Darkest Dungeon: The Roguelike in Darkness

Last week, I had posted an entry that discussed Kickstarter and its potential for opening doors to prjects and ideas that might not normally be supported otherwise. Now, I don’t intend to just rehash my sentiment from before, but I feel that it is at least worth discussing other projects that had gained life from Kickstarter. In this case, it’s to discuss a particular game within the genre of the roguelike. For those unfamiliar, a roguelike is a genre of video game that is most associated with turn-based combat and procedurally-generated levels. This means that it’s a game where you do not have the same paths or levels every time you play. The term comes from the game Rogue, released back in 1980 and featuring such a play-style. However, I will not be discussing that game. Instead, I shall be discussing a game that takes that play-style, but infuses it with the horror and madness of H.P. Lovecraft. In this case, it is a game known as Darkest Dungeon.

The game stars you as the heir of a rich relative, one who has called for your aid. Having grown bored with all forms of the standard vices, he sought something more intoxicating. He sought a way to gain power from eldritch forces, summoning them from a portal in the depths of his illustrious manor. However, he had lost control of the abominations he had brought forth, his sanity shattered by what he had found. Now seeking to atone for his deeds, he has called for you to clear out what lurks in the shadows and depths of the ancestral home. To do that, you assemble a team of various warriors to journey into the mansion. The team can be formed from all sorts of characters, from highwaymen to plague doctors to even jesters. Once this team is formed and you have taken care of any needs in the town, you journey on into the mansion. Each level has you walking through the halls of the mansion, investigating all sorts of curios for any hidden items and battling monsters and bandits lurking within the darkness. Placement for your team members is key, because different characters have different ranges for who they can target. Those core elements sound familiar, but where Darkest Dungeon waves its flag with pride is with its feature of resolve.

In this game, all characters possess resolve. This is a bar that represents the sanity of your character, which can be depleted if you encounter things that freak your team members out or they watch their teammates take damage or even die. Depending on the events that unfold in a stage, your teammates can gain new attributes that affect them in a variety of ways. Some are positive, such as the Lurker attribute which gives you a buff to damage whenever you’re in a darkened space. However, there are also plenty of negative attributes. They can range from the general, like the Clumsy attribute which gives a -5 buff to your dodge stat, to the specific, like the Plutomania attribute which forces the character to investigate any money-related curios. These attributes aren’t the only thing affected by resolve. If your character loses all of their resolve in a level, then they go insane. This can manifest itself in a variety of ways, from hurting teammates to refusing health items to even hurting themselves. The only way to treat those who are insane are to send them off to be treated, forcing them out of play for a while. The result offers an engrossing element to the gameplay, with characters changing and being affected by their actions as you journey into the darkness. It gives the feeling of your actions having an effect on the characters, their experiences shaping who they become. In fact, it helps in capturing the feel of H.P. Lovecraft, who is clearly a major influence on the game.

For those unfamiliar with H.P. Lovecraft, he was a writer from the early 20th century. Though he is probably known to most as the creator of the alien monster Cthulhu, Lovecraft’s greatest strength as a horror writer came through certain themes that reoccurred throughout his work. Among those themes was the fear of the unknown. Many of Lovecraft’s stories explore those seeking to gain knowledge or power, reaching and grasping into the darkness for some unknown key. It is what lurks in the darkness, however, that irrevocably changes them. Those who reach into that darkness find themselves facing unknown terrors, most frequently alien beings beyond our conventional description. Such encounters frequently bring death and madness to those poor souls. Lovecraft’s work has left an indelible mark on the horror genre, and Darkest Dungeon serves as a strong example of that influence. It captures the feeling of his stories, of the growing dread and the threat of eldritch abominations. It does so not only through the visual style, which looks like a mixture of the Gothic and the unearthly, but also through the resolve system. The resolve system gives the feel of change as your teammates face these creatures, their sanity challenged as they fight. No matter if they come out alive or wind up dead or insane, they are forever changed by these experiences.

Sometimes, the ideas or influences of another can help to bring the spark to the great idea. Darkest Dungeon is an example of how well such a mixture can turn out. By bringing together the procedurally-generated approach of a roguelike with the madness and horror of H.P. Lovecraft, it has offered a game that captures the feeling of madness when faced with grave monsters from horrible misdeeds. Perhaps a trip to these dungeons may be what you need if you’re looking for something off the beaten path.

If Darkest Dungeon sounds like a game that might fill your need for a modern dash of Lovecraft, it is currently available on Steam Early Access. Though it achieved its funding on Kickstarter, it’s in Early Access so the developers (Red Hook Studios) can currently make tweaks and changes to the game while receiving input from players on it.

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