[dropcap size=big]D[/dropcap]arkest Dungeon is a phenomenal dungeon crawler from Red Hook Studios. The unique gem of a game just launched its Steam Early Access phase, and it’s one of the best releases of 2015. Red Hook Studios’ masterpiece features gorgeous environments, challenging but rewarding gameplay, and psychological elements which join forces to craft a distinctive, unparalleled experience.
Full Kickstarter funding was successfully completed on March 14, 2014, raising a total of $313,337 from almost 10,000 backers. The rewards varied from the standard base copy of the game at $15, early access for $20, and ranged all the way to the $5,000 tier. Some of the coolest rewards included exclusive playable characters, a personalized hero, and a journal of your journey through the game.
There’s a hauntingly memorable opening cinematic which kicks off Darkest Dungeon, proving that the darkness isn’t confined to hordes of malevolent foes. An eloquent voiceover explains that a once powerful and wealthy manor has disintegrated into ruin because of an unnamed evil entity. A neat Hound of the Baskervilles element oozes from the intro, though Darkest Dungeon features an actual supernatural threat unlike the Holmes story.
Following the film is an ominous warning that characters, once dead, are permanently deceased. After this sequence, the player is thrust into action with a quick romp through a few rooms. This serves as a brief tutorial, walking you through the basics. Movement can be controlled with the keyboard or mouse, and I mainly found myself using the mouse. It’s actually possible to play almost the entire game without the keyboard. The mechanics of the turn-based dungeon crawler felt familiar, but the garnishes and inner-tickings set Darkest Dungeon apart.
Gameplay is unlike any other title I’ve encountered. Don’t let the fairly simple tutorial deceive you: Darkest Dungeon is rather difficult, but it’s a fun rather than frustrating challenge. My first foray into a dungeon, I decided to skimp on provisions, such as food, shovels, torches, and healing herbs. Unfortunately, I paid the price, encountering a trap which inflicted claustrophobia on one of my four party members. The following fight further explained the foreboding warning that dead heroes are truly gone.
In traditional video games, damage manifests by detracting health points. With Darkest Dungeon, you have to consider mental health as well. Heroes suffer from claustrophobia, stress, hunger, and various elements which constantly require awareness. Torches actually fade, and as the light dims, so does the screen, so you’ll often find yourself frantically right-clicking in your inventory. However, gameplay eschews repetitiveness, as your party members cope with these factors in varying capacities. One character may rally to overcome hunger, while another might succumb to their ailments and injuries. It’s neat seeing these play out, and exploring the mental strain of video game characters, an oft-overlooked component.
Graphically, Darkest Dungeon shines with 2D animation that could easily be mistaken for illustrations in a book. Gothic dungeons, a ramshackle city, and inventive creatures paint a bleak environment. While there is an autosave feature, I found myself wishing there were a manual save option as well. At one point I actually restarted from scratch after losing all my heroes (hey, I never said I was skilled). Being able to load a previous save would have been highly beneficial. However, this structure projects similar psychological factors onto the player: fear of dying in-game, paranoia when opening chests, anxiety about supplies, etc. It’s this investment that allows Darkest Dungeon to transcend the screen, and what makes it a brilliant RPG. You don’t play Darkest Dungeon, it’s an experience. Hauntingly beautiful, intricately chiseled, and meticulously concocted, it’s a fantastic early access release, which bodes extremely well for the finished product.