Darkest Dungeon: Tips for Surviving the Best Turn-Based RPG You’ve Never Heard Of
I don’t know about you (it would be creepy if I did) but I loooove a good turn-based RPG, especially since they are a dying breed among mainstream game offerings. I consider turn-based mechanics to be the mark of a “true” RPG. During my formative years, I cut my teeth on true RPGs like Final Fantasy X, Final Fantasy VII (I have to include that one or you’d just click off the page right now, I’m sure) Super Mario RPG, Final Fantasy X-2, Final Fantasy XII, Legends of Dragoon, and Valkyrie Profile, just to name a few.
Short attention spans, the rise of the “casual gamer”, and the tendency for game developers to stick to action RPGs has caused the true RPG’s star to dim in recent years. However, I’ve never given up the search for the type of turn-based fun that offers the addictive challenge and novel theme that characterizes an entertaining, memorable, RPG experience.
One such memorable, true RPG offering is Darkest Dungeon from Red Hook Games. It is a brutal turn-based RPG that is so difficult that it makes you throw your remote to the ground in….pleasure? Yes, pleasure, because Darkest Dungeon makes no bones about how challenging it is, but still manages to be a smashing good time.
As you play this game, you will, inevitably, make peace with the reality that without meticulous preparation (and sometimes in spite of meticulous preparation) your party members will die, and it will be all your fault, you spineless worm! Just kidding, you’re not spineless.
Surviving DD’s extended dungeon crawls is no picnic. With your party of four tortured heroes, you’re charged to free your ancestor’s crumbling estate from the clutches of dark entities that his bad behavior unleashed upon the lands, and paying for your family’s sins has never been so entertaining.
You’ll venture out on Skirmish missions where you have to complete 100% of room battles, Scouting missions where you have to explore 90% of the rooms, and boss battles — where you’re killed immediately — all the while going up against the likes of bipedal rotting fish, rancid corpses (here’s looking at you, Drowned Thrall), skeleton soldiers, Hags with cauldrons that aren’t just for show, and blobs of melted flesh that dole out attacks that can level your party in fewer than three turns.
You can attempt escape–and most likely your attempt will fail. If that happens, prepare to lose all of your turns and suffer murder with extreme prejudice, because there are few rewards for cowardice in the twisted DD universe.
Darkest Dungeon is an addictive exercise in perseverance and problem solving. As a seasoned gamer, I tend to glean real life-applicable impressions from the games I play. For example, if I choose a combination of heroes that are not able to get the job done (translation: die immediately) on a Scouting mission through the Cove, I reevaluate my choices, implement some strategic thinking, and go guns blazing with another approach. If at first you don’t succeed, die, die again. DD teaches hard lessons, such as “preparedness guarantees nothing, but preparedness guarantees a chance at something”. I made that one up, but it’s applicable, kinda!
Some of your party combinations will get a cool title if you arrange them just right.
The object of this game–which is to complete a long list of “Caretaker Goals” that include everything from leveling up a hero to defeating a boss — pales in comparison to the necessity of determining the proper party combo and resource stockpile that will get you through a mere Skirmish mission unscathed, or better yet, help you withstand the relentless onslaught of a boss battle. Boss battles are insane, by the way, mostly because you must endure room after room of resource depleting, life-sapping, stress inducing battles before you happen upon the room that contains said boss, who is ALWAYS harder than you think they’ll be. Every. Single. Time.
One game-changing distinction that makes Darkest Dungeon so sexy is your heroes’ two-fold vulnerability gauge–one that determines Stress level (the Affliction System), and one that determines HP. Certain creature attacks deplete your HP while others will add to your Stress gauge — as will certain conditions in the environment or random missteps you make during your crawl. Reach 100 in stress, you gain a Stress quirk that can manifest in any number of ways. These Stress quirks, or “Afflictions” can cause the affected party member to literally stress-out their war-worn peers, pass their turn, self-harm, or attack enemies without your command. Reach 200 in stress and you’ll have a heart attack, and there’s no coming back from that. In DD, stress, like in life, is a killer.
Outside of hours spent traipsing through dank ruins, fishy coves, overgrown warrens, teeming wealds, or the titular Darkest Dungeon (you have to use Level 6 party members to play the Darkest Dungeon—I’ve played this game for over a year and despite having Level 6 heroes, have never even considered darkening the threshold of the Darkest Dungeon, this game is that hard) you spend a lot of your time patching your party up back at the Hamlet.
