Spooktober 2018 Entry #1 – Next Entry: Rise of Insanity
It’s back, baby. Grab your skeletons – October is upon us.
Yes, it’s the season we all know and love, unless you’re 40 years old and can’t stand kids. The pre-Christmas rush can be seen on the horizon, but before that comes a showcase of the spook, and this time we’re really going to try and reach 31 articles in 31 days. Last year had certain missteps, planning went awry, but now? Now we’re ready, starting with Darkest Dungeon.
Ohhhh yes, the Kickstarter indie darling from 2016, which recently saw ports to the Nintendo Switch and Xbox One. Developed by Red Hook Studios, and conceived by two former employees at Backbone Entertainment/Digital Eclipse, they asked for $75,000 and got triple that by the end of it all. With good reason, I might add, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
You play as yourself, or at least an extension of yourself residing within the game, who finds out that they’ve inherited a bulky estate from a distant relative. Like all these promising prospects however, there’s a catch, and there’s the equivalent of five ancient Indian burial grounds underneath the manor property. Now it’s down to you to grab the biggest band of merry men and women you can find, and get rid of the insanity lurking beneath.
Darkest Dungeon is one of my favourite games to watch unfurl, as you have no idea what to expect. Even the tutorial keeps its stress ball-clutching hands fairly hidden, and as time goes on, the possibilities become denser and denser until you’re left with this big ball of Play-Doh to sculpt. It’s fun. Really, really fun.
The hub world will work like so: You have a town in front of you that resides near the haunted manor, with various buildings and places that allow you to keep progress and tabs on what you’ve done. Outside of the main circle of buildings is a small wagon where you can recruit various teammates that can help with the slaughtering about to take place.
From plague doctors to masters of the occult, crusaders and jesters, there are a varied bunch that can help you in your efforts to take back the castle. There has been an insane amount of creativity used in order to make any combination a viable option, and it works out splendidly in Red Hook’s favour. Unfortunately, it’s incredibly difficult to project yourself onto, or even care about your boys in black ‘n’ red while they’re on your team. Their pre-set classes, looks and the fact that there’s no backstory to any of them, means that it’s hard to make you care about them.
Going up to the manor, you’ll see that there are various objectives for you and your band of merry men and women to try and complete. Searching rooms, killing enemies and bosses, finding certain items, cleaning the place up a bit, there’s a fair mix to it. Once you get all of your supplies, just in case you come across a dangerous type of status-inflicting enemy, it’s time to go, and once you jump in, the mood is immediately set.
The lights are dimmed immediately, light fails to breach the dying branches, and your team of 1-4 are standing dead still, waiting for your command. Everything takes place on a 2-D plane, and your main course of business will be scrolling through the hallways and rooms, looking for stuff to pillage and kill. When you do find stuff? Well that’s when the meat to the game is eaten.
Suddenly the music picks up, tribal drums burst your eardrums, and the Lovecraftian horror pours out of the woodwork to use your band of vanquishers as bongo drums (One enemy does that for real, come to think of it). The enemy design is brilliant, starting off with your standard gross-out fare, like zombies and generic moulding soldiers, but as time gets on, the game gets more gleefully disgusting, truly making this the darkest of dungeons.
Methodical turn-based combat is the dish of the day, as you come across your foe and your select from a small handful of attacks to use against the undying hordes. There’s a lot of ways you can approach the battle, with a lot of the abilities and proper utilization coming to you naturally over time. I wasn’t kidding about the “any team can be used” comment either. The variety in which you can dispose of your enemies is staggering.
Shit, you could make a team of 4 jesters if you wanted, with part of this coming down to the upgrading the player can do with their squad’s skills. While you can only equip 4 at a time, there are another 4 that you can try and mix-n-match with other soldiers’ abilities to gain maximum optimization. It shows that Red Hook certainly want you to succeed, and all you need to do is focus just that little bit more than usual.
Battles are neither slow boils punishing speed, nor are they blisteringly speedy challenges demanding you to think fast. It’s a perfectly average pace which is bolstered by a fairly forgiving difficulty curve. Yes, that might peeve a few people who have cursed Red Hook and their families in voodoo rituals because they find Darkest Dungeon too hard, but in all actuality, it’s really not that bad of a teeth-grinder. Well, for the most part.
Part of the reason why people show outrage towards the game’s difficulty, is that it expects a slightly higher grade of player than the usual slew of turn-based games. While I personally don’t find the game to be all that difficult, I can still see the parts where Red Hook attempt to pull a sly one on you. Random events and certain enemies seem to be designed in a way that catches even the most clairvoyant of players, with a lot of the challenges you’ll face directly imposing on your characters, and their Stress.
Ahh, the Stress, something that makes or breaks a person’s opinion on this game. While your general health bar is something that can be slapped at repeatedly by the enemy, they do have other ways to make your team weaker, and that’s through the use of stressful tactics. Exposing the horrors of the otherworldly to them, being literal annoyances to battle, asking you constantly to check out this one album by Death Grips, traps placed outside of battles, and random encounters, etc. They will do anything to fill that Stress meter up.
