What's In A Style? - The Darkest Dungeon
If you heard the title, "The Darkest Dungeon" and thought, "This game doesn't sound very uplifting," then congratulations, you have a functioning brain. Even then, the finer details of the game may escape you, such as how goofy it can be at times, or how somehow that goofiness doesn't ruin the dreadful, stress-inducing atmosphere the game is going for. And it pulls off that atmosphere exceptionally. How? Well let's venture into the Darkest Dungeon and find out!
In Darkest Dungeon, you are somewhere in the 19th century. You play as the heir to a once wealthy family who has certainly seen better days. One of the members, known simply as "The Ancestor," spent his life being so spoiled by luxuries that in his old age, he found that those luxuries had lost their luster for him so he set out for something greater. He had heard rumors that underneath the foundations of his opulent and imperial mansion was a source of great power. He blew the family fortune on workers and equipment to excavate the grounds under the manor until they found a portal. And yes, that portal was a source of great power; if you consider giant, hellish monstrosities that find humans appetizing a worthwhile power to find.
The Ancestor escaped from the hellhole he had dug, but the damage was done. The manor fell into ruin, and the land and nearby town was ravaged by disease and revolting abominations. The Ancestor wrote a letter to you begging you to come home and do these things: cleanse the land and venture into the cursed manor to destroy the source of these horror-shows. Once he sends the letter, he commits suicide because what he saw down there, in the Darkest Dungeon, was just that horrifying. And know you have to clean up his mess, which eventually means having to venture into the Darkest Dungeon. And you accept this task because you really hate yourself! At least that's MY guess on why you would willingly go through with this crap. The Ancestor says you should claim your birthright and redeem your family name, but I think MY response would be, "Screw the family name and to hell with that birthright! I ain't going down there!"
So.... I can imagine a lot of you are looking at the screenshots I've already posted and you have looked up images from the game itself. And the first words that are popping in your head are probably things like "dank," "depressing," "muddy." And well, yeah, Darkest Dungeon is all of that.
But hear me out, please. It's actually a lot more vibrant and expressive than you might expect.
For one thing; look at that detail, man! I can only imagine the amount of hours the artist slaved over to make these detailed backgrounds, characters, and monsters. And yet the characters stick out from the background due to wisely making the background faded, the characters having thick black outlines, and having vibrant colors on them. Yeah, unlike most "grim-dark" media which seem to be afraid of any color that isn't a shade of dirt colors, Darkest Dungeon is willing to have some nice color variety, and it uses it's bright colors to highlight the parts of the characters it wants to draw your attention towards. The Leper's mask is the most distinguished thing about the character, so his mask is bright. Bright colors are used to emphasize the impact of certain attacks.
And despite the characters eyes being shadowed out all the time, it's very expressive. You'd think being unable to see the eyes would be a detriment to being able to relate to the characters, but it's actually not! By changing the shapes of the shadows on their faces, you still get a wide range of emotion out of these guys. And their movements and reactions also give them a lot of personality despite them only giving out lines of dialogue a handful of times per play session. From how the speedy and mobile Jester's wild, erratic movements contrast so well with the slow and durable Leper's more stiff, steadfast movements.
And of course, the monsters in this game are sick as hell. I can't say most of them are unique, super original takes on monsters. In fact, most of them are pretty generic (skeletons, fish-people, pig monsters, witches, etc.) But they are so viscerally and disgustingly drawn that they are all kinds of DO NOT WANT.
Darkest Dungeon is a turn-based game divided into 2 parts: 1) exploring the dungeons and fighting turn-based battles, and 2) managing your town and recruits.
When you enter a dungeon with a party of 4 warriors, you buy supplies for your trip, equip your heroes with the right items, then venture to the dungeon entrance. Then you select the adjacent room you want to go on the dungeon map, then send your characters down a linear hallway to get to that room, select the next room you want to go, then repeat the process until you finished the dungeon's objective. Occasionally you get into battles with monsters while in a hallway or when you enter a room. Seems straightforward, and I'd say the battles are pretty simple most of the time. Maybe it's just I'm an turn-based strategy game veteran, but what's the right choice during battle isn't often a very difficult puzzle for me. No what's hard is EVERYTHING else is everything else that happens in the dungeon.
