Darkest Dungeon is kicking my ass. A lot of games are billed as being brutally hard or difficult, but few make that experience as enjoyable as this game. I’ve said before I’m not a huge rogue-like fan, and while DD is certainly that at heart, it’s also so so much more.
The key to my enjoyment so far has been the mix of long-term planning, short-term tactics, and the role luck plays in both. It also helps that the setting/mood are amazing; the graphics are fantastic and fit, and the sound is some of the best in any recent game in terms of pulling you in. Just hearing “A small victory, yet a victory non-the-less” as you sit on the edge of madness with one battle to go is the stuff that drives you insane in real life, as you watch your party die from fear in-game.
Speaking of fear, its a key mechanic, a sort of ‘second HP bar’ that doesn’t automatically heal after each dungeon run, and something that forces you to use many different characters as others are sent to the tavern or church to recover. What’s brutal about fear is its both a slow bleed (each hit you take generally increases it, as does simply being in the dungeon over time) and a potential chain collapse mechanic (going into a panic lowers your stats, raises the fear gain of others around you, which in turn might tip them into a panic). And unlike HP, where there is always a chance of survival even at zero, once the fear bar is full, you die, which in its own way fits the ‘creeping death’ theme perfectly.
The large range of character classes, each with its own selection of eight skills (you can have four active), plus the fact that each skill can only be used from certain positions, against certain other positions, makes creating a part of four always interesting. This is where the long-term planning is important; you never know who is going to make it out of a dungeon run, or who will be ready for the next one, so just putting together one group of four isn’t nearly enough. Often you are left throwing together a ragtag group, just praying they survive and get you to the next ‘turn’ in the game.
There is a TON of randomness in DD. Crit hits are huge; both when you score them (in addition to the bonus damage, they also reduce your fear) and when you get hit by one (more damage and fear). Who you can recruit each turn is random, sometimes frustratingly so, as are the starting skills and bonus/negative traits. Item drops and dungeon run rewards; random. Whether a character goes into a panic or lowers their fear and gets a bonus; random. What kind of dungeon runs you can select; random.
Yet I never feel truly out of control in the game, which is why its so brilliant. A wide range of class combinations can work, you just have to tinker with their skills and set something good up. Healing and curing characters can get expensive, but you also have a lot of non-random ways to manage your gold, both in how much you bring in (full clear a dungeon or leave as soon as you can?) and how much you spend (how much food you bring, how aggressively you cure/heal your characters). Combat randomness happens, but how you react to it is incredibly important, especially during boss fights, which themselves are both terrifying and incredibly rewarding.
A bit of caution; expect to fail and ‘not get it’ for a bit. The learning curve for the game is deceptively steep, and initially it can feel like the game is overly random. It’s not, but you first have to get a feel for everything and get your feet planted before you make any serious progress. It’s worth it though, as the game will continue to reward your mastery with new layers of challenge and surprise. Very highly recommended.
Edit: The game is early access, but I’ve yet to run into a single bug, and the amount of content and completeness right now beats a lot of fully released games, so don’t let that tag scare you off.