Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Many Layers of Darkest Dungeon

Darkest Dungeon is a roguelike turn-based RPG, developed by Red Hook Studios. It came out of early access and was officially released on the 16th of January 2016. Over its time in Early Access and after its release, it amassed a huge following thanks to its gorgeous artstyle, incredible atmospheric soundtrack and Wayne June's excellent narration. In this piece, I'd like to highlight some of the game's qualities and why I personally appreciate it. 

The Role in 'Role-Playing Game'

Right off the bat, Darkest Dungeon distinguishes itself from other RPGs and roguelikes with its introduction. If you haven't seen it, please, do give it a look:

It's a very cool intro that establishes the story and atmosphere, but what I'd like to highlight is the way the player is addressed. Now, RPGs have some conventions, depending on the region they're from. Japanese RPGs generally let the player play as an established character or a set of established characters (think of games like Final Fantasy), while western RPGs generally let the player play as a heroic version of themselves (think of games like Mass Effect and the Elder Scrolls series). In either case, the player is right in the thick of it, playing the 'role' of a hero. Darkest Dungeon immediately sets itself apart from such conventions by instead putting the player in the role of a leader who watches his group of heroes fight from a distance- not unlike how many real-time strategy games establish the player's role if they establish one at all.

This actually fits the tone of the game rather well; while your heroes are not quite as expendable as any given unit in an RTS, they're a lot more expendable than your usual RPG heroes. It represents lost time and money if one dies, but you can always get more willing heroes from the stage coach. This really helps establish the grim, hopeless atmosphere, but also makes room for an interesting twist on the roguelite genre; the game does use permadeath, but you - the player - are not the dying heroes. What the heroes have brought back to you, what they have achieved - that is all permanent. This allows Darkest Dungeon to incorporate all the risk and tension of roguelites, with the lengthy campaign and story of a full blown RPG.

So, the player is not in fact a hero facing the dangers of the dungeons - they play as the unnamed Heir to the Ancestor. After receiving the Ancestor's last letter, they travel to the Hamlet in hopes of cleansing it of corruption and eventually defeating the Darkest Dungeon itself, and thus clearing their family name. To this end, they'll recruit heroes, send them to fight and use whatever they bring back to restore the Hamlet to its former glory.

Madness, our Old Friend

One of the most interesting mechanics of Darkest Dungeon is the stress mechanic. Depending on a lot of factors, like a fear of certain areas or creatures, heroes will be inflicted with Stress from certain events and enemy attacks. If a hero's stress reaches 100, their resolve will be tested and they'll gain an affliction. An affliction is a debilitating state of mind that can cause serious problems for the whole party. A hero may, for example, become Paranoid and refuse healing even when they desperately need it.

And should the hero's stress reach 200, they'll get a Heart Attack which will immediately put them on the brink of death. On rare occasions, a hero may bounce back from the stress instead and gain a virtue. Unlike afflictions, virtues will benefit the party greatly.

What I appreciate about the stress mechanic - and so many of Darkest Dungeon's inner workings - is that it is interesting on both a narrative and design level. In a game with a dark, Lovecraftian atmosphere, it makes perfect sense that the heroes could mentally break under the weight of what they must face. But for an RPG, it's also really interesting to have to consider a completely seperate kind of "damage" being done to your heroes, which seems harmless enough until your heroes snap and their insanity begins to interact with and affect all the other mechanics. And to me, that's one of the greatest strengths of the game- there is a lot to consider. Which heroes you take, what order your position them in, which attacks you give them, which Trinkets you equip them with, what their camping skills are, which quirks they have... and all of these things represent percentage chances. Just because a character's a kleptomaniac, that doesn't mean they'll steal every time. A character who's afraid of beasts might do fine in a given battle against beasts. But you have to pay close attention and plan for every possibility, or your lack of preparation could betray you at the worst moment.

