There’s no Game Pass game quite as gruesome as Darkest Dungeon

It’s amazing how Darkest Dungeon, eight years later and now freshly added to Game Pass, still feels unlike anything else. Blown up on my TV, this could easily be something new. This horror movie voiceover still shakes my bones, this art drawn on paper still oozes style. But it’s not what really sets the game apart.

What sets Darkest Dungeon apart is an invisible line, drawn somewhere in the ground, that determines how far developers will go – how far they are willing to go – to challenge their audience. If you exceed this limit, a game becomes unfair. If you cross it you risk turning away an audience. Few do. But Darkest Dungeon doesn’t care; This is what Darkest Dungeon enjoys.

The entire premise of the game is cruelty. Cruelty to the heroes you send down, and cruelty to you, the player directing them. While in other games you are invisibly nurtured until you feel comfortable with the game and stick with it, here you are drawn down forever and mercilessly. In many ways, Darkest Dungeon doesn’t want you to win. Why else would it play so much against you?

This game is timeless, I tell you, timeless. Also, when I play, I’m always impressed by the voice of the narrator, who I now know – I just looked it up – is a man named Wayne June. An extraordinary name for an extraordinary achievement (and he reprises his role in Darkest Dungeon 2).

Think about it: in Darkest Dungeon, you send a team of four characters—I hate to call them heroes, because most are anything but—into dungeons under and around the hamlet you’re rebuilding. And on these missions, a number of things can happen to them. They can just take too much damage and die – as in permanently dying. They can take damage in combat, they can take damage from traps, and they can take damage when they have nothing to eat, which is more common than it sounds. Her health seems to be getting worse and worse.

But there’s another threat to their health: stress, and that’s a key thing in the game – and it’s one of the few RPGs I know that plays around with it. I actually wish more would do it because it’s a really interesting idea; delve into dungeons and be a hero would be stressful right? Especially when there is a powerful evil around that exudes an overwhelming sense of fear.

And stress is built up again and again in different ways: taking damage, simply running along, through certain spells, not completing a mission, making the dungeon too dark, being insulted – by your own team. And if you let it build too high and fill a meter, a character will get a permanent negative affliction. For example, they could become abusive and start insulting other team members while fighting, which is increasing her stress in the process. Or they could become cowardly and have a similar effect when crouching in combat. Worse, if you let the stress build up high enough and fill a second meter, your characters will a heart attack!

A knight in armor surrounded by red light in a stance of pain. You are overly stressed and contracted an ailment in Darkest Dungeon. This character has become selfish, selfish.
This is what happens when stress builds up. Now this character will think it’s all about her. Nightmare.

Campfires are really just one of those moments when you catch your breath, and each character has a variety of things to do during it. Notice the small squares below a character’s health bar. This is the tension meter.

It’s hard to see here, but on my character list on the right, two heroes are already stressed and incapacitated. And there are others who say they need a break.

See what I mean – what other games are doing The? This fascination with flaws and negative traits is something that makes tabletop RPGs so interesting and makes every character in every story interesting, really, and it’s the same here. It’s a wonderful idea – not that it feels wonderful when the game builds stress on you and your characters’ gauges fill up, because in this game if one falls, it’s inevitable like dominoes, and everyone will start falling too. It can feel incredibly unfair.

On the other hand, if you succeed and get it back to the Hamlet alive, or mostly alive, it can feel incredibly rewarding. The challenge magnifies the achievement and that is the appeal of the game.

As the game progresses, the hand squeezes around you. As more and more of your characters become disabled, the taverns, churches and hospitals you unlocked to deal with them – to relieve them of stress, suffering and infirmity – will be overrun. You’ll instead be forced to risk volatile characters on missions, and you know that won’t end well – but what choice do you have? Juggle your roster well.

Darkest Dungeon isn’t always a pleasant experience, but it wouldn’t be what it is – which it still is – if it were. It’s a game of singular malice and guttural malevolence. And putting it on Game Pass ahead of the fairly imminent arrival (Q2 2023) of Darkest Dungeon 2 – a game with some significant differences – is a smart move indeed. There’s no Game Pass game quite as gruesome as Darkest Dungeon

Fry Electronics Team

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