Ruin Has Found You At Last

Darkest Dungeon II, by Red Hook, currently in early access

I’ve brought up Darkest Dungeon a few times on this blog, mostly by making a few characters based on the heroes of the game. I’ve also mentioned how Darkest Dungeon 2 is currently in early access, and I made a character based on the updates to that hero in the game. I’ve talked enough about these games, I should probably actually discuss them directly rather than simply through character creation. Today, rather than just going through another character conversion, I’m going to go over the aspects of Darkest Dungeon 1, some of the changes Darkest Dungeon 2 has already put out in its first version of open access, and what I’d like to see in future changes. I truly believe Darkest Dungeon is one of my favorite games of all time, but that’s not to say I think it’s perfect.

SPOILER ALERT: The next paragraph has minor spoilers for the story of Darkest Dungeon
First off, a basic rundown of the game’s story. You play as the descendant of a man who ran a hamlet and the surrounding areas. The more you play, the more you learn that the man, simply referred to as the Ancestor, turns out to have been a pretty awful human being. He killed a noblewoman and used her cursed blood to drive the rest of the nobles insane, allowing him to take over the hamlet amidst the power vacuum. He turned his gaze in search for more power and wealth, researching alchemy, necromancy, and occult secrets. This led to murdering smugglers who kept increasing their fees, sacrificing a maiden to sea creatures, and using townsfolk as test subjects. He finally unearthed an eldritch horror near the end of his life, which showed him just how terrible he had been to reach that point. He took his own life after penning a letter to your character asking you to come back to the estate, rebuild it, and put an end to the evils lurking in the dungeons.

In time, you will know the tragic extent of my failings…

Darkest Dungeon is a gothic horror roguelite game produced by Red Hook Studios. In it, you aim to destroy the evil in the titular Darkest Dungeon beneath your ancestral home. You rule over a nearby rundown hamlet, bequeathed to you upon your ancestor’s death. You send out waves of adventurers to complete quests in the areas surrounding the hamlet, using the gathered materials to rebuild the hamlet and equip adventurers with better gear and abilities. 

Don’t say the game didn’t warn you

Even before you reach the title screen, the game tells you to expect to have heroes die and for you to lose progress. The game very clearly states that it is unforgiving. Just like Dark Souls, which is synonymous with difficulty to a lot of gamers, Darkest Dungeon is hard enough that careless mistakes will cost you dearly. You don’t just have to deal with heroes getting hit so much that they die; heroes can catch diseases, gain positive and negative quirks that might leave them unable to fulfill their tasks, and become more and more stressed until they have mental breakdowns and even heart attacks. Monsters know to target weaker heroes to kill them off. Stressed out characters might lash out at each other, causing bad situations to spiral out of control. Hit points recover when a dungeon is over, but stress lingers until you give the hero time off of adventuring and allot them enough money to partake in soothing activities like drinking, meditating, or visiting a brothel. And even then, they might decide to not come back right away, leaving you unable to utilize that hero in the next round of adventures because they’re having too good a time or went missing or something.

But all of this is part of what makes Darkest Dungeon so appealing. You don’t just control a group of unflappable protagonists that stand in the face of danger no matter the risks. You get a crew of realistic human beings complete with strengths and weaknesses. If they witness an unspeakable horror unleash a devastating attack on one of their teammates, they get stressed out. They might have a fear of the unholy, which makes them take additional stress when fighting undead creatures. They might be addicted to alcohol or gambling and as a result only use those activities to destress in the hamlet. As much as this game is full of fictional elements like fishmen, necromancers, and vampires, the deep and sometimes personal humanity of the characters is fascinating because of how rarely games incorporate these elements.

Furthermore, the character classes are all pretty unique from each other even if they fulfill similar roles. Even if one hero class has more versatility or better damage output, there’s no way to claim a single hero is the absolute best, even within their individual roles. For example, the main options for tanky heroes are Crusader, Man-At-Arms, Leper, and Hellion. They all have good HP and abilities that work well in the front lines, but how they do that is unique to them. The Crusader can heal party members, stun enemies, and specializes in damage unholy creatures. The Man-At-Arms can cover an ally so he takes hits for them, and he can riposte incoming attacks. The Leper hits like a truck and can heal and buff himself, but his accuracy is very poor and he has no useful abilities in the back rows as well as no abilities to help move him back into the front should he get stranded back there. The Hellion bleeds her enemies and has high impact abilities that debuff her after each use. All can tank well, but each does so very differently. In addition to this, each character has enough variation among their seven skills that they can use different subsets of four for different builds (except for one character that always uses all of them). The Highwayman can focus entirely on ranged combat, staying the back lines and doing high damage or area attacks, or he can be a melee fighter, bleeding foes and parrying their attacks. Or he can combine the two and play up his versatility. All of these options are viable and all of them are easily accessible in game.

Ruin has come to our family

The Ancestor, Darkest Dungeon, by Red Hook Studios, 2016

So those are all a bunch of great things about this game, but we’re talking about a game with an average completion time of 50+ hours. There’s a lot to unpack here, and not everything involved is perfect that whole time. 

One thing I disliked about Darkest Dungeon 1 is how much of the game boiled down to numeric bonuses and penalties. Sure you can have a super flavorful character like an anemic Crusader who fears the unholy and gets a rush of adrenaline when they’re badly injured, but in the game all that really does is penalize resistance to bleeding effects by 10%, take more stress from undead creatures, and a +5% chance to land critical hits when below half health. Having a mystic trinket of a holy book infused with healing magics or alchemical herbs that keep you healthy sounds great, but all it means is you increase the amount your healing abilities do and how likely you are to resist diseases and poisons. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that these things all have mechanical ties to the game that make sense. However, when everything unique to a character is just number adjustments, they don’t end up actually feeling too unique.

