes enter the Graveyard.
The second option is to embrace each new hero that steps off the Stage Coach; losing them will hurt, but the joys of their success will be that much more vibrant and powerful! To accomplish this, make each hero on the roster your own in some way. Change their appearance; each class has four color schemes to choose from. Give them a name that means something. Name heroes after friends or members of a favorite band or sports team. It is one thing for a Jester with an auto-generated name to rally the troops during a Camping scene in the middle of a brutal dungeon, but it is quite another if a Jester named Freddie Mercury does it. This reminds me of one of the first nerdy things I learned about my wife while we were dating…
Somehow my enjoyment of the old computer game Oregon Trail came up in conversation. My wife expressed how much she loved that game, and would sneak off to her elementary school’s library to play it. She was – and still is – obsessed with New Kids on the Block and would name her companions in Oregon Trail after the boys in the band. Her goal was to reach Oregon with Joey, since that was her favorite, “I would survive and get there with Danny, but that was a disappointment.” Her attachment to the characters added a dynamic to the game that increased her enjoyment; it made Oregon Trail more meaningful to her, “I played that game 100s of times. I made it to the end with Joey 4-5 times – those days were fantastic!”
(For the record, she has tears in her eyes as she recounts this to me now.)
As I play through Darkest Dungeon, I have asked for volunteers from Twitter to become the heroes in my game. I did the same thing with XCOM: Enemy Unknown a few years ago. These are folks I have chatted with for years (in some cases) about Dungeons & Dragons and other topics. After missions, I update my Twitter friends on their progress, setbacks, or ultimate ends. While playing, it heightens the already-tense situations in the dungeon because I do not want to kill these heroes; I want to publicly celebrate victories with their real-world counterparts. It will likely end bad for all of them at some point, but it is making the journey more interesting to me – and hopefully providing some enjoyment for others.
Mortality Clarified in a Single Strike!
I wish to conclude with a collection of tips to help ease your transition into Darkest Dungeon. Some of these I have gleamed from the helpful guide at Game Pressure, while others are lessons I have learned from various mistakes and oversights throughout my first 20 weeks in the game.
Take a healer. The majority of my deaths thus far in the game have been on delves when I did not have a healer in the party. I experimented to see if the extra damage output would negate the need for healing; it did not. Other than consuming food or camping, there is no way to heal once the party is in the dungeon. Having at least one healer can keep the party thriving as their health is slowly whittled away by multiple encounters with monsters.
Watch the torchlight. A primary factor in the dungeons is the level of light you have. The lower the light level, the higher the Stress and more likely the heroes are surprised by monsters. There is a greater chance for more rewards when the light is low, but the monsters hit harder and death can swoop in even more quickly. At least early on, buy plenty of torches before heading into the dungeon and keep the torch level above 75.
Don’t open everything. As mentioned previously, the various objects that populate the dungeon are more of a puzzle than similar objects in other games. Objects can be interacted with by specific items to ensure that you get treasure, while interacting with those objects without the proper item is simply gambling – good result, bad result, no result. The bad results pile up if the player opens all the objects in the dungeon without the proper items. Learn what items produce the best results for each object in a dungeon; or if you lack that patience – cheat!
Look at monster stats. This is something I ignored until recently, much to my detriment. Each monster has a unique set of resistances and skills. Some monsters are vulnerable to ongoing damage attacks like Bleed or Blight while others are invulnerable to these effects. A party of heroes may make short work of enemies in the Ruins, and be completely ineffective in the Warrens. Learn the enemies that appear in each dungeon area and build your party to have skills that take advantage of monster vulnerabilities.
Don’t let a hero reach 100 Stress. This warrants repetition because a hero that reaches 100 Stress will become a serious detriment to the rest of the party for the duration of the mission. Heroes with Afflictions can pass turns, create more Stress for the party, or waste turns with inefficient actions. And it’s heartbreaking to watch unfold! If one (or heaven forbid, two) heroes hit 100 Stress during a mission, then seriously consider abandoning the quest. The party will all gain even more Stress, but that is likely better than losing 1-4 heroes permanently.
