Darkest Dungeon (Very Late) Early Access Review

Darkest Dungeon is a rogue-like dungeon crawler that I really wish I hadn't picked up way back when it was still in early access (and this review is based on my experiences then), because though it looks nice it fails to deliver on everything mentioned on its About page.

Before I, er, delve into the bad, I'll start with the good (since it won't take nearly as long): the art and overall concept.

I like the art because it's similar to the style I use (which is in turn based on Mike Mignola), and though the game is pretty minimalist when it comes to animations it didn't really detract from the game.

The concept is also an interesting idea (and one that I'll be using in a future adventure): there's a shitty village surrounded by lots of bad things, and the characters have to clean it all up.

Now the bad.

What makes this game suck is a three-part answer, so let's start with the challenge.

Instead of actually trying to challenge you by forcing you play and learn, it relies entirely on randomizing everything. While this will often result in you barely making it out of the dungeon alive, if at all, it has nothing to do with your skills, knowledge, or experience, and everything to do with how bat-shit random the game is.

You start out by completing a short, straightforward tutorial, and assuming both heroes survive (one or both can in fact die, I guess) you'll have four characters to take into the next dungeon. There's only one to choose from at this point, and the game recommends purchasing 8 food and 4 torches. That sounds like good advice, but the game doesn't tell you how anything works.

Take food for example. You'll be walking along, and the game will randomly ask you if you want to eat or starve. In fact it's so random that you can go through an entire dungeon without a single food event occurring, or have a bunch hit you in rapid succession.

It's not just food that you have to play this guessing game with, but all of your supplies: the number of rooms and arrangement of the dungeon is randomized each time you go in (no matter how many times you go in), and there's no way to even get a guesstimate.

For example I've never used a key, but have "expended", I guess, one or two shovels about an equal number of times (and a couple of times I've needed none or even three). If you don't have enough shovels to dig through an obstruction, then you end up burning through torches I guess digging through it by hand (which can mess up your torch guesstimate).

Speaking of torches, I've also consistently burned through 10+ of them with each crawl, even if I'm just doing the bare minimum of exploring 90% of the rooms.

But you don't want to stock up too much because, not that the game tells you this, any supplies you don't use are discarded when you return to town, even if it makes no goddamn sense: why the hell do you just chuck your remaining shovels and keys?

Combat is equally bad: you'll get a string of misses, enemies will get a string of crits (ramping up your Stress, which leads to another set of problems that I'll get to in a bit), your marching order will get fucked (forcing some characters to spend their turns shuffling about, possibly just to get knocked about again), status effects just won't stick, and so on.

I've fought a group of spiders and had them basically do nothing, but then had another fight with another group of spiders; they focused entirely on my cleric in the rear, until they killed her in a couple of turns.

Another thing that ruins the game are the characters that the game tries to label as heroes.

They aren't. None of them act like heroes, and they don't even have personalities or ambitions. They arrive at random off a wagon, you run them through a random dungeon, and hope that everything just happens to fall into place so you can throw them in the tavern to reduce Stress, grab a fresh batch off the wagon, and run them through another dungeon while the first set recovers.

If anyone dies or gets too annoying due to Stress, you boot them the fuck out of town and replace them.

Rinse and fucking repeat.

You don't get attached to your characters, because at any time you could lose one entirely by events outside of your control (and, frankly, probability). You don't get to build any characters, and while you can rename them what's the point? They'll probably die, go crazy, or someone with a better skill loadout will show up.

Not that the skills particularly matter. Each character has a class, and each class has its own own set of skills that can somewhat differ. For example, I've had a leper with a melee area attack, and another with a single target attack and something else that I never used. I think you can eventually exchange and/or upgrade skills, but I didn't play long enough to bother.

Speaking of not bothering, you won't bother with most skills. When I first played the game I had my crusader routinely use a stun attack and the highwayman use an accuracy/crit boosting skill, but the fights went on forever, and in the end I barely limped away. I started over and tried again, this time just using their single-target attacks, and breezed through the tutorial.

The only classes that had me shake things up were the hellion and vestral: with the hellion I'd spam the hellion's stun shout, using the melee attack when the enemies were whittled down (or there was just one left), and with the vestral I'd just rotate between the single target and full-party heal (using the ranged magic attack if everyone was topped off and she even had it).

