[dropcap size=big]D[/dropcap]arkest Dungeon lives up to its name: it’s dark, and not simply in traditional dungeon crawler ways. Red Hook Studios’ turn-based role playing game delves into psychology, a realm many games sidestep. This mental probing explores the effects on in-game characters, and through clever and innovative mechanics, the player shares the experience of their party members.
In an interview with Acrademia, Darkest Dungeon producer and designer Tyler Sigman discussed the influence of psychology on gameplay. He mentioned characters we see in film, including Hudson (Bill Paxton) from the classic sci-fi flick Aliens. Sigman expressed a fascination in exploring how heroes are mentally challenged. It’s an intriguing premise, and visionary mechanics highlight psychosomatic results of combat.
Most rpgs follow a relatively simple formula: level up character traits and gear to cope with more powerful adversaries. However Darkest Dungeon debases this notion by including emotional responses from party members. As such, players are forced to consider their physical and mental damage alike. During battle, heroes may suffer from paranoia and fear, which have various results. These include characters devolving into irrationality, an inability to fight, etc.
Further complicating the situation, and lending a more realistic element to gameplay, is that different heroes cope with scenarios in varying ways. While one character might become unstable, the same adversity might inspire another to rally and overcome that ailment. It’s neat seeing these actually occur, and keeps players alert. In all rpgs, retreat must be considered, but this is especially necessary during Darkest Dungeon. There’s an initial warning in-game death of a character is permanent. As Hudson would say, game over man, game over!
While new heroes can be recruited, it’s unclear how they’ll react in combat, so it’s much easier to maintain a core group rather than hire new party members. There’s no manual save feature, so if you lose a hero, tough luck. It subtlety projects the fear and anxiety of the heroes onto the actual players. As I fought menacing foes, I found myself worrying about losing a team member, even opening a chest or iron maiden. Normally rpgs are full of loot drops, and I did find a fair share of gold, but many times heroes were harmed rather than helped. The first iron maiden I cracked open afflicted one character with claustrophobia.
The unpredictability of Darkest Dungeon creates emotional turmoil for characters, and upon returning to town they have several de-stressing options. Some heroes prefer the pub, always a commendable choice, while others opt for the cathedral. It’s another setting in which the player must adapt to their heroes, and accordingly to Darkest Dungeon. Passing on a turn during a battle sequence, for instance, induces stress which must be relieved through various methods. It’s a neat feature, and example of what makes Darkest Dungeon challenging, but insanely fun. If in-game death can be remedied by reloading a previous save point or resurrecting a character in town, the stakes are much lower than permanent death. As such, players are much more involved and invested in gameplay, even feeling similar emotions to their heroes. Thankfully, we don’t perish with our characters, though we may feel as though we’ve died a little when we fail to keep everyone alive.
Want to learn more about Darkest Dungeon? Be sure to check out our Early Access review.