Darkest Dungeon is enjoying itself. You can hear it in the narrator's voice. He has a languid, chocolatey delivery reminiscent of a Christopher Lee Dracula, and he rebukes, cajoles and sarcastically encourages you through the series of brutal horrors that await. As new heroes arrive, usually already mentally-scarred, from the stagecoach and throw themselves into bloody, nihilistic combat against undead fiends, the whole game seems to be relishing their inevitable deaths.
And inevitable it really is. From the disclaimer that comes up at the start of the game, you're well aware that victory comes at a price. Trying to administer to your heroes to keep them at peak fighting fitness is, ultimately, a waste of time. You do what you can, but failure and defeat are going to become close friends by the time you're done.
And really, before you pick up Darkest Dungeon, you have to ask yourself if that's really something you want. Are you that guy who screams 'CHEAT!' if the same person frags you twice in a row in an online shooter? Do you shout in games forums about how systems you don't use or understand need nerfing? In short, do you hate to feel that things aren't fair? Or do you see it as a challenge?
Here's what's going on. In a weird Gothic castle somewhere, your already-bonkers dad has unleashed nameless horrors from the crypts beneath his castle (he probably opened that Trapdoor), and calls you home to deal with the mess while he takes a break to shoot himself in the head. You play the manager of a conveyor-belt team of heroes who arrive in town to take care of the monstrous threats, finally sealing the darkest dungeon and restoring peace for all time.
Most of which is handled by assembling a team of four heroes, and marching them into a series of side-scrolling combat-based dungeon explorations. Other than choosing to move from one room to another on an annoyingly-hard-to-read minimap, your exploration options are limited to walk forward or go backward. Much of the action takes place in the tunnels between the main encounter rooms with traps, curios and combat encounters cropping up to keep you interested. You need to ensure you have plenty of torches to provide light as you progress, or your heroes will accrue stress and be less effective in combat.
Which brings us on to stress. Stress is your second hit points in Darkest Dungeon. If your hit points reach zero, you are "At Death's Door", which makes you nearly useless, and one more hit will kill you. If your stress reaches 200, you immediately die of a heart attack. And everything generates stress.
Really, everything. You'll be wandering happily along a corridor when a couple of your guys just up and accrue stress. Why? Well, it could be for a million reasons. Some hate it when there's too much torchlight. Most people fear the dark. Sometimes, a hero who has suffered a major psychotic episode might become afraid and hopeless, and his constant outbursts of despair stress the rest of the team. Some monsters add stress with their attacks. All attacks, if they're effective enough, stress everyone in the team just for witnessing such egregious wounding. If you pass an action in combat, you get stress.
Just think about that last one for a second. Something as innocuous and everyday as passing a round in combat without taking any action causes your character to go slightly more insane. Remember I said the game is enjoying itself? It really is looking for any excuse to chivvy you toward insanity or death.
Once you're halfway through the stress meter, you will acquire a special mental condition. In a few cases, these can actually be beneficial - courage in the face of adversity, as it were. More often than not, they're bad, though, and as mentioned, the bad ones encourage those around them to gain additional stress. Misery loves company and all that. At the end of an adventure, you'll acquire new foibles as well - a character might develop kleptomania which causes them to pinch the treasure from the rest of the party, or insatiable curiosity that makes them open every single box and investigate every single curio you find in your adventure.
So it's a 'roguelike', I suppose. There's no real save/load system. Everything you do remains in perpetuity. Dead heroes stay dead, the first 100 points of accrued stress remains with your heroes when they get back to town (although health is restored), and mental conditions persist as well. But there's never an end to the supply of adventurers who will readily throw themselves into the meatgrinder for you, so you're never really entirely out of the game. Any upgrades to the town itself – better items from the blacksmith, or enhanced stress relief from the brothel or from self-flagellation – remain in place, and in a way these feel like the progress you’re making through the game.
Combat is turn-based, JRPG-style stuff, with no animation beyond single-frame combat pose changes. Despite that, Darkest Dungeon is a surprisingly intense experience. The narrator just won't shut up about how badly things are going and about how they're likely to continue being horrible - his acidic tone and perfectly-pitched delivery are perhaps the high points of the whole game, in fact. Combat is bloody - bleed and blight conditions that sap health over multiple rounds are common - and enemy corpses litter the field of battle, creating obstacles. Most attacks are accompanied with cartoony splashes of blood or poison. There's a nightmarish quality to the whole experience that you can't quite shake when you leave the computer.
It really is crucial to know what you're getting into. Darkest Dungeon lets you rename characters and change their appearance, spend money on upgrading equipment and skills, and all of this with a kind of implied relish, because it knows that it's all for naught, and that your fully upgraded crusader is going to end up food for the worms just the same as the level 0 lepers. For me, well, if I’m honest it was hard work. But when I pulled it off, and my heroes emerged from a dungeon victorious but gibbering and covered with gore, it felt like I’d really worked for something. This constant beating has something of the drill instructor about it as well – if you get it wrong, you go mad and make all of your other heroes go mad too, so you eventually learn to not do that again. And with time, player skill emerges, which in turn results in your heroes surviving just a minute or so longer next time.
It’s sadistic, mean-spirited and unfair. And it makes no pretense at being anything other than that.