A friend got me this game while it was still in Early Access, about 6 months ago, but as usual, I like to wait until it's fully released to play.
Suffice it to say that I was quickly hooked. In a span of probably 2 weeks, I have clocked 104 hours of play time, according to Steam.
I've got a lot to say about it, so I'll cut my review/thoughts into 3 parts -Grinding:
A lot of people have complained about the "grinding" aspect of the game.
The thing you need to remember about "grinding", is that it only exists in the player's mind. If a player is having fun, then what they are doing isn't grinding
. In other words, the person who decides what is grinding and what is not, is ultimately the player.
Let's be quite clear, if the term "grinding" had any objective merit, MMOs as a genre could not exist, and neither could most ARPGs. However, given that there's a signficant percentage of the human population which enjoy these extremely time-consuming and repetitive games, clearly what is grinding to me is not grinding to someone else, and vice versa.
The term 'grinding' is generally used when the activity the player is engaged in no longer seems enjoyable or meaningful. But you're playing a f*cking video game, it was never meaningful for all practical purposes in the first place.
So having said that, Darkest Dungeon didn't feel like grinding to me. I thoroughly enjoyed the 100 hour trek to get where I am. Some others may disagree, and they would be welcome to that. For me what made it all bearable was the brutally difficult learning curve of the game, and the fact that death was permanent. Compare this to any given MMO, for example, where death has almost no penalty at all, and you just respawn a few minutes away to try again.
In spite of that, I still think the amount of time the game requires is a bit too long (I'll probably have to play another 20-30 hours to actually beat it), because I don't believe that 100+ hours required game play time is a reasonable requirement to put onto the player. Because of this, the vast majority of people who attempt Darkest Dungeon will probably never even make it half way before giving up or moving on to other games.Difficulty:
The second thing people generally complain about is the game's difficulty. Since the game has no difficulty settings, prepare to lose at first, a lot
, until you get some of the basics of the game down. There is quite a bit of room for experimentation, and the game expects you to fail miserably again and again, which is why recruiting heroes is free, and why there is no ultimate way to lose the campaign (though it doesn't tell you that, that's something you kind of figure out on your own).
Having said that, the game's difficulty is very linear, and the pacing is very well done. The "Easy" missions (level 1) are difficult at first, but once you get the hang of them, they aren't so bad. Then the "Medium" difficulty missions are a brutal step up, but you'll soon figure those out too. Finally, "Hard" is predictably even more of a jump than from Easy to Medium, but by that point you should be experienced enough with the game to prepare for that.
One really nice aspect is that once you've mastered a new difficulty, all the previous difficulties become cake in comparison, allowing you to run your lower characters through them, even at night, with high rates of success.
Night runs and the torch mechanics in general are absolutely BRILLIANT, and really allow the player to artificially increase or decrease their difficulty at will, for greater risks and rewards. This is one of the reasons the game doesn't feel that grindy, because even an "Easy" night run can still be challenging for an experienced players.
The game is split into 4 areas, The Ruins (Easiest/Noob Friendly), The Weald (Harder), The Cove and the Warrens (Very Hard). Each area has its own monsters, with their own strengths and weaknesses, and thus requires its own strategies on the part of the player. Something that works well in the Cove could get you DESTROYED in the Weald, and vice versa. As a player you have to become intimately familiar with all the tactics you have available to defeat a particular area. To make matters even more complex, each difficulty changes the required strategies heavily. On easy, a good team composition (Say Plague Doctor, Occultist, Highwayman, Crusader) could probably defeat any area, but once you get to medium that will no longer work. Strategies which used to absolutely CRUSH medium become largely ineffectual on hard. So not only do you have to familiarize yourself with each area for building a party, you essentially have to re-learn them for each difficulty.
Personally, I loved this. My over-analytic and strategic mind went into overdrive discovering new and innovative ways to tackle the unexpected and brutal challenges I faced. I watched in horror as old team compositions fell victim to the slaughter on higher difficulty runs, and was forced to rethink my strategy after losing several 'key members' of my team.
This is one area which the game does very, very right
. We'll call it the "Ways to skin a cat effect". For any given situation or problem, there are so many ways to solve it as the player that the possibilities seem nearly limitless, perhaps even overwhelming. So few games give the player the strategic license to be so creative and innovative, in fact forcing them to do so, while giving them so many options to succeed in this regard, and letting them figure out on their own what works best.
In other words, were someone else in this forum to play 100 hours of this game, and achieve the same successes I have, I expect we would have very different strategies and team compositions to get to where we are, and I just find that to be fantastic.
So is the game difficult? Yes. Will it kick your ass repeatedly? Without a doubt. But once you figure out the key components to each area/difficulty, and have that "AHA moment", it goes from being brutal to extremely sensical and fairly easy like that.
I will say that you need to have the Curio guide
open at all times until you've memorized them, or you've set yourself up for some undue stress (both literally and figuratively).
Which brings me to the final mechanic.Stress:
One of the biggest complaints and fears I hear about this game is the stress mechanic. Personally, I think it's an amazing mechanic, and the brilliant equal to something like AI Progress in AI War in terms of how it must be maintained and managed.
I highly recommend this article, on Rock-Paper-Scissors
, about how the game's stress mechanic produced such a visceral effect that it caused the writer himself to essentially have a mental breakdown, and to quit playing the game. Now that's what I call damn good design.
Having said all that, and after having read the article, you would think that the stress mechanic is extremely brutal and unfair, but actually I've found it to be one of the simplest parts of the game.
There's essentially two ways to handle stress on a mission:
1. Party camping abilities, of which there are many, many skills that both reduce the stress of the entire party and prevent them from stressing further in the future (the best ones are on the Houndmaster, Crusader, and Jester). These are easily the best answer, and make handling stress a non-issue (at least for me).
2. High crit chance. Whenever a friendly character crits an enemy, it reduces their stress and often the stress of the entire party. This is often what makes night runs so great. Sure, you take a lot more damage from enemies, but given that you crit chances have risen to such a degree, stress itself often becomes a non-factor, allowing you to focus only on health and party survivability. There are also several classes which raise the crit chance for the entire party, either in battle, or with Party Camping abilities, and many items which facilitate this as well.
In other words, stress, though problematic, should not be the most difficult part of the game. It certainly should not, as it did for this reviewer, drive you to the point of insanity yourself. It can be managed in a myriad of different ways, and ultimately adds to the game's complexity and strategy quite significantly in the end.
Final thoughts, this is one of the most enjoyable roguelikes I've ever played. Though the game does have some problems (specifically length), and is not for everybody, great moments of insight, clarity, and accomplishment will be rewarded to those willing to brave the unspeakable horrors of... The Darkest Dungeon.