A Moment of Clarity in the Eye of the Storm

The Hamlet is where you prepare for the horrors to come. It is a calm place- the safest, most stable area in an altogether unpredictable world. In the dungeons, you are a general leading soldiers, very possibly to their death. In the Hamlet, you are merely the owner of the estate, choosing who to let in, attending to those who need stress relief, and investing money and heirlooms into improving the facilities. The organized, peaceful overview of the Hamlet stands in stark contrast with the dungeons.

In an earlier version of this post, I had planned to offer at least one point of criticism - namely that the Hamlet becomes a bit too dull and predictable after you've upgraded most of the buildings. But then Red Hook Studios added the Town Events update to the game, which causes special events to occur in the Hamlet depending on a few factors, effectively eliminating that "problem." Apparently, they were way ahead of me!

Death Waits for the Slightest Lapse in Concentration

As mentioned, it's the dungeons where things get challenging. I've briefly touched upon the Stress mechanic, but that is just one of the many mechanics that interact with one another in Darkest Dungeon.

Each Hero has a class. Each class has a set of eight possible attacks, of which you can equip 4 at a time. Most attacks can only hit a limited amount of spots in the enemy formation and can only be used from specific spots of your party's formation. Additionally heroes have positive quirks, negative quirks, and if it comes to that, diseases - and all of these things act as modifiers on top of their natural stats, based on their class. Similar to the embedded quirks, the Afflictions and Virtues born from stress add additional modifiers to your heroes' actions and how they are affected. How light or dark it is, based on your usage of torches and certain special attacks, also influences the game. The darker it is, the more damage and stress enemies cause, but the more loot you'll able to find. In fact, a lot of modifiers in the game work this way; from which Heroes you pick, to which Trinkets you equip them with, there's often a catch to everything.

Indeed, Darkest Dungeon is absolutely full of  risk/reward considerations. Consider, for example, choosing whether to take a Vestal or an Occultist as a dedicated healer. A fully upgraded Vestal can heal an ally for 7-9 health. A fully upgraded Occultist can heal an ally for 0-20 health. In other words, the Vestal is very reliable, but the Occultist has the potential for far greater heals - although his heal has a chance to cause Bleed, as well. Similarly, the Abomination is immensely powerful and versatile, but religious classes like the Vestal, Crusader and Leper will not enter the dungeon with him, and his Transformation will cause the rest of the party Stress. Some characters like the Jester do low damage, but have attacks with a very high crit rate, while others, like the Leper, hit like a truck but have poor accuracy. There are many more examples, but the end result is this: Every combination of heroes, with any combination of quirks and trinkets, against any given set up of enemies in any location, can all lead to uniquely effective... or uniquely terrible results. You can plan for just about any situation, but you can't be prepared for every situation.

This level of complexity is what I love so much about Darkest Dungeon. In the past, I've written about RPGs that use a lot of big numbers to imply progression or simply for the sake of spectacle. Not only is Darkest Dungeon actually quite modest with its numbers - the largest bosses won't have much more than 300 HP - but the player is offered a clear perspective on most of the numbers and how they interact. There are exceptions to this transparency - the exact modifiers of Afflictions aren't shown - but that makes perfect sense: It highlights the unpredictability of a broken psyche.

In Closing

So, what does all of this amount to?

Darkest Dungeon cleverly plays with the player's role to combine the detailed worlds and stories of RPGs with the tense, permanent nature of roguelikes. Its battles involve hundreds of interacting variables and modifiers that demand you think and prepare for what lies ahead, which may become especially tense if your heroes' minds break and their behaviour becomes completely erratic. In many situations, you're asked to think about the risks you want to take. Reliable solutions are often weaker solutions.

On the mechanical side, all of this - and more - is what makes Darkest Dungeon such a great gothic RPG. The mechanics that portray this dangerous, hopeless world align so perfectly with the art, music and narration that do the same.

And that, in summary, is why I had such an amazing time playing Darkest Dungeon.


Thanks for taking the time to read my blog! I don't generally use my blog to articulate why I personally like something, so this post was a little bit experimental. Feel free to post any feedback!