Finally, the Stress mechanic is somehow both frustrating and pointless.

You gain Stress just by touring the dungeon (more if your torch is too low), you gain Stress when monsters crit you, and for some reason you gain Stress if you leave the dungeon without finishing it. If your Stress fills up, then the character has a chance to get an Affliction. I've seen them be useful once; most often they are crawl-fuckingly bad.

Afflicted characters will cause you to waste your turn trying to heal them (they just won't let it happen), skip their own turn, shouting at the other characters, causing them to gain Stress faster (leading to a snowball effect of more characters gaining Afflictions), changing their position (likely resulting in you having to spend turns fixing the order), attacking themselves, and more.

The biggest kicker is that if things start going south, you can just leave. You get to keep any loot you picked up, and while your party gains more Stress who the fuck cares? Ditch them all if you want, grab some new meat off the wagon, and try again (probably with similar results).

Ultimately this is a game that you can't feel bad for losing at, because unless you deliberately make a bunch of stupid decisions—not bring supplies, put party members in the "wrong" spot, let your torch constantly peter out—it's never your fault. All you do is build your party, put them in the right spots, guess what supplies you'll need, pick a dungeon, and cross your fingers.

This also means that you won't feel accomplished for successfully completing a dungeon, because your only contribution was a lot of guesswork and some button-pressing. You didn't know how many items you'd need, you didn't know what the dungeon would look like or what you would face, and you didn't build your characters: you just got lucky.

If you're curious about FrankenFourth and/or Dungeons & Delvers, you can find public alpha documents here and here respectively.

A Sundered World is out (and also available in dead-tree format)! If you for some reason don't want the entire setting, you can just snag the races and classes.

The Cleric is out! Next up, The Paladin and probably The Mimic, after which we'll run another class vote.

By fan demand, we've mashed all of our 10+ Treasure volumes into one big magic item book, making it cheaper and more convenient to buy in print (which you can now do).


  1. I will say that my experience with the game (post-launch) would seem to have been better. I'd wager most of the problem areas you describe have been tweaked to an acceptable level. However, I also realize tastes differ, so what I might find an acceptable level of RNG, you may still find an insufferable flaw; to each their own.

    RNG is still definitely a factor, and I definitely have felt the pain of bad luck/chance on expeditions, but not to the level you described. It also felt like I could minimize the damage with some foresight and planning, and that each area had certain considerations the others didn't. And while you did lose the purchased tools when you finish a quest, you automatically sold them back, alleviating the pain of not using them (I almost always had extra food).

    The biggest difference from your account, however, was the skill synergy/usage. I found myself using most of my characters' skills frequently. Usually there was only one I wouldn't use on any given character (and with unlocks I could replace it with one I would use). The Crusader has been one of my favorites, due to his tankiness and versatility.

    1. @Svafa: I'd initially intended to publish this review I think a year ago, but forget about it until today when I hit drafts on Blogger and saw it.

      I considering playing the game again to see if maybe things got better, but on Steam the negative reviews were saying basically the same stuff I remember from before, so figured it hadn't changed much or at all.

      If you think things got better/aren't as bad as I said (I distinctly recall just trashing unused supplies: selling back is perfectly fine by me), I'll give it another shot. Fingers crossed I'll enjoy it this time!

    2. No promises from me! Tastes again. :P

      Based on your review, I definitely think it's better, but the RNG is still a contender for certain. If you didn't enjoy it before, I can't say with confidence that it's worth spending money on if you don't already own it. But, assuming your early access copy was upgraded, then I see no reason not to try it out now. If nothing else, it's certainly atmospheric (and I think the RNG does help set that tone to some degree).

    3. @Svafa: Oh shit, just fired it up and saw in one of the menus that you can disable/change a bunch of stuff (like enemy crits). So, I guess I can try it on a slightly easier mode and mebbe GET IT DONE. :-P

    4. @Svafa: In case you see this, I wanted to thank you for letting me know that things had changed. I've only had to flee from ONE expedition out of like six thus far (which was also the one where I had a character death).

      Feels dangerous, and that I usually just barely scrape by, but FAR less swingy and frustrating than before. Also, fuck yes crusader is awesome.


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