Saturday Morning Gaming: Darkest Dungeon
One of the mechanics that I don’t think many games handle well is the one where choices have trade-offs.
To use D&D terms, it’s like choosing between a +1 sword and a +2 sword. Figuring out which one to use is a no-brainer. Sometimes you have stuff like the +2 bow versus the +2 shield and, okay, the bow goes to the Ranger and the shield goes either to the Cleric or the Fighter (whichever one can’t roll dice worth a darn). Not quite a no-brainer insofar as you have to figure out who will best utilize the tool, but after you figure out who is going to benefit most from a +2 glaive-guisarme (it can replace the knight’s +1 fauchard!), it shifts back into no-brainer territory.
When it comes to single-player games, the last translates pretty easily to “well, what build are you?” For example, if you’re playing a sniper, you want the sniper rifle upgrade and probably don’t really care about the shotgun mods. If you’re a bruiser, you love the brass knucks and don’t care about the stuff that helps you sneak around. Unless you’re a sneaky bruiser, I guess. You find a perfect item for a different build and you say “oooh, I’ll have to play through a second time!” and the 2nd playthrough has an emphasis on whatever build will see taking that item as a no-brainer.
The first Mass Effect did this magical thing where you had to weigh benefits between mods on your various items. Do I want the bullets that do fire damage? Or the ice bullets that do less damage but slow the enemy down? There wasn’t really a right answer and you might find yourself in a situation where you’re changing out mods on the fly because the bullets that were perfect on the last planet are imperfect on this one. Or the bullets that work like a charm on grunts aren’t optimized to fight against boss monsters (and vice-versa).
Of course, Mass Effect 2 made things much easier by returning to the +1 vs +2 model.
Well, Darkest Dungeon is a game that has, as one if it’s basic mechanics, “how badly do you want to be screwed up?”
Instead of giving you a choice between +1 and +2, it gives you items that give a bonus on one trait and a detriment on another. Like, this one increases your dodge but it also decreases your speed. This other one makes you more likely to deal poison damage but it makes you more likely to take poison damage. So you’re stuck asking “do I really want this?” for the majority of the items you pick up. Occasionally, you’ll pick up something that is just a pure benefit. Holy cow! This item gives me +33% poison, bleed, and disease resistance! And that becomes a treasured item.
More importantly, the entire game is like that. Ew. Which bad decision should I make? Which unpleasant tradeoff do I want to sit with?
Let me back up for a sec. Darkest Dungeon is a dungeon diving RPG that has an interesting twist. This is a game that has a different idea about “difficulty” than most. This is a game that is designed to be punishingly difficult even at the easy difficulties. Like, there isn’t a setting that will have you say “ok, this is just going to be an easy session”.
You are the last of the line of a bunch of awful, awful people. They ran a manor and city and performed monstrosities (details are unclear) and created a situation that you, the last of the line, are expected to clean up. Your tools for doing this are a bunch of heroes that ride in on the carriage every week. It’s good that they do. You’re going to need them.
As your heroes dive into the dungeon, they’re going to find evidence of what the monstrosities were, the mess that you’re cleaning up, and they’re going to go insane or die along the way. Good thing that carriage is there back in town. Back in town, you’ll do some light city management. You’ll have opportunities to upgrade the blacksmith, the tavern, the abbey, and, yes, the carriage itself.
The dungeons, though, are what you’re here for. You put together a group of four intrepid adventurers to go into the dungeon where they will have to deal with multiple kinds of attacks. There’s stress which they will get by just walking around (though there are monsters that do stress damage). There are the various traps and treasures that will trip them up as they go to their goal, and there are, of course, the monsters that lurk down there.
The fights are interesting in that the monsters and your heroes have relatively few hit points. I’m sure you’ve seen how Final Fantasy goes with the heroes have thousands of hit points and monsters have thousands, or tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of hit points and so your attacks do absurd amounts of damage… and yet the monster still stands despite having taken a 7000 point hit from your gunsword. “Oh,” you’ll say with disappointment. “I was hoping to do 9000 points of damage.”