The Hamlet is home to places like the Tavern and Abbey where your heroes can engage in a variety of anti-Stress activities, like drinking (always the best and cheapest choice unless your party member has an aversion to drinking) flagellation (really), getting naked in the brothel, meditation, or prayer just to name a few. Stress is also mitigated through random events that occur within the dungeon crawls, or by using stress relievers around the campfire during longer missions.
This game has no shortage of unique challenges, including your need to equip pre-crawl provisions that relieve status effects and interact with certain items you’ll find during your travels. For example, a Bandage relieves the status effect “Bleed” and can also be used to protect your hands while you rummage through a pile of rusty blades for useful items that will help you on your journey. You have to choose–and use–your provisions wisely, or, well, you’ll die.
Death, like in life, is final for any of your heroes who succumb on your journey. My advice is to hold off on naming or becoming attached to any of your heroes until you get your bearings, because most likely, they’re going to die.
Darkest Dungeon is detailed, intricate, dark, and engaging. It is a game that you can play alongside your other more lengthy and in-depth gaming endeavors. For example, I’ve played Darkest Dungeon alongside my Mass Effect re-playthrough, Red Dead Redemption 2, Beyond: Two Souls, Detroit: Become Human, Horizon Zero Dawn and any other long-ish game that strikes my fancy. Once you get a hang of things, it’s easy to come back to it over and over again without a steep relearning curve, and, if you think this is a game you can beat in a week, you’ve got another thing coming. No one fucking beats this game. (I will let you know as soon as I do, which will probably be around my 50th birthday.)
In an effort to help you put your best foot forward, I’ve compiled a list of tips and tricks to help you prepare to face the Darkest Dungeon. Don’t say I never gave you anything.
- It’s imperative that you use status effect attacks on your enemies; Bleed, Blight, and Stun are lifesavers in clutch moments, use them wisely. These effects also stack–meaning if you afflict an enemy with Bleed three times — they get three times the damage each turn. Lay it on thick!
- Party member position is key. Make sure you place your heroes in the spots that work to their strengths. Not all of their activated attacks work in every position, and if an enemy shuffles up your order with a Move attack, you could be royally fucked.
- Use a good mix of Buffs, Debuffs, and melee attacks. Of course melee is going to get the killing job done, but sometimes buffing your party toward being speedier or more evasive is as important as stabbing a baddie in the face. Debuff your baddies where you can, make them slow, make them inaccurate–make them pay! Be strategic.
- When choosing provisions BUY ALL THE FOOD available. I cannot stress this enough. During your trek through the dungeons, a prompt will sometimes pop up at random requiring you to disperse food to your party. If you don’t have enough, they suffer massive Stress.
- Another note on provisions, you have limited space in your inventory, so choose wisely–sometimes I leave things behind–either during the crawl or while choosing provisions beforehand. Never leave a shovel or food behind, but you can forego things like Luadanum–it’s good for removing Horror, but I don’t find that I need it that often and I can get through most crawls with out it. Here’s my recommended Provision pack:
- 9 torches
- All the food I can buy (if you can’t afford all of it, sell some trinkets or something, then come back and buy all the food, I mean it!)
- 3-4 shovels
- 2 medicinal herbs
- 2 holy waters
- 1-2 keys (keep in mind that not having a key will never kill you or Stress you, you just might miss out on some treasure or a secret room.)
- 2 anti-venoms
- 2-3 bandages
- When you get enough cash, remove some of your party’s quirks at the Sanitarium.
- When choosing what to drop and what to keep as you deal with limited inventory space, always choose heirlooms over cash when you can as the heirlooms allow you to upgrade your heroes and the services available in the Hamlet. If you get the Crimson Court DLC, the heirlooms allow you to upgrade your Hamlet with new buildings that give you additional boons.
- DO NOT go into a boss battle until you’ve practiced besting Skirmish and Scouting missions. Boss battles are no fucking joke. I once leveled up a party to 5 and lost them all on a (Level 4) mission, which brings me to the fact that…
- Level designations mean nothing–just because a level says it’s for level 1 heroes, doesn’t mean all of your level 1 heroes are fit for the battle, be strategic.
- ALWAYS brings shovels. Not having one when you need it can cause Stress and injury. On the few times I forgot a shovel, I just saw myself out immediately.
- Leave the dungeon if you can’t cut it. You’ll live to fight another day, even if you leave with a few more quirks than you came in with.
- Leave your ego at the door.
So, there you have it, a write up on one of my favorite games of all time. Play Darkest Dungeon with the understanding that you’re supposed to suck at it, but with airtight strategy and persistence, you’ll suck less and less over time. Whether you prevail and become a DD master, or flounder and experience a full-party wipe out, you’re sure to have a barrel of rotten, decaying fun.