Understand hero skills and positions. Each hero in the game has four combat skills that can be used during the dungeon delves. One thing I did not understand right away was that certain skills require the hero to be in a certain position. The four heroes are aligned in an order, and some of their skills are only active when they are in a certain position in that order. Also, certain hero skills target specific positions in the enemy order. For example, the Bounty Hunter has various skills that can target different enemy positions.
The yellow Preferred Position circles above inform the player the best position for the specific hero. Most often, the Bounty Hunter thrives in the middle of the order and often targets the third enemy (as pictured by the red Preferred Target circles). The highlighted Collect Bounty skill can only function if the Bounty Hunter is in the first through third position, and it can only target enemies in the first or second position; it cannot be used from the fourth hero position, and it cannot target enemies in the third and fourth position.
Below, the Hook and Slice skill is highlighted, and illustrates that it can only be used from the second through fourth hero positions. The skill can only target enemies in the third or fourth position. As a player builds a party of heroes for a dungeon delve, they should pay attention to ensuring each hero can thrive in the position order. I did not pay attention to this detail for weeks in the game; don’t make the same mistake!
Run away! Run away! Do not be afraid of failure – especially when it comes to defeating the bosses. Unless you want to cheat with online guides ahead of time, consider the first run against a boss to be an experiment. Learn how the boss attacks, what they are vulnerable to, and regroup if the battle starts to go south. You can spend gold to have the Stress of abandoning a quest reduced; there is nothing that can be done once a hero is dead and buried. I recently looked on in horror as my first encounter with the Wizened Hag left my entire party cooked and clinging to fragments of health. I starred at the screen and did the math; it was possible I could defeat her in a turn or two. But there was no doubt I would lose heroes, and maybe all of them if the damage output was less than stellar. After a deep breath on my part, the heroes fled.
Rotate your heroes. Make the Stage Coach roster upgrades the first priority so there is more space for additional heroes. Very likely, one or more heroes that go on a dungeon delve will need Stress relief when back in town, so it is good to have a bevy of heroes to choose from each week. Unless things in the dungeon go extremely well, it is unwise to send a hero out on 2-3 consecutive missions because their Stress will be too high. Keep using the newly recruited heroes and mix them in with more experienced combatants.
Beware the Level 3 cap. Again, learned this the hard way. Once a hero reaches Level 3, they refuse to participate in the entry level dungeons. For the early bosses, the highest level the heroes can be is Level 2. If you find yourself really enjoying a hero and think she or he would be great against a specific early boss, then make sure that hero does not reach Level 3. I imagine there are other level caps along the way, but I have not hit them yet.
Not all quirks are created equally. Each hero has positive and negative quirks. Some are slightly cosmetic, while others can range from very good to extremely bad. For example, Kleptomania will result in the affected hero stealing treasure from the party; the hero will open treasure chests and the contents will disappear. All the hard work to navigate a dungeon and destroy monsters is yanked away from the player because the hero acts on this quirk. Cure this quirk immediately! Pay attention to the positive and negative quirks each hero has, and lock in the positive quirks that most help each hero. Heroes can gain positive quirks for ranged or melee damage, speed, toughness, and healing; lock in those that best suit each hero.
Invest for the future. The Blacksmith, Guild, and Nomad Wagon can be upgraded to reduce the cost of services or items purchased there. While other upgrades in town produce a more immediate benefit, spend time early in the game to upgrade the options to reduce the cost of these services. The savings over time will pile up.
Remember to save gold for Provisions. At least through the first 20 weeks, I have never encountered a time when I had excess gold to spend. Between managing illnesses, quirks, stress, equipment, and skills, the gold supply is stretched incredibly thing each week. Be aware that you still need to purchase Provisions for the next dungeon delve, and the cost for just adequate torches and food is at least 1,350 for short dungeons to 2,850 for longer delves. Plan ahead to know what type of mission you will go on next and be sure to leave yourself enough gold to stock up for that delve. Letting your heroes travel without the proper amount of food or torches is deadly business and sets the stage for a massive tragedy to play out.
I will continue to write about Darkest Dungeon, and I am in the process of lining up an interview with a member of the design team. I may also post some videos of my time playing the game. Stay tuned, and contact me if you want to add your name to the roster of heroes.
There is always a need for fresh talent!