Darkest Dungeon: there is beauty and compelling play within.

This place changes a person. There’s no doubting it. You may enter your family’s estate as relatively sane, but before a single quest is finished, your band of explorers will be bickering, at best. More likely, darkness, hunger and injury will have pushed them to paranoia, fear, selfishness or one of any number of dangerous, yet hilarious, stress conditions. An abusive companion might admonish another for not dodging well enough, while a masochistic one will refuse healing.

Still, Darkest Dungeon is an absolute delight. As well as complaining, backstabbing, whoring and vomiting, there are complex, intertwining systems to control whatever you’d care to engage with. This includes managing loot/gear, character stats, turn based combat, town upgrades and, of course, stress. Find heirlooms to upgrade the abbey, thus making flagellation more effective for those of your characters banned from gambling. Or, you know, because they like it.

Death is inevitable, but everyone is either replaceable or saveable, for a price. Described as “a game about making the best of a bad situation,” the introduction asks, “What will you sacrifice to save the life of your favourite hero?” A more apt question would be, “Why should I try to see my favourite hero safely to the end of this dungeon if she is so bent on her own, and everyone’s, destruction?” But, no, it’s not their fault. The estate is making them this way. We must remain kind.

So, with a larger pool of heroes than you need, it is safe to leave some to drink or pray in town. As they gain levels, their unique value becomes clearer, partially through player direction but also as a result of the quirks acquired while adventuring. I had, for a while, a Jester who could deal amazing damage, but stole half of all the money we found. Then there was the Seeker Leper who just constantly begged for death. He was a good healer but he made me uncomfortable. I visit him in the cemetery.

The storytelling is exceptional, with a dry narrator providing backstory, gameplay hints and commenting on such things as your stepping on a trap; “Ambushed by foul intervention.” He’s a bit like the game master who takes pleasure in your misfortune, but you like him anyway. “Overconfidence is a slow, but steady, killer.” Thanks, mate, I do realise I just mismanaged everyone to death. The haunted house setting may be modest, but it is beautifully detailed.

Darkest Dungeon is still in Early Access and the UI is sometimes inadequately explained. Also, there isn’t a lot of impetus to camping yet and combat feels ponderous, more due to the (otherwise excellent) animations than the turn-based nature of encounters. With good positioning, ability management and manipulation of the environment, like light influencing surprise and damage, combat is challenging. Learning, through failure, leads to greater success.

If you want to buy this now, there is a lot of content available. Even provisioning each mission is thorough. Buy a shovel, or potentially take damage against a rock barrier? I mean, it’s only a hitpoint or two, not like a reason to freak out and become Abusive or anything. Of course, when someone starts yelling abusively, someone else might run to the back of the combat queue, where their melee abilities are of no use. It is a complex, intertwining horror for everyone in your employ, then ale.

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