Red Hook Studios

Darkest Dungeon takes gaming stress to new level

By Sean Willett, February 12 2015 —

Darkest Dungeon is about making the most of a bad situation.

This is the first thing the game tells you. It’s not lying.

Developed by Red Hook Studios — an independent studio based in Vancouver — Darkest Dungeon is a turn based role-playing game for Steam, PS4 and PS Vita. Players are tasked with reclaiming a monster-infested mansion and, to do so, they must employ the services of an eclectic crew of glory-seeking adventurers.

There is a twist, however. While most RPGs only task players with managing the physical health of their parties, players of Darkest Dungeon must also be aware of the mental health of their adventurers. As heroes are pushed further and further into undead-filled ruins and forests, the uncertainty and danger they face slowly adds to their stress.

If adventurers become too stressed, the characters might even become unhinged — a highwayman may become too afraid to attack or an occultist might become too selfish to listen to commands. Stress can be relieved through praying, gambling or a handful of other activities, with different characters preferring different ways of easing their minds.

The pain and adversity faced by the party of heroes will also cause them to accumulate personality quirks, skills and sometimes even chronic diseases. One of my favourite characters was a kleptomaniac crusader with an armour-smithing hobby who ended up catching syphilis from an infected trap. The traits they accumulate combine to give each character their own unique personality, making it more heartbreaking when they inevitably die.

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Darkest Dungeon is a very difficult game. The odds are almost always stacked against the player, and quests have to be abandoned as often as they are successfully completed. What’s more, death is permanent. If a hero dies, they’re gone for good, and they will need to be replaced by a fresh-faced and inexperienced recruit.

This turns every quest into a tightrope act of risk-reward management, with every decision able to tip the scales between glorious success and heartbreaking failure. Sacrificing a hero in order to complete a quest is often the smartest move a player can make — even if that adventurer happened to be a particularly beloved kleptomaniac crusader.

These difficult choices, combined with the lasting consequences that come with failure, make playing Darkest Dungeon a fittingly stressful experience. But beneath this intensity lies a complex and exciting game, one that rewards perseverance and careful planning. Victory tastes sweeter when snatched out of the hands of defeat, and success in Darkest Dungeon always made me feel like I overcame impossible odds.

The game’s visuals and sound direction are equally enjoyable, with a hand-drawn art style and a grim-sounding narrator adding to an ever-present atmosphere of dread.

Darkest Dungeon is about making the most out of a bad situation, but it’s exactly these bad situations where the game shines the brightest. While definitely not a game for everyone, it’s the perfect fit for a person who is up for handling a bit of stress.

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