That One Moment in Darkest Dungeon

There’s a moment in every game of Darkest Dungeon that all players share, a moment so universal that anyone who has played it for more than an hour will recognise.

Maybe you’ve had a few good runs. Maybe you’ve had some success. Your ranks have swelled, you’ve levelled up a few choice heroes – you’ve got a solid tank, good healer and some reliable DPS. Maybe you’ve upgraded a few buildings and bought some new gear.

So you get overconfident. You tell yourself your heroes can handle it. You tell yourself you’ve got this game’s number – that you know how it works. No matter how tough it thinks it is, you’ve seen under the hood, and you’ve got it figured out. So you embark on another delve, and you take some heroes who should really have been left to recuperate. Heroes whose stress levels were a bit too high for comfort (more on stress later).

At first, everything goes well. You’re stomping your way through the enemies. Your tank takes hit after hit without flinching, your healer keeps the team up and running, while the DPS does their thing. Maybe you even get clever and try some advanced tactics. You use combat skills to juggle the enemy positions about; instead of just whaling on the enemy tank, you take out their DPS and support first.

The dungeon takes its toll though. Precious health is chipped away faster than you can recover it. Stress builds up, crawling closer to critical levels. Every few steps onward has a price, and the cost is mounting. It doesn’t matter though, because you can handle it. You know how this game works now, remember?

And then it happens, the moment. The moment all Darkest Dungeon players share. The moment where you go one room too far, and the game punishes you for it. It reminds you who is in charge and shows you just how it really works.

Maybe you lose your entire party. Maybe you escape with one or two left, bloodied and broken, but carrying precious loot. You’ll call it unfair, broken, and cheap. You’ll accuse it of cheating. You’ll exit to desktop, sick with the knowledge that the autosave system means those dead heroes are gone for good. Maybe you promise you’ll never play again.

You’re lying to yourself. Give it a day, maybe two, and you’ll be back. You’ll feel the itch at the back of your head, the feeling in the pit of your stomach, and before you know it, you will be starting the game up again. You’ll be convinced that this time, this time, you’ve got it down, you know how it works.

I’ll give you one guess how that works out.

Darkest Dungeon is a roguelike, created by Red Hook studios. Originally launched on Kickstarter, it was a phenomenal success which netted over £$300,000, despite only asking for $75,000 originally, and it’s easy to see why. Perhaps best described as a rogue-lite, Darkest Dungeons retains the brutal difficulty and harsh punishments of the roguelike genre, while adding some interesting additions and developments. One might even call it, (whisper) an improvement.

Most roguelikes cleave closely to a formula. You have a hero, or group of heroes, that you take you through dungeon crawls (typically procedurally generated) of increasing difficulty. Along the way, you level up, find new gear and learn new abilities. Permadeath is the norm.

Quite wisely, Darkest Dungeon sticks with those rules, while making some additions. I mentioned stress earlier on, and it’s a genuine concern in the game. Your characters’ stress level increases constantly while you’re in a dungeon – much quicker than your health will deteriorate.

Everything you do in a dungeon increases your stress levels; it increases over time, so simply being there is dangerous. Take damage, and you’ll also receive an extra load of stress. There are skills and actions you can take to reduce your stress, but it’s never enough to lower to ‘safe’ levels.

Stress isn’t just a number for you to watch though. In-game, as in real life, stress has negative effects on your person. A character’s stress levels run from 0 to 100. Once it’s maxed out, the character’s resolve is tested, and they gain either a positive or a negative status effect with a negative effect far more likely to occur than a positive. Those negative effects have a direct and immediate impact on your game. They will change how a character behaves by making them more or less likely to attack, harder to control, or increasing the stress of other characters’ through their actions.

While the positive effects are purely temporary, and will fade at the end of the current delve, the negative effects are permanent, and can only be cured back at town. This is the other main addition Red Hook has made to the genre.

The town is your central hub in Darkest Dungeon. It’s where you recruit heroes, upgrade gear, and tend to your wounds, both physical and psychological. You can send characters to the Abbey or the Tavern to relieve their stress through a variety of ways, or you can send them to the Sanitarium to heal any negative effects they’ve gained. Of course, each of those options costs money, money that you might better use to equip your characters for another delve. Those characters may well die, given that they’ll be riddled with crippling levels of stress, but there are always more heroes coming on the Stagecoach. The Stagecoach is another upgradable part of town, one which provides a constant stream of fresh, frequently hopeful new heroes to replace your fallen ones. And you’ll definitely need those replacements, because in Darkest Dungeon, victory is measured in degrees, not absolutes.

The scenario I described earlier, where only half of your party makes it back to town, broken in mind and body? As far as Darkest Dungeon is concerned, that’s a victory. The loot they bring back in their bloodied fingers will allow you to maybe upgrade the Abbey (so you can heal two heroes instead of one), or maybe you can now upgrade the Stagecoach which allows you to hold more heroes in reserve.

For all that it is brutal, unforgiving and savage, Darkest Dungeon has, inexplicably, received criticism from some fans of the genre for being too easy. Apparently, the learning curve isn’t quite sharp enough for some. Trust me when I say, however, that it should be plenty difficult for most of us.

The game is still in Early Access on Steam just now, which means it’s still in development. The team at Red Hook has been fairly pro-active in rolling out changes, with more than a few of their patches featuring tweaks to existing characters.

I urge you to check the game out – I’m far from being the biggest fan of roguelikes, but Darkest Dungeon has truly captivated me, and is well worth checking out.


All images via Red Hook Studios.


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