Your Stress meters have a maximum of 200, with there being a little test once you reach 100. A character’s Resolve will be tested, and whether he prevails or fails is down to luck and luck alone. I’d like to believe that there’s a deeper meaning to it, like maybe the heroes’ abilities and passive natures are affecting the outcome, but it feels like even if you could make a figurative Jesus Christ on here, he’d come out Paranoid.
That’s the part where most people give an unending groan. Their best Crusader or Abomination will come out of the test Masochistic, or Hopeless, and suddenly they’ll act more abrupt and make moves without your permission. It’s something that’s been used in other games before, like X-COM: Enemy Unknown with its “Panic” status, but here is where it becomes much more of a focus, to the developer and the player, but there’s another side to the coin. What happens when you reach 200 Stress, you ask?
If you manage to make your band of lads and lasses to stress out hard enough, like you’re trapped in an elevator with a Conservative who believes Theresa May is actually doing a good job, your character will suffer a heart attack. This will lead to he or she being put into the “Death’s Door” phase, something that can be achieved if your character takes enough hits, but in any case, this tends to lead to immediacy from the player.
It leads into a test of not just your team’s Resolve, but the player’s own Resolve as well. What if you didn’t bring someone who can heal during battles? What if they start targeting the fellow on Death’s Door more often? All this and more is why I believe that Darkest Dungeon is a really well done horror entry, stemming a new branch of horror, if you will.
For a while now, there have been two types of horror that get most people spooked, with that being the gory stuff, or the psychological stuff. Darkest Dungeon is on the latter side by an inch, but I believe it brings forth a new breed of horror: You believe that the game pleads too much from you, and as you watch your characters mental state dwindle, all that’s left is a burbling broken maniac who has been permanently scarred from these visions and battles. As your characters become insane, so do you.
This is also helped by an enthralling narrator, who borders between the hopeful and the nihilistic. He’ll provide commentary for almost every one of your actions with a haunting effect, like The Raven section from Treehouse of Horror I. It can get a tad annoying sometimes, as he’ll bang on and on, repeating lines that you’ve heard already, and not even different locations with different narration can shake off the tedious. Makes you wonder what else he’ll narrate with a twistedly terrified tone?
“Hark, as one sees this man, wretched from the experience of his food, known as “Chinese Food”. Shambling to a porcelain throne, he unlaces the belt wrapped around his torso. He sits upon a chair filled with water and begins to push. What he is pushing for is not known, but the veins bulge and the mind wanders. Suddenly, it ends as soon as it began. A stench of unknown origin begins to orbit the throne.”
The insanity horror theory is merely speculation, and something that may seem outlandish to claim, yet I do hope the point I made is in there. To go back to it though, most people would just simply rage quit (Like I do whenever I face THE F*CKING COUNTESS), but Darkest Dungeon only requests the smallest amount of attention from you. It just wants you to be immersed, and put yourself in the shoes of the governor running this whole organization. The game, and its foreboding manor, isn’t locked in here with a foolhardy player, you’re locked in with a manor that believes it can extract the best from you.
It works well, except when you’re facing bosses like the aforementioned Countess, which is where the game falters slightly in terms of design choices. A lot of these bosses don’t show any form of mechanical progression, with the go-to tactic of “spawning more Adds to delay the inevitable” being something that shows up quite often. Even when they aren’t spawning enough zombie dogs to fill up a Resident Evil movie, bosses like The Fanatic and the Brigand Pounder either attack way too quickly, or punish players for not knowing there’d be said Pounder on the bylines.
So yeah, it is hard, but only if you don’t pay attention to the details. The game lets you know gradually that the stakes aren’t going to be ramped up immediately, but with the inclusion of slightly stronger monsters after each trip to the manor grounds, and larger maps. Soon enough, the game will start handing you fire-starting kits that you can use for longer journeys to the madhouse, and again, this all comes to you with a natural progression.
I still haven’t completed it, mind you. Difficulty is one thing, but daunting is another thing entirely, and Darkest Dungeon is a steep and terrifying monolith when it comes to its scope. You could spend many in-game years just attempting to get a confident foot through the door of the game’s hardest challenges, levelling up all of your guys to a fair level and keeping casualties to a minimum. It leads to exhaustion, like the game wants you to, and it’s okay to quit, so long as you had what can count as “fun” on the way.
In the end, Darkest Dungeon is a well-executed trip into the eldritch horror and beyond, and a great way to kick off Spooktober. Sure, the narrative can get incredibly grating after a while, and you can easily spot the times where Red Hook put trip wires down during your run, but that’s only a quarter or so of the experience. The rest of it gets you just as unnerved as the people you’re making live through these torturous moments, like a bastard.
Don’t worry, they’re not plotting against you.
This review of Darkest Dungeon is based on the Xbox One version of the game.
Darkest Dungeon manages to make turn-based combat terrifying for entirely different reasons.
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