Darkest Dungeon

Been playing this a lot for the past few days. Into the latter half of my first playthrough. Various thoughts:

Overall it’s great. The writing and atmosphere are very cool, and consistently build on the themes of exploring the mental effect of being in a gothic horror setting. Very immersive throughout.

The game systems are well setup to hit all the standard roguelike patterns for people who like XCOM et al. Making the choice not to have a failure state (no game over) is a very significant one. It enables a slightly different direction from a lot of similar games–more drawn-out pacing, and you do all your learning within one playthrough. And the gameplay is carefully set up to reinforce the themes: right as you start out, buildup of stress and other afflictions is too high to deal with efficiently, so you have to give in to treating your adventurers disposably.

Design-y criticisms:

1) It’s missing any sense of intermediate progression targets to keep you motivated. In XCOM, you were always looking forward to the next “new” thing you were getting right after the next mission or two–new guns, new research, new building, etc. A lot of times when a mission popped you didn’t exactly feel like doing it, because you were actually hoping time run on until your next little progression rush from finishing a project. But you’d focus and get into the mission, and would often enjoy playing with whatever your latest new toy was. Then you go back to look forward to the strategy progress aside. DD just doesn’t have those progression beats on the strategy side. You want to farm up deeds etc. so your character upgrades go to higher numbers and are cheaper. Once you get a sense of how it all works, it’s too transparent that you can just say “okay, after I get X hundred deeds I’ll have the strongest characters and can work on the endgame.” XCOM _never_ made me think (even though I theoretically could), “okay, I just need Y scientist-days of total research to fill out the whole tree, so let’s grind out missions until I get there.”

The outcome I predict is that I’m going to plow on enthusiastically with my initial rush of enjoyment of the game’s systems, and curiosity about the final dungeon. But once I start suffering setbacks that cause me to redo any grind, the motivation will evaporate and I’ll stop playing, feeling like I saw all the gameplay it had to offer.

2) There’s a really bad progression snarl based on the rule that high-level soldiers won’t go on low-level missions. I get what they’re trying to do, but it’s not extremely well thought-out. Your adventurers’ strength is based not just on their level, but on their gear and trinkets (in fact, the latter two are a lot more important). So even if you’re trying to build up your party strength by improving your Blacksmith before going into higher-level areas, you might have many adventurers who refuse to go to any areas other than the higher-level ones. At minimum, you wind up leaving lots of adventurers at, say, freshly L3, while you use your L1-2s to farm up materials to upgrade the L3 guys further. In the extreme, this can lead to the bizarre case of wanting to fire mid-level characters to make room for lower-level characters who have the “advantage” of actually being willing to do the missions you want to do. Again, I get they’re trying to prod you to keep pressing on, but this is a very messy and aggravating way of doing it. A simple rule like “the adventurers don’t gain XP from too-low-level missions” would accomplish the goal of making you get into the higher ones to keep progressing.

3) There’s too much fiddly setup before a mission. Here’s my general routine between finishing a dungeon and starting the next:
–Check if I have mats to upgrade any buildings
–Check if anyone on the Stagecoach I want to recruit (can be a complicated decision since I have to fire someone if so)
–Check what missions are available, and which one I want to do
–Pick a party for that mission (also complicated, but no complaint here since it’s the interesting part)
–Go back to the town screen, and drop each of those party members into the Blacksmith to see if they have any gear upgrades I want to get them
–Then the same for the Guild Hall for skill upgrades, and also checking if I want to swap any skills in/out on the characters based on that particular party lineup and mission
–Same at the Survivalist, although at least you really only need it once per character
–Of all the characters that aren’t going, who needs disease treatment, who needs stress relief–put them in those buildings.
–Scroll through all the remaining characters and pick a few negative traits to remove–put those in the Sanatarium.
–Check the trinket shop for anything interesting
–Open the trinket box. Unequip all trinkets, then pick some out for this mission to equip to the planned party.
–Pick provisions (usually formulaic based on mission area and length) and go.

There’s just too much hassle here. You probably didn’t even read all that. Looking again to XCOM, it’s really worth thinking about the ways that it avoids burying you in a nonstop slew of really minor decisions–this is one of its important successes. Most things on the overworld take time, so you really only have to actively make choices in 1 or 2 buildings at any given point. Characters of the same class are the same other than talents, and can’t be respecced. Accessory slots have some more standard basic options so you’re not totally re-picking from a large complex list every mission.

Darkest does have interesting systems around characters/skills and trinkets, that allow for good customization and formation of a plan. But the lesson from XCOM would be to be more parsimonous about the different things that the player can constantly rearrange and juggle, while figuring out how to distill out only the important strategic decisions.