Another thing I found lacking in the first game was the variety of mission types. The bulk of the gameplay is sending a group of adventurers out on quests, but other than boss fights and the DLC areas, 99% of the time you do one of four quests: explore a certain percentage of the dungeon’s rooms, defeat all the enemies in the rooms of the dungeon, gather some resource from the dungeon, or deliver / distribute some resource throughout the dungeon. The region in which the quest takes place flavors it a bit by making the resources specific to it, and sometimes quests will trigger events in town that relate to what your heroes did like getting free medical treatment after collecting medicinal macguffins, but it’s still all just those four options. The DLC encounters aren’t actually all that spectacular, amounting to exploring a BIG dungeon to find and defeat the boss or taking on endless waves of monsters. If you take your time going through the game, you’ll wind up seeing the same thing over and over again.

Paths and roads bring soldiers and supplies, let them arrive unharried!

Now that I’ve gone over the good and the bad of Darkest Dungeon 1, let’s look at what they’ve changed so far in Darkest Dungeon 2. First and foremost, the game is much more in line with traditional roguelites now in that each run is only a few hours long rather than several dozen. The first game, for better or worse, approached the roguelite formula in a somewhat narrow way; rather than playthroughs each being distinct while building toward a meta-progression that helps every run, Darkest Dungeon 1 had the distinct runs present in quests and its meta-progression in the hamlet, all in one playthrough. This isn’t necessarily good or bad, but it is different from how other roguelites work. Darkest Dungeon 2 changes all of this by having each instance of the game be unique, and every run gives “hope” as a meta-progression levelling system as well as chances to unlock new abilities for each character that remain unlocked for future playthroughs.

This is nice in that you can have a complete session of the game in only a few hours and have it help your overall time playing it. However, the lack of the hamlet makes the segmentation of each run feel especially disjointed. There’s no sense of building off previous runs in meaningful ways. You could get a character a new ability and level up enough to get access to a cool new trinket, but it’s nowhere near as personal as the previous game’s method of having a crew gathering relics to upgrade districts in the hamlet to increase your options and empower your heroes. Those characters earned that upgrade, and when you send them out the next time, they’re stronger because of their efforts. You had to train – or some may say grind – to get a character stronger, and if they died, you felt that. The time and energy you put into a hero made losing them all the harder. The sequel, as of writing this, really lacks that quality continuation of characters’ struggles. 

Dismas’s Chapter 1 Victory screen

Another big change is in the heroes themselves. Before, the heroes were basically classes like many rpgs’ job systems. You could have a full roster of dozens of Crusaders, each with minor differences based on quirks and trinkets. Now, there is only one instance of each character type at a time. Each run can have its own iteration of that hero, but they’re not just “a Highwayman” anymore; that Highwayman is Dismas. He has a backstory you discover the more you play with him. You can’t make a party of four Highwaymen because there’s only Dismas now. This makes them feel way more personal! You don’t have an ever-refilling pool of heroes to choose from and send out to dungeons anymore. If a character dies in DD2, you can’t just replace them with an identical twin and move on. They’re gone until the run is over. 

Again, this has its ups and downs. On the one hand, it makes the character feel much more real when you don’t have palette swapped versions of them waiting for you back home. The backstories make them feel unique. It didn’t really make a lot of sense for the Highwayman to have a specific backstory when you could theoretically have 30 of the same guy, but now it’s much more personal. On the other hand, part of DD1’s dour atmosphere was built on that neverending flow of nameless, faceless adventurers that you sent out to their doom. Having a bunch of the same holy knight that are virtually indistinguishable from one another actually helps the verisimilitude of playing someone trying to run campaigns of dungeon raids to fight off the ultimate evil. As mentioned before, having them be blank slates that you build up over time let you grow attached to them because they were your hero. 

They don’t get along with each other very well right now.

The last thing I’ll bring up in this post is the addition of relationships between heroes. On top of hit points and stress points, each pairing of heroes have relationship points now which lie on a spectrum from positive, caring relationships like love, respect, and hope all the way down to negative antagonistic relationships like hate or resentment. Every action can prompt a change in relationships, and while a lot of them are kind of arbitrary and rely mostly on the individuals’ stress levels to be good or bad, some are very meaningful. If your healer attacks the enemies when a party member is at death’s door, that party member gets pissed, demanding to know why they didn’t get a heal. Likewise, if a character saves another from certain death, they become closer from the experience. Red Hook has stated they want the interactions to be less frequent and more meaningful, which would be great. As is, there’s a bit too much rng involved for it to feel like anything but pure game mechanics.

If only treasure could staunch the flow of otherworldly corruption…

I’m a huge fan of Red Hook’s games. They really push themselves to make things as close to perfect as they can. Did you know that last year they released the final DLC – The Butcher’s Circus – completely for free? And since they already announced Darkest Dungeon 2, they hired additional help to get the DLC out faster without delaying the sequel? They care so much about their products. Darkest Dungeon 1 and – so far – Darkest Dungeon 2 are great examples of how early access can work so well when the company behind it works as hard as they do. 

The first game is available on a bunch of places (Steam, Switch, etc.), and the sequel is currently only on the Epic Games Store. I highly recommend checking them out if you’re at all interested!

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