Darkest Dungeon (Switch) Review – Horrifyingly Great
Platforms: PC, Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PS4, PS Vita, iOS
Developer: Red Hook Studios
Publisher: Red Hook Studios
Release: 18th January 2018 (Switch)
Darkest Dungeon was an Early Access success story until it launched in 2016 to even greater acclaim. So should it be surprising that it came to Switch? No, maybe not but it´s still a damn great thing to have on a portable console, especially for Lovecraft fans like me.
Imagine you´re owning a giant mansion, are rich and happy but simply can´t get enough. This is exactly how one of our relatives felt, who dug out the hidden dungeon beneath his castle, before realizing what dark powers were caged by it. After seeing what creatures awaited him in his newfound cellar, he not only lost his sanity but also cleared the path for hundreds of adventureres seeking their own fortune in the now-called Darkest Dungeon.
Unfortunately, the biggest missed opportunity in the whole game is the initial set-up itself, as it´s nothing more than, well, a set-up. As much as I hate to draw this comparison, Dark Souls starts in a very similar narrative way but is able to create a universe through smart dialogue, item descriptions and much more, Darkest Dungeon can´t. There´s simply never much more to it than a few adventurers seeking gold and fame after an ignorant relative opened Pandora´s chest.
Though Red Hook certainly tried themselves at such an approach, hiding some little lore pieces in the occasional dialogue between the citizen inhabitants or other descriptions. Still, none of those story pieces are either very interesting, as they´re mostly centred about the relative´s past and other foreshadowing events, or are so cryptic that understanding and putting them into the greater context imposes a greater challenge than needed for a thing mostly reserved for the side.
A far greater treasure is brought to the table by the narrator, serving as one of the main atmospheric devices by commenting on everything the player and characters do in a horribly mad way. The voice actor of him does a fantastic job at portraying a madman, slowly descending into madness together with the band of heroes while they travel deeper and deeper into the dungeons. When the torch loses light, a character steps into a trap, no matter what you can be sure there´s the narrator to transform a static picture into a traumatizing event.
Combined with the rough, grey/black artstyle, turning everything dark just to create an even bigger impact for feared colours like red, Darkest Dungeon´s biggest strength is by far its atmosphere. Through great character design, amazing colour direction and skilful creation of a world true to the feeling Lovecraft achieved in his short stories and alike, every trip into this game is a visual joy. If only the UI would be cleaner and not a clunky, overfilled feeling mess at times, the Switch portable to offer a good readable font size in handheld mode and a better control scheme, there would be truly nothing to complain about.
Both put together the depressing atmosphere and world brought to life by the great art and narrator is one of the unique things I´ve experienced in indie games for a while. Especially because it´s one of the few ones that understood both Lovecraft´s way of creating atmosphere and monsters. When even losing every party member to insanity, being pushed to the brink of death essentially, sounds like a wet dream for horror fans you know Red Hook Studios created something wonderful.
Otherwise, Darkest Dungeon is a pretty normal dungeon crawler with turn-based combat. Both the hero and enemy party consists of a maximum of four members, each with their own set of four abilities. Adventurers are divided into different classes like Bounty Hunter, Knight or Paladin, but not only their skills and core function change but also their “position preference”. Meaning, a Paladin will have skills that are only available if he´s in a set position, like the last 2 spots in the formation.
So it´s not only ineffective to place your healers etc in the front rows from a strategic point of view but from a gameplay perspective as well. It´s a unique system to add an own twist to every class and the whole experience as a whole, which otherwise is a very standard system. Yet, at first glance, everything may seem quite overwhelming due to the dozens of skills, each with their unique status effects, numerical bonuses and much more complicated stuff to consider. The lack of any tutorial besides the basic stuff makes matters worse as the right use or meaning of different status effect has to be figured out by trial error procedure, combined with extensive reading.
However, the true core of Darkest Dungeon´s challenges consists of the adventurer´s character traits. Similar to real life, none of them are characterless bots, diving into their nightmares without suffering on their way. Divided into good and bad ones, they can either profit by gaining life or other neat things through their personalities or suffer horribly if they go insane. Yes, every enemy attack, every second without a burning torch, basically every single thing in this dungeon affects their sanity meter, once it reaches 100 points their fears are triggered.
From a selfish doctor to a masochistic knight, they´re plenty and not only let them speak nonsense during battle but also trigger even let them commit suicide. Especially if you begin to bind yourself to your heroes over time as they gain levels, equipment and upgrades, seeing them going rampant damages your heart, even if they don´t die and take everything you gave them down too. Darkest Dungeon forces you to be on a constant lookout and suffer along with your party through this mechanic in particular because it is such a giant thread to all your progress.
Naturally when they went rampant but made it out of the dungeon somehow, recovering in the different buildings of the city before even thinking about going back in is a necessity. Be it in the bar or church, depending on the hero it takes at least 1 trip long before they´re cured of most their insanity. So having at least another party to explore with it alternatively is needed as well. The town also serves as the primary upgrade spot, with purchasable equipment, the ability to recruit more heroes and improve their abilities, basically the rest and preparation phase between each run.
Before every descent purchasing enough torches with the money previously earned, in order to light the darkness during the trip and prevent your party from going insane, is recommended.
Unfortunately, the mission design becomes pretty mundane after the first few hours, consisting mostly of having to explore a certain percent of rooms, fight all enemies and such mediocre stuff. Darkest Dungeon biggest gameplay weakness is probably the level design though in combination with those quests. Since all dungeons are randomly generated, rooms are often placed in ways that require extensive backtracking once reached but because it´s necessary to explore nearly all of them, it directly forces you to backtrack. As a result, torches are used in an instant, the party goes insane easier and everything feels more sluggish and artificially harder.
What to say, Darkest Dungeon is an almost perfect game. Sure the story might be weak, the design has a few flaws here and there but the very core and everything that´s built around it is pretty much perfect. The amazing atmosphere, the ability to capture the very essence of masters like Lovecraft, combined with a very well working combat system are the reasons why Red Hook´s game counts to the very best and hardest games on my Switch currently. Don´t miss it if you haven´t checked it out already, it´s worth every cent.
[A Review Code was provided by Red Hook Studios]