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Review code for Darkest Dungeon turned up yesterday. As I am not some sort of gaming savant, however, there was absolutely no way I was going to be able to play through the entire thing in time for today’s launch.

You see, if my experience with Darkest Dungeon‘s Early Access builds was any indication, it is not an easy game. I’ve apparently shoved about 60 hours into it (across about three different campaigns, each with varying levels of success) and there are still bosses that remain unfought. Darkest Dungeon is hard, and juggling gold reserves, the psychological and physical health of your party, and the need to delve ever deeper into the game’s regions combine to make for a truly brutal experience.

A quick word of warning, too. If you don’t want to know anything about Darkest Dungeon‘s Darkest Dungeon – the name of the endgame area – then don’t read on. I’m going to try not to spoil too much (and, indeed, I’m only going to be discussing the first of the endgame quests) but there will obviously be screenshots and talk about monsters and so on. I’m fairly certain you can venture into the area right at the beginning of the game, if you really want to, but… well, I figured I should warn you anyway.

So, once again: if you want to play Darkest Dungeon‘s final area knowing absolutely nothing about it, do not read on.

Darkest Dungeon - 1

This is you, if you continue on without wanting to know about the Darkest Dungeon.

Have they gone? Are you prepared to learn terrible secrets that should not be learned, go mad from what you discover, and pledge yourself to nameless, impossible, indescribable Things that sleep deep below the earth? No. You’re not. But let’s press on anyway.

While I didn’t have the chance to actually play for hours upon hours and grind a party up to the point where they could challenge the Darkest Dungeon, Red Hook Studios were kind enough to provide me with a save file full of end-game characters and high-level equipment, ready to take the fight to the final area.

It turns out that “ready to take the fight to the final area” is a really, really bad description of those characters (or at least of me) because I got twelve of them killed.

Darkest Dungeon - 2

This was a recurring theme.

The Darkest Dungeon is unique, in terms of the game’s areas. Rather than offering procedurally generated missions that will eventually push you to fight bosses, it’s a series of incredibly challenging quests that must be completed in order. Not only that, but the quests are not to be undertaken lightly: fleeing from the dungeon will result in at least one character dying as they hold back the hordes to let the other characters escape, and anyone who does complete one of these quests will never again venture into a dungeon due to sheer trauma. In short, you’ll need multiple high-level parties even if you succeed at every quest on your first attempt.

But me? Eh, I’ll be fine. I’ve got developer-sanctioned characters.

I haphazardly threw together a party – a Leper, a Vestal, a Houndmaster, and an Occultist – and wandered blithely into the first quest, to find and defeat a boss called the Shuffling Horror. I didn’t bother buying up every single provision I could find, because hey, I have super-powered characters. I’ll be fine. I’ll just take some food and torches and stuff, and it’ll all work out. We’ve got some heals, some debuffs, a bit of damage, a tanky frontliner… what could go wrong?

Darkest Dungeon - 3

These brave souls, with their… actually quite high stress before even embarking on the quest. Oh dear.

Quite a lot, actually. I haven’t played Darkest Dungeon since September or so, so there’s an entire class I’ve never used, and I’ve completely forgotten most of the effective combinations of characters and abilities. If you’re looking at that party composition and going “Wait, what?” then I completely understand.

Still, my initial goal wasn’t to beat the quest. It’s rare to actually take on a Darkest Dungeon boss and win, first try. They all have their strengths and weaknesses, and it’s usually necessary to figure out what those are before you come up with an actual plan and a carefully composed party capable of taking it on, so my plan was just to reach the boss and figure it out from there.

The quest actually started off fairly gently. The first few encounters introduced me to a couple of new enemies (new to me, at least), and the very first encounter pitted me against a pair of foes that had absolutely no offensive capabilities. They could only guard each other and heal. This was a worryingly kind gesture from Darkest Dungeon, because normally it does its best to claw my face off as quickly as possible. Was this an accident? A balance error?

No. My first party went insane, and were eviscerated by cultists and eldritch abominations about five or six rooms in. Those first two encounters were “Look at these enemies and figure out how they work before we try as hard as possible to rip off your limbs.”

Darkest Dungeon - 4

RIP, brave party.

Still, I learned a few useful things. The enemies in that first quest are big fans of causing Stress (psychological damage) and Bleed, and have the debuffs to match. My second party wasn’t going to have this problem.

