Platform: PC, Mac, PlayStation 4
Release Date: January 19, 2016
Developer: Red Hook Studios
Darkest Dungeon is simultaneously the best and worst game I have ever had the (dis)pleasure of playing. This is probably because of the fact that I idiotically decided it would be a good way of obtaining stress relief with open exams looming. Somewhat unsurprisingly, a game notorious for modelling the effects of stress on your bedraggled assortment of (sort-of) heroes was a very poor choice of game for this role.
The game has been out for a while now, and has been dancing around on the Steam top sellers’ list, invariably in the top 25. It’s been well reviewed by everyone, and numerous friends recommended it to me. All of this lulled me into a false sense of security that the game would be ‘fun’ in a traditional manner, instead of merely nerve wracking, brutal to a new extreme and punctuated by moments of utter elation and all-consuming despair as yet another beloved character is consigned to the graveyard in the hamlet you have based yourself within.
The game is a turn based dungeon crawler, where you venture forth from your base in the hamlet with a team of four heroes from a variety of classes in order to complete quests to obtain income. Alongside income, you obtain heirlooms to allow you to upgrade your hamlets buildings. Income can be spent, as is only traditional, on shiny wargear for your heroes, and somewhat unusually, on de-stressing them.
This is surprisingly important, as the stress meter under the characters’ health bar is usually out of mind in a mission until you suddenly notice that it is ominously close to causing your usually mechanical killing machine into a potentially gibbering wreck. When the bar is full, it triggers a ‘test of resolve’ for the hero, and inevitably it is failed, generating a trait which is exceptionally undesirable, for instance masochistic, paranoid, or just generally ‘fearful’.
This can be massively problematic, as during the first half of a mission, you generally pay zero attention to stress, and then, upon noticing it creeping up on you, you begin to become stressed yourself, and begin to panic, knowing that a failed test of resolve might be all it takes to cause your entire team to suffer abuse from their erstwhile friend, potentially driving them insane also. Since this is usually the point in the mission when your heroes are already somewhat lacking in health due to attacks from enemies, horrible spiked traps and the like, having your loot laden heroes refuse to fight, panic and shove a fellow adventurer towards the enemy as a human shield can be incredibly problematic.
Already, doubtless, most of you have realised why this game is perhaps not the best option for anyone attempting to lower their own stress levels. Your attachment to your heroes makes watching them perish not only painful, but appear to be a gigantic waste of your time, as each hero is a valuable asset who has likely taken a long time to level up, and can cripple your party. Since each expedition costs the player resources, which are never exactly abundant, death on the part of your favoured hero can be incredibly painful.
However, for all its pain, the game is delightful, as long as you go into it acknowledging that afterwards you will be somewhat scarred with the knowledge that you threw a treasured hero under the bus to allow others to make it out of a sticky situation alive. Or that you willingly failed to provide your heroes with torches, causing one to go insane in a particularly dark dungeon, in order to allow another, more favoured, hero to receive some light stress relief.