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.

5 thoughts on “Darkest Dungeon

  1. I put about 60 or 70 hours into this game. I really enjoyed it, though I enjoyed it less as time went on. Totally agree about no mid-point goals. I think I would have enjoyed the game a lot more if the final dungeon happened after the level 3 dungeons as opposed to 5, and the max character level was 4. As it is, things just took way too long.

    Also, after an adventurer has completed a level in the final dungeon, they won’t go back there again, making them useless. Not that I even had a successful mission in there – it was so punishing. If you try to escape you’re guaranteed to lose 1 adventurer, plus a lot of my escape attempts failed. Having highest rank characters killed sucks, losing their trinkets sucks, and though there is an XP bonus that comes into play, it’s not enough and replacing them just becomes a chore.

    I didn’t mind the setup before missions too much though.

    • Yeah, the idea of trying out the scary final dungeon with my party that’s been preparing is very cool, but the pacing is off, and those mechanics don’t sound great either. I like the idea of learning the dungeon by trial and error, but the grind here doesn’t make re-trying appealing (as opposed to the early game, when you can nicely learn about the various enemies/obstacles through experience and taking some lumps). I expect I’ll look things up somewhat to prepare for the final dungeon and see if I can beat it, since the alternative is failing and not wanting to redo the preparation to try it again.

      FTL, a game I like quite a lot, had a sort of similar hitch–there’s a long phase of the learning curve when you can handle the whole game (on Easy), but not the final boss. So you just get wrecked by the boss at the end of 3hr runs. What makes it (largely) work is that the real gameplay there is learning to actually play better: going from “surviving” the game to actually progressing efficiently and building up resources all the way through. But, that’s the difference between a traditional roguelike, where each game is a self-contained run, and DD’s attempt to contain the entire learning process in one long playthrough. They have to handle their pacing differently around the endgame.

  2. First: I am so happy to read something from you here again.

    I really appreciated the way DD clearly uses numbers – I feel this is one of the big differences between japanese and western game design in many cases (done similarly by FTL). While there are many numbers, I didn’t need to go to a wiki to understand the basic functions of the game. It was always clear how likely something was to hit and for how much, and why. (For examples against this, look at Monster Hunter, Pokemon)

    What I really disliked was the way finding out about the bosses worked. I usually didn’t feel like “Oh man, I need to quickly flee and get new tactics to beat this one!” but instead, you just basically send in a squad *knowing* you will fail, because to beat *this* one, you need ranged burst damage, or AoE DoT damage, poison or bleed, stuns or something else you wouldn’t have unless lucky. And two of them even go completely against what their looks and behaviour implies (boss spoilers now: Killing the small pig in the back lane is actually a *terrible* idea and hitting the hag’s pot to free a team member gets you nowhere).

    I keep describing DD as one of the hardcorest games out there. But that is due to the fact that you might spend half of a dungeon at 1 HP and 80 stress and can still make it out. Suffering the death of a level 4 teammate and losing his legendary gear is not really something that feels “deserved” very often.

  3. I’m slowly chipping away at this game and it looks like they patched the game to help combat some of the #2 stuff with letting you level up your stagecoach in order to recruit higher level meat for the grinder. Still a little unweildly.

    The biggest gripe I have with the game is that there is really only one viable healing class with the Vestal. It throws off the leveling balance in that I have lots of high level Vestals that don’t want to go on quests anymore. You can make do with an arbalest/occultist in a pinch, but they arent really viable for a whole dungeon.

  4. Oo new things… For me it was one of the most awkward games to get to grips with but after a while I found it’s a genuinely difficult game that makes you think. Can get over the combat a bit but I like it so far.

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