Not here. Your heroes will tend to be doing small amounts of damage against creatures with, like, 30 hit points. This is a big deal because your heroes are made of paper. Your best fighters might have around 30 hit points at level one, but your healers will have only around 20. So if one of the monsters hits your guy for 4 points of damage, you *FEEL* that. Additionally, even your best fighters will miss with their attacks… even against wimpy non-boss creatures. This will have you looking at each fight agonizing over which attack to use… do you want to use the one that does more damage (but misses more often) or the reliable one that only does a couple of points. When it comes to your healer, do you want to maybe finish off the monster that has 1 HP left? Or do you want to use a healing spell (which you can’t cast out of combat)?
Each choice you make will be an agonizing one because each choice feels like it will have real consequences. I mean, you might put together a party of 4 high-level guys and go into a regular dungeon and walk out with only three of them. Regularly. You might walk in with 4 that did really will with the last dungeon they went into and all four will come out with stress levels off the charts. Or you may find yourself in a dungeon where your heroes stress out immediately and one of them suffers a heart attack, which stresses out the other three members and gives one of them a heart attack, which stresses out the two remaining and one of them suffers a heart attack. Which stresses out the last one and they die of a heart attack too. (This is how I had my first TPK in the game, as a matter of fact.)
Even the ones who survive will likely be scarred. They’ll pick up “quirks” and these will have an effect on gameplay. Maybe they’ll get a trait that causes them to do 5% less melee damage. Maybe they’ll get a trait that has them compulsively open the various treasures you encounter (before you can disarm the traps on them). Maybe they’ll have a quirk that causes them to seek stress relief from only a particular part of the tavern or abbey. Maybe they will quirk that keeps them from getting stress relief from a particular part of the tavern or abbey. Maybe they’ll have both of these quirks at the same time.
As you play, you’ll quickly realize that there are two kinds of hit points, really. The ones that we all know and love and hope we don’t hit zero… but also sanity points. If you get too stressed out, you might have that heart attack. The body heals between missions (indeed, your heroes bodies are healed up entirely the second they walk back to town). But sanity points stay static. You’re going to have to send your heroes to the tavern or abbey to decompress. Maybe you’ll be able to use them in the *NEXT* mission or the one after that.
In the meantime, back to the carriage. Get some new heroes. Send them into the dungeon. Address the harms done by your ancestors.
And if only three heroes come back, hey, not bad. That’s a victory. Go into deeper parts of the dungeon. Learn more about what happened to get us to this place. Lose more heroes. Hire more heroes. Make more hard choices. Realize that you made the wrong tradeoff. Then do it again.
And the WHOLE GAME IS LIKE THIS. You’re going to need food in the dungeon. You’re going to need torches in the dungeon. You only have but so many inventory slots. Do you want to go in fully equipped with bandages and holy water and medicine? Well, you won’t be able to pick up as much treasure. Do you want to go in with only torches and food? Well, you might find yourself bleeding or poisoned. If you run out of torches, your heroes will be wandering around in the dark (which will stress them out). Which tradeoff do you want to make?
And, dang it, I lost my best witch hunter while writing this. I wasn’t even in a boss fight! I was fighting a run-of-the-mill group of monsters! Back to town, back to the caravan.
Then back to the dungeon.
The voice acting is superb, the fights are tough (and you will agonize over every time your heroes attack and miss and feel a thrill whenever they successfully dodge), and the story is really “can’t look away” grimdark and creepy.
If I had a complaint, it’d be that the game is kind of depressing. You’re learning depressing things about your ancestors. The monsters they’re fighting down there are grotesque and gross. You’re losing heroes pretty regularly and even the ones that don’t die come back twisted. Even the good choices you make feel like sad compromises instead of actually making progress.
Huh, maybe that’s why so many games just go with the whole +1 vs +2 thing.
So… what are you playing?