This time, I actually looked at the characters available and tried to plan ahead. My second party was going to at least try for some synergy. We’d have a Man-At-Arms in the front lines, a Bounty Hunter and a Houndmaster to mark targets and inflict hefty damage on Beasts and Humans alike, and a Vestal in the very back for as much healing as possible. I hadn’t seen much in the way of enemies with Protection, so physical damage seemed like a good plan – although I could always inflict Bleed, if needed.

I also completely bought out the provisions shop. I went in with all the food, torches, bandages, herbs, and holy waters I could carry. I was going to reach the boss, this time.

I didn’t reach the boss this time.

Darkest Dungeon - 5

I did get licked by horrific tentacle beasts, though. I know that’ll fit a niche for some of you out there.

The layout was actually the same as my first attempt, which leads me to think that these dungeons are actually carefully laid out rather than being procedurally generated. I don’t recall that being true of previous boss dungeons, but I might be wrong. It’s been awhile since I’ve played, after all. Nonetheless, I was better equipped this time, and nobody went mad for, ooh, at least four rooms.

Yeah, my party wasn’t particularly good at handling stress. My Bounty Hunter killed himself fairly quickly – he became Masochistic and eventually managed to cause a Deathblow on himself – and then there were three.

But you know what? I’m proud of those three. They made it further than my first party. This is a Medium length quest, meaning I had one opportunity to camp, and I didn’t actually make use of it. I had a sneaking suspicion I was getting awfully close to the boss, and I wanted to leave it as late as possible… which, unfortunately, got them all killed.

Darkest Dungeon - 6

All things considered, this lot are doing an awful lot better.

Okay. Third party, and by now I’m remembering how to play. I’m running a bit low on suitable candidates, but this time I spend a lot longer fiddling with the party. In the end, I wind up with a Hellion, a Crusader, a Plague Doctor, and an Arbalest. We’ve got stuns. We’ve got Blight and Bleed. We’ve got some multi-target damage. We’ve got healing that is actually pretty effective, if I’m willing to have both the Arbalest and the Plague Doctor heal. And – crucially – we’ve got lots of ways of removing Bleed, because most of the enemies here seem to inflict it, and taking 12 points of damage at the start of every turn is getting me very, very murdered.

We’ve also got some ways of removing Stress, which seems like a good idea. The longer I can keep these guys and girls sane, the better.

My suspicion was that my second party died in the room right before the boss, so once again, I leave camping as late as possible. We wind up with high stress and not much health as we approach that room, so we camp just before it, recover almost all of our health and most of our stress, and find ourselves in good condition for the room that killed the second party. The Plague Doctor is the only one who’s been affected by stress and it made him Hopeful, so we’re actually in good mental shape too.

We go into the dreaded room. We succeed in killing off the horrible beasties within, without suffering too badly. We’re buffed from camping. We’re a little low on health, but we’re ready to enter what I think is the boss room.

Darkest Dungeon - 7

GOAL ACHIEVED! And now to die again.

As it turns out, it is the boss room! … But I’m not going to tell you about the fight. Sorry, but even in this first quest, I want to leave some surprises. I lost (obviously), but I got it down to about a third of its health and that was after making a very silly mistake. I suspect that, if I try it again, I could actually kill the damn thing and finally leave a mark on the Darkest Dungeon.

So, yes, Darkest Dungeon‘s endgame appears to be true to the rest of the game: difficult, demanding, and tense. Hopefully, the rest of the quests within will introduce yet more horrifying traps and monsters.

That aside, the release version offers a bunch of extra tweaks and bonuses. Achievements, New Game Plus, subtitles, AI improvements, multiple lanauges, and more; the full version really does appear to greatly flesh things out and add those much needed little extra tweaks that “finish” a game. Although I really wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot more tweaks, as well as extra content, in the future.

No, this isn’t a review, but having now spent nearly 70 hours roaming the tombs and wilds of Darkest Dungeon, I don’t really have any hesitation in recommending it to anyone who wants a grim and challenging turn-based RPG. Last year, it was the “Best Game That Isn’t Actually Out Yet” – and when you read this, it’ll either be out, or minutes away from launch. Take that as you will.

Tim McDonald
Tim has been playing PC games for longer than he's willing to admit. He's written for a number of publications, but has been with PC Invasion - in all its various incarnations - for over a decade. When not writing about games, Tim can occasionally be found speedrunning terrible ones, making people angry in Dota 2, or playing something obscure and random. He's also weirdly proud of his status as (probably) the Isle of Man's only professional games journalist.

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