Full disclosure: review copy provided by developer/publisher!
“What, you'd like to know my story? There's not much to tell, I'm sorry to say. I came here, same reason as you – for glory, for gold. And not one man can fault me with cupidity, no. I tempted good friends, capable friends, spewing that very promise, HA, and don't let them tell you, CONVINCE YOU, that their hands were forced. They came willingly, yes.
“Like pigs to the slaughter.
“The first month was uneventful at the estate. Harried heroes came and went, but my friends and I were heartier fare. We spent what treasures we pilfered on libation, often causing a ruckus in the tavern. New adventurers would swagger in, ♥♥♥♥♥ure, and we'd put them right in place. We'd usually frighten the greener ones off... the rest would perish, often crying out – for God, for their mother, for the sweet release of death. Fools.
“My friends and I, we don't adventure anymore. We tend the estate, greet would-be heroes such as yourself, to give fair warning. All your skills, all your learning, all your experiences past mean nothing here. You will die, likely alone and raving in the dark. Death is all that you can count on. Death is all you will know.
“What, my necklace? No, these are no ordinary charms, child. These are my friends, you see. I carry them with me still, even after death. They quiet my mind, when the dark comes, you see. It was the least I could do; their bodies gave me sustenance – their bodies give me sustenance, HA, and don't let them tell you, CONVINCE YOU, that their hands were forced. They came willingly, yes.
“And so will you.”
Darkest Dungeon is an RPG turn-based roguelite dungeon crawler – and yes, I've written this phrase so much it autocorrects genres without prompting. I've named my dog “RPG turn-based roguelite dungeon crawler” and he hates me. But I digress. Story is that your wealthy relative has died, not before sending you a letter, urging you to come to the ancestral ♥♥♥♥ hole to spruce things up and purge the ancient, unknowable evil that lurks, broods, and taints up the place like an unruly teenager. The game starts off with a neat little tutorial, explaining some of the nuances of gameplay: tactical placement of characters, attacks, effects, etc. These are all standards we've come to know and love in the genre, nothing out of the ordinary. But there are a few twists that set Darkest Dungeon apart.
When you set out on a journey you'll select your adventurers, and there are a lot to choose from. Some are tanks, some are roguish, some are healers, and some suck (stupid damn plague doctor I HATE YOU SO MUCH). You can select your character order as well, and right clicking on a portrait provides insight into their ideal placement. Different heroes provide different bonuses, like scouting ahead to spot traps and treasure. After you pick your team you'll need provisions, a risk and reward proposition... are you detecting a pattern? You'll need food for characters, particularly on the longer treks (there's even a camping/survival mechanic to replenish health and stress for such undertakings), or they're liable to starve. You'll need torches to light the way and keep characters from intermittently having nervous breakdowns. And you'll need various health items to keep bleed and blight effects in check. Does this sound like a lot to juggle? Because I am not doing the death-defying, chainsaw spinning, greased up, foot juggling spectacle justice, I assure you. There aren't enough words. After your quest these provisions don't carry on to the next journey, unfortunately. So do you risk spending too much, or spending too little? Both carry consequence.
But there's more.
Every hero and heroine has a stress bar beneath their health. With each enemy encounter, trap, and the act of WALKING, the adventurers will accrue stress. This is countered by killing blows, critical hits, and some support abilities. Inevitably someone will reach their breaking point after one too many knock knock jokes and one of two things will happen: they'll rally courageously, lowering their stress and everyone elses, or become afflicted. This affliction, whether it be cowardice, masochism, irrationality (and more!), means you won't always be in control of that hero, often to their detriment and the team's.
After you clear (or flee) a dungeon you return to the estate, a hub where your weary adventurers can get some much needed R&R. Mirroring the core gameplay, your decisions in the hub world are deeply tactical. Some characters are religious, and will only be willing to visit the abbey to relieve stress. Others will happily drink and gamble their sorrows away. And as less savory quirks develop (buffs and debuffs gained through adventuring and R&R, separate from affliction), you can send them to the sanitarium, where presumably all the fun is. All of this is costly in time and money, and you'll have to manage carefully. Fresh heroes and heroines are wheeled into town after every adventure, but they are newbly in nature. With each subsequent successful quest, estate properties unlock, providing you the ability to upgrade abilities, armor and weapons, survivor traits, and more (you can upgrade your town's buildings to improve their respective output). Expect to spend a lot of booty.
After enough victories more procedural dungeon locales unlock, bosses become available to fight, and the game gets tougher. I'm not joking when I suggest that YOU, the player, will experience every quirk, affliction, and solace your characters do. I was paranoid. I was stalwart. I was masochistic. I was even hagiophobic (the last time a game introduced me to such cool vocabulary was Eternal Darkness). That is an accomplishment. And it was all worth it, every second of crawling, creeping madness, to play this game.
It's only February 2015 and this will easily be a contender for GOTY, of that I have no doubt. The art direction is spectacular; beautiful and visceral at the same time, like an old, dusty, medieval anatomy book. The turn-based attacks are so cool, so varied. The enemies are bizarre, terrifying, and menacing. The heroes and heroines are flawed, heroic, almost real. The dungeon crawling is rewarding, the victories are often bittersweet, and the office cooler conversation potential of this game is off the charts with so many variables. But the narration, sweet tap dancing Allfather, Allmother, and every Allrelative in between, the narration is amazing. It's omnipresent, in the hub and dungeons, raising hopes and dashing them in dulcet tones. It's like Vincent Price and Paul Frees' (Disney's Haunted Mansion) voices got married and Cthulhu officiated.
I have a few teeny, tiny criticisms. The game can be unrelentingly punishing at times, unfair even. And while there is no fail state per se, things can get so bad that you'll want to just restart. I'd like the option to play a game in which I can save. XCOM has a save mode AND an Ironman mode, and I'd prefer that option here as well. There are also little technical glitches here and there, grammatical and spelling errors occasionally. That's about it. That's the sum of my complaints. I'd like to be able to save and there are a few little errors. And this title is in Early Access, which means we can anticipate lots of fine tuning and HOPEFULLY some cool additions as well. But what's already here, what's already been done, is spectacular.
It would be a grave crime against the Elder Gods to pass this up, and madness will surely follow.