Darkest Dungeon’s frustrating mechanics reward proper planning for an addictive gameplay experience

Dec. 21, 2023

By Esteban Ramirez
Staff Writer

Darkest Dungeon is a roguelike turn-based role-playing game released on Feb. 3, 2015. The game explores the psychological risk of adventuring. The game is notoriously difficult, so it is best to play at the easiest setting on the first try.

The story follows the player as the heir of a large estate from their ancestor. During the game, the player restores the run-down main hub of the estate, the Hamlet, through heirlooms found on their journey.

SCREENSHOT BY ESTEBAN RAMIREZ The player is in the run-down Hamlet.

Where Darkest Dungeon differs from other games is the stress mechanic. Almost every action on a journey influences the player’s characters’ stress bar: walking backward, getting hit by a critical attack, losing a character, being yelled at by enemies and reading unsettling phrases found in the dungeons. The more stressed a character becomes, the more it will affect their performance, lowering their stats and causing them to become afflicted when stress reaches 100. This usually means they start demoralizing their team, causing the party stress and acting on their own, usually to the player’s disadvantage. There is a small chance a character can become virtuous at 100 stress, overcoming all odds and gaining an increase in their stats. Instead, they motivate and heal stress from the party with their words. At 200 stress, the characters suffer a heart attack and lose all their health. If they are at zero health, they fall.

Characters can equip trinkets to influence their stats like accuracy, critical chance, damage, dodge chance, protection and speed. This allows for more options in team building and player expression. There is enough variety in the trinkets to change what a character’s role may be during a fight. In the beginning, they carry fewer buffs but allow players to understand what the characters do on their own to not overwhelm players when rare trinkets become available.

SCREENSHOT BY ESTEBAN RAMIREZ The player’s party battles against spiders.

Characters and enemies can suffer ailments such as blight or bleed that deal damage every turn. Debuffs will lower certain stats, or make stress apply in larger numbers. Players lose a turn when they become stunned.

To offset the game’s harsh nature, characters do not die when they reach zero health. Instead, they will be majorly debuffed at 0 and be put on Death’s door. If they take damage while on zero health, they have a 33% chance of dying. Healing above 0 saves them, but they will get a minor version of the debuff they received at zero.

The Hamlet features multiple structures where they can interact and spend gold, with the most crucial at the start being the Stagecoach. Other buildings can be slowly rebuilt to create new gear for the heroes, upgrade their skills, reduce their stress, cure diseases and purchase new trinkets.

SCREENSHOT BY ESTEBAN RAMIREZ The player’s Vestal becomes virtuous.

The Stagecoach is where the player can find the heroes that fill their party. After every day that passes, it will be refilled with new heroes. This means the heroes are extremely expendable, especially early on, as the player slowly builds up the means to upgrade their equipment and their skills. The heroes fall under 15 varied classes, each with their own specialties.

The Abomination is a man who can shift between his shackled, reclusive self and a terrifying beast. In his human form, he can blight and stun enemies with good range. When he shifts, he deals large amounts of damage to enemies towards the front.

The Antiquarian cannot deal meaningful damage but makes up for it with her increase in the amount of gold the player can carry.

The Arbalest uses ranged attacks and marks enemies to deal massive damage to the back of the enemies’ formation. She can also use support skills to heal or reveal enemies in hiding.

The Bounty Hunter similarly makes use of his marking abilities to dispatch enemies quickly and efficiently with multiple stuns and the ability to move targets from afar into his range.

The Crusader is a classic frontline with high defense, good damage, defensive abilities, stunning ability and support skills to keep his team healthy and less stressed.

Darkest Dungeon is an incredibly challenging and unforgiving game, which is what makes it so addictive. Going into boss fights without an explicit strategy for defeating the boss often results in losing all four party members to the perma-death mechanic.

The Grave Robber hosts a wide range of skills that can fit into many team compositions, with some ranged skills and blights but also being able to shift around hiding and lunging to deal huge damage.

The Hellion is a fearsome front-line barbarian with very strong abilities and their own downsides. If taken full advantage of, the Hellion can attack the close positions as well as the far positions with ease.

The Highwayman is a versatile damage dealer who, with the right skills equipped, can deal high damage from any position, though he is notably lacking in defensive options.

The Houndmaster brings his hound with him, capable of marking enemies for teammates or himself to attack with his hound, dealing high damage and bleeding any remaining health. He can guard allies and heal their stress if he needs to play more of a supportive role.

SCREENSHOT BY ESTEBAN RAMIREZ The player’s Leper defeats an enemy in combat.

The Jester is a supportive damage dealer, inflicting bleed on enemies while maintaining powerful buffs and an important stress-healing skill. Almost all his skills buff his big Finale, which can deal massive damage to finish off a boss.

The Leper is a self-sufficient character who can either get hit with big attacks and suffer little consequence or sacrifice his defense for a huge boost in his potential damage. His high damage abilities lack accuracy, but with the right trinkets, he can deal consistently high damage to the enemy frontline.

The Man-At-Arms is another front-line defender, but he is more focused on buffing the party and shielding them from damage. He plays a crucial role in protecting the lower defense characters in the player’s party or a character who took a sudden amount of damage and needs a moment to recover.

The Occultist is a versatile class who excels in debuffing enemies, pulling crucial targets to the front and setting the party up to hit the most dangerous targets. When used poorly, he can do little to nothing with poor skills and timing. For example, his Wyrd Reconstruction skill can heal anywhere from 0-13 at Level 1. With the low chance of also bleeding his party, it can be game-changing or a detriment.

SCREENSHOT BY ESTEBAN RAMIREZ The player’s party is camping to recover health and stress.

The Plague Doctor specializes in crowd control with multiple stunning abilities and blight damage that can hit multiple backline targets or focus on a single enemy. Also, hosting support abilities to buff the party or cure them of their ailments, the Plague Doctor can fill many roles but can appear weak when enemies have high resistance to blight damage.

The Vestal is the last class from the base game, a classic healer, the Vestal keeps the party’s health high while also being able to stun and reveal hidden enemies if healing is not a priority. 

The characters offer a variety of options in team building, and the differing enemies in the areas of the estate force the player to build a team around enemies with different resistances. For example, the Plague Doctor is much less effective against enemies with high blight resistance, but when there is a strong absence of blight resistance, it allows her to shine. Out of the seven skills every character has, they can only use the four during battle. Building teams that synergize well is extremely satisfying as the game gets easier with proper preparation.

Darkest Dungeon is an incredibly challenging and unforgiving game, which is what makes it so addictive. Going into boss fights without an explicit strategy for defeating the boss often results in losing all four party members to the perma-death mechanic. And while perma-death sounds bad, the player can immediately replace the heroes lost, though characters will lose any trinkets they had equipped, any upgrades in skills or equipment and any levels gained on those heroes. 

Even though the difficulty is incredibly frustrating and demotivating at times, it is very worth it for those moments of progress, and it makes the game more engaging for a lot longer. A small slip in concentration at the wrong time could result in catastrophe for the player’s party, which keeps the player focused.

I give this game a 9/10. It isn’t perfect, but Darkest Dungeon excels in forcing players to plan accordingly and think on their feet.

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