Madness and Shadows – Darkest Dungeon

In Darkest Dungeon, you direct a party of four adventurers onwards through the dungeon in the dwindling light of their torches. They wade through blood and corpses to put an end to the darkness beneath the ruined estate where they’ve come, at the cost of their own lives and sanity.

The gameplay is simple. Though you may have a larger stable of adventurers, you direct a party of four at a time through a dungeon composed of rooms and corridors. They encounter groups of enemies, and then fight them in a turn-based system, using a set of special skills such as attacks, buffs, and healing powers. The positioning of your party members is important – not every ability can be used from every position, and it generally makes sense to put the heavily armoured Crusaders and Men-at-Arms in front, while healers and ranged combatants such as Vestals and Arbalests work better in the rear. The base game has a total of 15 hero types, with two more available in DLCs. Looted treasure comes in your basic equipment as well as heirlooms that are used to purchase improvements for the estate’s services – larger barracks for a bigger stable of heroes, better blacksmith, and so on.

The boss monsters are bigger and weirder.

Where the game shines is its tone. The setting evokes 17th-century France with shades of Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne and H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. Superstition is rife and religious strife rampant. As you bring down a boss after boss, the narrator bit by bit reveals the backstory of the estate and how the land came to be overrun with evil. The setting’s differences from your garden-variety pseudo-medieval fantasy fare alone make it worth a look. The monsters run the gamut from ordinary bandits to feverish nightmares. The art style is evocative and accomplishes a great deal with very little animation. The sound design similarly does a great deal with actually very little.

It is also relentlessly difficult. Your heroes will die in droves, so you’d better not get attached to them. This is also where its greatest failure lies – there’s nothing there to get attached to. Though they all come with their selection of mental defects and may pick up illnesses and disabilities through their adventures, they lack the personality to bring the horror home. Every character of the same class looks the same except for their muted colour palette. They have a few stock lines, but no voice acting. They suffer horrendously, but when your Hellion contracts rabies, she gets a numerical penalty. She doesn’t start foaming at the mouth. Darkest Dungeon falls short on its most promising aspect and doesn’t manage to elevate it above a numbers game.

It may be just a hive of scum and villainy, but by Jove, it is your hive of scum and villainy!

Overall, Darkest Dungeon is a good game, but not a great one. It is pretty to look at and fun to play, but takes on the role of an occasional distraction rather than a frequent occupation.

Developer: Red Hook Studios
Publisher: Red Hook Studios
Platform: Windows, OS X, Linux, PS4, PS Vita, Nintendo Switch, iPad
Release Date: January 2016