Set in a fantasy rendition of the Lovecraftian mythos, Darkest Dungeon is yet another Kickstarter game to finally hit Steam in its “Early Access” form. As I already mentioned in a previous post, approaching a game published under Steam’s “Early Access” program is something that inevitably ends up feeling a bit awkward. While changes between the “Early Access” product and the final release rarely alter the design in particularly deep ways, the implication that what we are playing is still a “draft”, a work in progress, is enough to muddle any critical way the game could be approached through. That’s why, while writing about Darkest Dungeon, I take a bit of solace in this passage from the early access “warning” on the Steam page for the game
“How is the full version planned to differ from the Early Access version? For the full release, we are planning to add more dungeon environments (one of which is the Darkest Dungeon), more character classes, story mode completion, additional monsters, items, quirks, narration, and dialogue. We also have reserved some time to add other new features and make changes based upon player feedback!”
While the concept of “player feedback changes” is still looming up there, the Early Access seems to be focusing just on adding content, meaning that I can safely write about anything that’s not “lack of content” while being reasonably sure that what I write won’t become outdated in two weeks (which I admit, is also a bit hypocritical on my part, "I really hope this game I didn't quite like doesn't get reworked into something that I can appreciate more, so that my shitty writing about it can remain relevant").
In Darkest Dungeon the player is put into the shoes of the owner of a decadent estate that has been conquered by a primordial evil. The end goal the player is pushed towards is a vague “destroy the shadows and regain your riches” that will be achieved by hiring heroes and using them to explore randomly generated environments in the search for gold and other resources. While doing so the player will also be fighting a losing battle against madness, as the heroes will gradually accumulate stress points and develop mental illnesses as they venture further into the wretched estate.
Now, you’ll ask: “why are you in such a hurry to write about Darkest Dungeon when you could wait for the final release?” and honestly the answer is just that I’ve been playing it quite a lot since when it was initially put on the Steam store. Because, despite all the problems I have with the game, I would be lying if I said that it doesn’t have a lot of things that if taken in a void are actually quite entertaining. The art style is moody and detailed, having to “heal up” the characters’ stress by alternating them is a solid mechanic, the characters’ classes are well differentiated and open the game to quite a number of strategies, and I’d even go so far to say that its turn-based combat system is the best I have played in a long time. All of this in the end is enough to entertain me during the laziest parts of my day, but it still seems a bit wasted when used in an overarching structure that fails to convincingly put all of those elements together.
The problem at the core of Darkest Dungeon is that it does not seem entirely sure of what it wants to be, and what it wants to make us feel when we are throwing our mercenaries into suicidal quests. While the aesthetics of the game seems to be building toward a horror-oriented approach to the rpg genre, implying therefore a sense of sympatheticness toward our poor heroes, the game system drives in the opposite direction by rewarding a cold and calculated approach, in which letting heroes suffer and die is fine as long as it keeps resources up.
Once the player starts understanding the inner workings of the game (which technically might take a while since the tutorialization is still quite unpolished), it becomes clear that heroes are an extremely expendable resource. Having heroes die is never a huge setback, since at the start of every in-game day a new bunch of them will be recruitable for free. After realizing that trying to keep heroes alive at all costs is way more expensive than just replacing them at the first sign of trouble, the approach of the player will almost immediately become cold and calculated. There is no true dilemma about kicking out from the party a hero that contracted too many mental illnesses because in most of the cases it is simply the best option to proceed in the game. This is made even worse by the system seemingly incentivizing hiring new parties of heroes and sending them into semi-suicidal runs just to grind a bit more of resources.
While I suspect that creating empathy through aesthetics just to then incentivize sadism through mechanics might have been something intentional, it ends up feeling unpleasantly dissonant because the game ultimately never manages to have its “empathetic” side feel nothing more than a failed intention. While a huge amount of care has been put into giving each character a large number of dialogue lines to randomly spout during gameplay, the class system heavily impairs any sense of empathy that the player could be trying to create towards them. There is no true difference between two characters of the same class, while each new recruit starts off with different skills and quirks, it will be enough to spend a fairly low amount of gold to “fully train” him, making him effectively identical to any other character belonging to his class. In addition to that, the fact that the aforementioned dialogues are assigned depending on the character’s class doesn’t do anything than just reinforce this feeling that the heroes are not living and breathing people but just abstract concepts.
In a medium like film creating a “cold and detached” experience to viscerally unsettle the watcher tends to work because the viewer’s basic expectation is for the characters to be “humans”. Video games on the other side already got us fully accustomed to abstract approaches to humanity, in which most of the times characters are not people but concepts. While this is not inherently bad, it does end up rendering Darkest Dungeon’s implicit characterization of the player character quite ineffectual on an emotional level. The fact that the player coldly uses humans as resource never really comes as a shock but is subconsciously clumped up with many other ludic tropes that we automatically accept. A film like Under The Skin disturbs us because it subverts our basic conceptions of how characters works in film, Darkest Dungeon on the other side uses design elements common to other games and fails to re-contextualize them to tell the horror story it is trying so hard to tell.
The disconnect between what the game seems to want to create and what the game “actually” feels like becomes even greater when engaging in combat. The fighting system, as I mentioned before, is by far the best part of the game: turn based combat heavily focused on the positioning of your party (each offensive or defensive skill requires the character and the enemies to be in certain positions) with plenty of skills to move you or the enemies around the battlefield. While this is generally pretty fun, it again doesn’t really fit in the bigger picture. Its main function should be the one to wear out the player’s characters and dictate the pace at which they gain stress and mental illnesses but the lack of clear agency on such things just makes it feel like something that happens “while” your character go slowly mad. Despite the stress meter being tightly entwined with the enemies attacks, the very low agency the player has on the rate at which stress is gained just erases any feeling that combat and stress are tied together, making it again feel as if there are two different games continuously battling for the foreground.
As I am writing this I feel that I pretty much reached the moment in which the entertaining elements in Darkest Dungeon are not enough anymore to keep me playing. It’s actually a bit of a shame, because, despite all the problems, it’s quite clear that a lot of care was put in all of the single aspects of the project and there is true passion behind the game. However, while a lot of interesting themes and mechanics are explored, the lack of a strong vision tying it all together makes the game ultimately fail for me. For how much I found the combat fun and for how much I love mechanics that force me to tightly rotate a party to keep it alive, it all becomes a lot less entertaining when all these element ends up building towards nothing and existing just for their own sake.
Disclaimer: Despite the main theme of this piece being "I played this game so much and now I have to write about it immediately" you are reading this 4 months after when it was written. Do what you want with such information.