You're limited in how much supplies you can bring with you on each quest, by your inventory space and by your money. Using your items wisely is important, because not having the right item on hand at the moment can ruin your group. Don't have a shovel when you run into a pile of rubble in a hallway? Your heroes have to clear it away with their bare hands and take damage to keep going.
If you get poisoned but don't have an antidote, you have to wait for the poison to run it's course, during which it will sap health from the poisoned hero. Oh, and did I forget to mention that when a hero dies, they stay dead and you can't use them for the rest of the playthrough. All the time you spent upgrading their armor and abilities WASTED. So you want to hold onto as many life-saving items as you can, but wait; you need inventory space to carry the money and treasures you find in the dungeons in order to cover the costs of supplying and upgrading your heroes. And you don't want to spend too much on more supplies than you need because you need to make sure you break even when you complete your quest, so that you can pay for the supplies of the next quest and upgrade and relieve stress your heroes when you get back to town.
OH, DID I FORGET TO MENTION THE STRESS METER? That's right, your heroes basically have another health bar in the form of the stress meter. They get stress points from spending a long time in each dungeon, getting hit by a powerful enemy attack, getting hit by an enemy attack designed to inflict stress, or by getting hit by traps in the hallway (yeah that's another thing to worry about while exploring). When their stress meter hits a certain threshold, their "resolve will be tested" and they can get hit by an affliction, which they get so stressed out that they start causing problems for you and your team.
If their stress gets REALLY high, they'll have a heart attack and their health meter will drop to zero, which won't kill them right away, but put them at death's door, where one more attack has a random chance of killing them. It's easy to let a good team go to hell because one of them gets too stressed out and starts causing problems for everyone.
And that's where we move to the town, the place you're spending between dungeon diving.
The town is menu-based area where you select different areas to buy equipment, upgrade your heroes, recruit new heroes, and relieve their stress. Yeah, while your heroes get their health back when a quest is done, their stress meter is as it was when the quest ended. You have to spend money to have them sent to the tavern or the church to bring their stress down. You use money to buy equipment and upgrade your heroes. And you recruit new heroes... for free. Keep a pin on that detail for now....
But thing is, these buildings can be upgraded as well. Not only do you find money in the dungeons, but also items called heirlooms, which you have to spend to make these facilities more effective. You gotta upgrade the tavern and church to make relieving your heroes's stress cheaper and more effective. You gotta upgrade the blacksmith and combat trainers to allow them to make your heroes reach higher tiers. You gotta upgrade the stagecoach so that you can have more space for heroes and to have wider hero selection. You need to make choices. Which buildings have more priority to make better.
Making matters worse are the quirks your heroes have. All of your heroes get positive and negative traits as they level up. Positive traits are obviously helpful, like Quick Reflexes, which increases a heroes speed stat, but negative ones can lower their speed, or in town, make them not use certain stress-relieving facilities.
This can force you to place your hero in facility you haven't upgraded that much compared to others, meaning they are more expensive and less effective, meaning you have to either upgrade those spots or waste money and time you otherwise wouldn't have if not for that quirk. It's aggravating, and it makes you get annoyed at your employees. It stresses you out, and it makes it more tempting to stop caring about your characters and people, and it might tempt you to view them as expandable. I mean, it's not like recruiting heroes to replace the dead or the ones you fired costs a dime... yeah, this game does everything in it's power to tempt you into throwing away your humanity. It's chilling if your the kind that really gets invested in stories and characters. Even if you remain steadfast and refuse to do depraved, pragmatic things like firing heroes with high stress levels or straight up using them as cannon fodder, the temptation to do so WILL come up as they become more and more aggravating to work with.
