Darkest Dungeon – The Switch Island Review
Hear my confession, Lord: I’ve fallen deep into the slimy well of despair and disillusion that is Darkest Dungeon. This game begs for Lovecraftian sentences just like that, but it’s true. I had such good intentions to play so many other games, but I’ve become obsessed like a character from the game, as my good intentions to finish Blossom Tales have died a quick death, and I find myself yet again leading a team of damaged warriors into pitiless dungeons, risking their madness and death.
Darkest Dungeon came out in early 2016 and has been available since January 2018 on Switch. Are you ready for me to list some game categories? Here they are: It’s a role-playing dungeon-crawler with turn-based and rogue-lite elements (I know, right?). This game been lauded by many before me for breaking a few moulds, with particular praise been thrown on its stress and affliction systems. For the first time, a game’s dungeons – their darkness, monsters, traps – have psychological effects as well as physical ones. For your team, coping isn’t just a matter of staying alive, they need to stay sane too. And so do you.
The hub of the game is a hamlet (shown below). Here is where you can recruit your warriors, heal them, remove their afflictions, upgrade them, augment their weapons, give them trinkets to hold, and choose a dungeon quest. The hamlet has daily events, which alter certain variables (for example, the flagellation chamber might be free) but for the most part it doesn’t change much from its gorgeously rendered state.
There are four dungeon types, each with their own style. Quests are generated for each dungeon and you can choose which quest you want to do. Each quest’s rewards are visible, along with its length and difficulty, so you can gauge what to go for. I wrote ‘generated’ for a reason: the dungeon quests are procedurally generated (rogue-lite, remember?). This unpredictability means you really need to keep your wits about you, as well as preparing for as many possibilities as you can before taking the plunge. Before plunging-in, you can adjust the position of the team (a very important factor for success) and choose from a range of essential items (torches!) to take with you.
Darkest Dungeon doesn’t pull any punches. Your teams will succumb to death, madness, despair, disease; that’s just how it is, especially at first when you’re still learning the ropes. Gladly though the game eases you into its systems and difficulty, for example when you start only certain parts of the hamlet are accessible. A few early dungeon crawls will leave you reeling, limping from the fight, but you’ll eventually toughen-up, and learn how to deploy a successful team and bring them home with bags of precious loot. And don’t worry, you can always visit your dead warriors in the hamlet’s crypt.
Despite being a big fan of turn-based strategy games, I was put off getting this game for a long time because of the pictures I saw of it. It’s hard to know what that impression was, but it was something to do with it looking strangely zoomed-in like a side-scroller, rather than the more isometric or top-down perspective I was familiar with from other games in the genre. I wanted to be able to see the dungeons being explored. But playing it, even though I found the movement of the characters through the dungeon to be initially jarring (they always walk left to right but you choose their direction – left, right, up down – from hubs on the on-screen map), I quickly fell in love with this way of doing things. It keeps you right there with your team, experiencing the dungeon with them. It adds to the tension and addictive quality of just wanting to explore the next set of rooms.
Visually, the game is stunning. It’s very dark with shadows everywhere. The attention to detail makes the world feel alive and absorbing, imbued with character and atmosphere. I have a special fondness for the narrator, who delivers commentaries such as, “softly, slowly, this is how a life is taken” or “a killing blow!”. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed in-game commentary so much. If you like a dose of visual and auditory horror then you’ll be right at home here.
I read a lot of criticism about the game’s control system on the Switch. Having not played the other versions, I found it fine. It’s definitely a game that gradually builds in complexity and so I can imagine a frustration for players who transitioned to the Switch after learning the controls from the Steam version. But, the controls seems carefully chosen, and it’s definitely not cumbersome, it just takes a little time to learn. And there’s touchscreen controls if you prefer.
What else to say? Quite frankly, writing this review has kept me away from desperate fights against bipedal pig monsters and spell-casting demonic witches, and so I’m unwilling to stay too much longer. To summarise: if turn-based strategy is your thing and you like it dressed-up in Lovecraftian horror stylings, then I can fully recommend Darkest Dungeon. It’s deep, it’s dark, it’s addictive; I’ve played 35 hrs so far and haven’t even touched the DLC yet (I’ll review those separately), and I won’t be stopping anytime soon. If you choose this path, then good luck my friend, may your godforsaken warriors return alive and only twitching a little.