I love a bit of cosmic horror. It’s no surprise then that Darkest Dungeon is one of my favourite RPGs of all time. This KickStarter-backed beauty combines a dark and grimy aesthetic, deep strategic combat and a gripping narrative that manages to overcome many of the problems that morality systems in games usually end up having. Darkest Dungeon is also notable for being one of a select few games that truly understand and utilise Lovecraftian themes.
The game looks great – the dungeons are detailed and the monsters are suitably ghoulish. Style oozes from every aspect of the visual design, but that’s not what impresses me the most. Detractors of turn-based combat often make the complaint that it lacks the catharsis and feedback of real-time systems, and while this may be absolutely true of many games, this is not the case in Darkest Dungeon. There is little to no actual animation, but what is there does a fantastic job of conveying the required sense of impact. There are so many subtle touches that go towards realising this effect: the way the characters are made to stand out from the background when attacking, the audio cues, the flashes of colour; they all blend to produce a real “tooth and claw” feeling to the combat.
But layered over all of this is the narration (possibly my favourite part of the entire game). I may ruffle a few feathers here but it is my firm belief that this performance by the gravel voiced Wayne June actually trumps Logan Cunningham’s in the indie hit Bastion; it’s really that good, probably the best I have ever heard. I do not say this lightly. Every single line is dripping with personality. June’s dark, rough tones are enough to make even the hardiest of adventurers pause for thought. The writing is also spot on, combining gallows humour and grim determination to really give an insight into the mind of ‘the Ancestor’ (the narrator).
Outside of feeling great to play, the combat is deep, varied and highly tactical. For the most part it’s a fairly traditional set up, but the positioning of your party members is ever important. Certain classes can only perform many of their abilities from specific positions from within your party (the Plague Doctor, for example, may only throw his plague grenade from one of the back two positions). You also have to work around the fact that not every ability can reach every enemy position; a swing with an axe simply can’t hit the healer stood at the back of the enemy party. There are several abilities you can utilise that can compensate for this, and pulling or pushing your foe out of position can make all the difference. This adds a fantastic level of depth to an already enjoyable combat experience, full of varied abilities, enemies and tactics, elevating the gameplay above many other similar titles.
Unfortunately, games that try to play around with morality do so in an overly-simplistic, almost childlike way. Very often any kind of moral choice boils down to a simple binary decision between good and evil. This works OK from a gameplay perspective (unlocking abilities for being good etc) but it never really has any kind of narrative punch to it. It feels very explicit and clinical, when in the real world morality is much less black and white. In Darkest Dungeon you are never asked whether or not you want to do something evil; instead, the game is designed in a way that makes ethics and moral debate a core part of the play experience.
Will you push your team of rookies to the edge of madness in the pursuit of gold to spend on your elites? It’s a viable strategy. However, the game will never tell you that what you’ve done is “evil” – you will simply have to deal with the consequences, the twisted minds of your once stalwart heroes. The fact that you don’t directly play as the men and women who enter the dungeons (you play the as their leader/financier) allows the game to explore complex moral themes. What can be sacrificed in the name of a greater good? Safety? Sanity? The choice is up to you. This is a far better exploration of morality than in a game like Mass Effect.
Being a huge fan of cosmic horror and the works of H.P Lovecraft, I can’t resist any form of media that displays an understanding of its core themes. The impossible struggle against forces and beings that are far, far beyond our comprehension is what makes the genre tick. I don’t want to spoil too much in case you decide to actually play the game, but I will say this – the ending is far from a happy one.
If you like turn based RPGs and are looking for something to really get your teeth into, there are more than a few reasons to love Darkest Dungeon.