Often, video games overlook a very simple – and very real – part of the heroic experience. If you’re some decorated soldier that’s ventured out into the wilds on many conquests and expeditions, you’re not always going to come home happy, smiling, with a clean conscience and untroubled mind. There’s an accumulation of guilt, of shame, of trauma. This is something Darkest Dungeon knows, and more than just acknowledging it, the developers at Red Hook Studios make it the central conceit of the game.
At its core, Darkest Dungeon is a role-playing game in which you take control of a roster of heroes who are tasked with cleansing evil from the graveyards and castles and swamps of their homeland. You operate out of a central Hamlet – a hub that you can upgrade and flesh out as your band of grizzled heroes liberate more land. So far, so standard right? Not so much.
Perhaps the most unique part of Darkest Dungeon comes from the Affliction system; a novel way of representing stress, trauma, psychological harm. If you send your band of doomed heroes into the depths of some unknown dungeon without food or light, or if they witness the death or injury of a fellow party member in battle, or suffer the blights of unholy enemies, they will take mental damage – and (just like in real life) the results of stress and anxiety can be costly.
If your characters become, and stay, stressed, it’ll start having extreme and unpredictable adverse affects on them. They may become too scared to fight, and spend their turn babbling nonsense into the darkness instead of hefting their blades and cutting down enemies. In extreme cases, your characters can suffer cardiac events and die where they stand – slain not by some foetid reanimated corpse, but instead by their own heart giving out under the weight of the horrors they’ve been exposed to.
Having to juggle the mental wellbeing of your heroes – as well as their gear, experience, health, and moveset, as you would in other RPGs – feels perfectly natural in Darkest Dungeon, and it’s a task that fits the grimdark flavour of the world beautifully. Forcing your crew to take a break at a bonfire and cook their goods to lower their stress levels, or guiding them to unwind in the local tavern before heading back into that haunted castle… it shines a light on the trope of questing hero that we don’t see too often in the power fantasy-pleasing setups of most video games. Imagine if we had to do the same thing in Dark Souls; we’d never leave the safety of the bonfire!
Throw in permadeath – if your archer has a heart attack because she saw your cleric get butchered by a raving crew of religious fanatics, she stays dead – and you’ve got a really engaging and unique take on the roguelike genre. Given that the Affliction system was inspired by psychologically traumatized heroes (think of Hudson from Aliens, or the soldiers from Band of Brothers who are transformed by the horrors of combat), you can see what Darkest Dungeon’s creators, director Chris Bourassa and lead designer Tyler Sigman, wanted to achieve with this game: it’s the playable version of the seventh episode of Band of Brothers – where a soldier watches his friends die from a shell explosion, stares transfixed at the event, and then becomes unable to fight any more. That’s exactly what the devs wanted to channel, and that’s exactly what they achieve.
The two creative leads wanted to wield the power of classic fantasy RPGs like The Bard’s Tale, Eye of the Beholder, and Ultima Underworld, but with a distinctly more human flavour… and I think they succeeded. This is a game that really adds the semi-random element of human emotion into the classic RPG mix, and the result is something unique – a fascinating concept, and a must play on Xbox Game Pass if you’ve got even a passing interest in the genre.
If you’re after a hard, punishing and fascinating new game to play, you could do far worse than this 2016 hit. Just try not to get too stressed.