That's the brilliance of the game-play. It makes you feel like a manager for the worst job ever and having to most dysfunctional group of employees ever. It stresses you out, dares you embrace ice-cold pragmatism or at the very least, compromise your morality. And if you do care about your employees, sending them on dangerous missions becomes a test of agonizing over whether you have the means to get them through alive, and losing a hero you spent a lot of time on and had high hopes for is a cruel punch to the gut.
And enhancing all of this is the......
I LOVE THIS SOUNDTRACK!!!! Seriously, I could gush all day about how this soundtrack is a fantastic listen and perfectly fits the atmosphere of the gaming. Here it is: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLu-c4HJwSuIlyQ2YDgav7opgfFgFIeWnb
My favorites are Darkest Dungeon (Theme) for capturing the feeling of mystery and upcoming dread, Combat in the Vaults for being an amazing battle theme, and A Brief Respite for being the musical embodiment of "we're in the eye of the storm." I'm listening to this kick-ass music while typing this out, it's that good!
The sound effects during battle and while dungeon crawling are also great. The echoing footsteps and sound effects while exploring greatly raises the tension. And when you and your enemies are trading blows, the impact sound makes you feel the power of each attack.
But the real crowing achievement in the sound department is the Narrator. Remember how I said your ancestor kills himself in the prologue of the game? Well, his ghost remains unseen, and he makes comments as you preform certain actions, like entering a dungeon, upgrading buildings, winning battles, getting struck by enemies, etc. The ancestor is voiced by Wayne June, who is well known for narrating many of Lovecraft's stories online. His voice is AWESOME and it elevates this game's awesomeness to a whole other level. His narrations run the gambit from ominous, encouraging, or even humorous. Here's my favorite lines:
I learned about the word "Exsanguination" from this game.
Yeah, his narration gets goofy at times, falling straight into purple prose. And that's not the only goofy thing in this game. One of the attacks from one your heroes, the Crusader, is "Zealous Accusation," which has him yelling out, well, a zealous accusation, and that somehow deals physical damage to enemies. And the game is so grim-dark and miserable that it's ends being over-the-top in a lot of ways (I don't think that was unintentional). But with the prior mentioned gameplay stress and the constant fear of losing your heroes due to bad circumstances, it all somehow works! The sillier moments almost come across as black comedy, like the game itself is desperately trying to cope with it's own darkness using humor. It somehow isn't all jarring, and it ALL WORKS.
This is the kind of video game I love to talk about and type I want to magnify to more people, particularly non-gamers. Every medium has something that makes it unique from each other that gives them a unique way of telling their story. Books have prose and reader's imaginations. Comic books have panel structure and turning pages. Movies have camera movements and angles. Animation has abstraction and a bigger leeway for suspension of disbelief. And video games have interactivity.
And yet not many video games take advantage of that create an experience that only they can create. Most video games are content with having their game-play and story as separate entities. I hear very often about video games with "great game-play but terrible stories" and vice-versa. When video game reviewers write up their reviews, they give scores to the game-play and story separately. And I think their are still plenty of people who, at their most charitable days, will say video games are like movies that occasionally interrupt themselves with play sessions. The fact that their was a time where game reviewers were advocating for a "skip game-play" feature for all games shows that even inside gamer circles, their are still plenty of people who seem to think the gameplay can't be part of the story.
That's why I love Darkest Dungeon. You can't give this game a "skip gameplay" button, so that people who don't like the play aspect of video games can "just enjoy the story." Darkest Dungeon's game-play IS it's story. Sure, there's lore you uncover throughout the game and very VERY rarely and cut-scene, but Darkest Dungeon is about stress. The stress of managing dysfunctional people. The stress of compromising your morality. The stress of holding lives in your hand and knowing that a single mistake can be the end of a person. An option to skip the game-play would destroy all of that. Darkest Dungeon is a game where the developers used it's game-play as their main brush to paint their masterpiece. It is a work of art that wouldn't be a work of art if it wasn't a video game.
Video games can be art. And I think I've proven that by showing all of you that Darkest Dungeon isn't just a piece of art, but a masterpiece of art.