Darkest Dungeon

This hand of mine is burning red!

Rating: B+

Playing Time: About 200 hours total

Well, some time ago, I made a post talking about my thoughts on Darkest Dungeon and promising to give it a proper review after I got around to replaying it with the latest patches and Crimson Court DLC. Since I wanted something to break up how much I was playing Star Ocean 4, I decided to make good on that.

Now, you might've noticed that I pointed out the Crimson Court DLC specifically, rather than just saying all of the DLC. That's because I didn't play with the shieldbreaker DLC. Sorry, but the price isn't worth it just to unlock another class.

I'll try to avoid repeating too much of what I'd said in that earlier post, so to summarize the main points that I'd made there: Darkest Dungeon is a hybrid of RPG and roguelike which does a good job of differentiating otherwise generic characters by means of randomized quirks and forcing the player to use a variety of characters through its stress mechanics, but it relies on forced grinding to pad out the length and suffers from weak design choices in the darkest dungeon (aka final dungeon) area.

Spit on them bitches, yo~!

Replaying the game while checking out the Crimson Court DLC showed me a new perspective on the game, largely because of the stark contrast in my experience between the content that I was familiar with and the content that was entirely new to me.

First and foremost, I'd said before that the character classes weren't completely balanced, but I'd underestimated just how much difference there was between them. For the record, this is my tier list:

Top tier: abomination, flagellant, houndmaster

These characters work well in pretty much any party thanks to their raw power/flexibility, have the staying power to not need others for support, cover others' weaknesses by virtue of their overpoweredness, and are good regardless of the mission type. It's no coincidence that abominations and flagellants are the only classes with special restrictions on who they can party with, just as it's also no coincidence that abominations are now limited to just 2 shape changes per battle (i.e. they can only change from human to beast and back once in a given fight). None of that stops them from being top tier, of course, because despite all of the good design decisions that they made, Red Hook doesn't know how to actually balance their game.

Second tier: antiquarian, hellion, highwayman, jester, plague doctor, vestal

These characters have some very strong aspects, but they lack the sheer versatility of the top tier, either because they're ill-equipped to work in certain formation slots, struggle too much at attacking certain enemy formation slots, rely too much on blight/bleed for the bulk of their damage, or just lack offensive capabilities. From what I've seen of the shieldbreaker in videos, she'd fit into this tier.

Mid tier: arbalest, bounty hunter, crusader, leper, man-at-arms, occultist

These characters have one or two things that they can do well, but getting good mileage out of them requires synergy with the rest of the party.

Bottom tier: grave robber

I hate to say this, because I love the grave robber's graphical design (and the free shovel that she gives during provisioning), but she's far and away the weakest class in the game. She's supposed to be a heavy damage dealer, but her damage is bad because her one good attack (lunge) is only usable every other turn at best due to the positioning requirements unless to dedicate three party slots to them (crippling your versatility) AND get lucky with the randomized initiative rolls, and the random mishmash of special effects that she has are too weak to actually matter. She's pretty much categorically inferior to the bounty hunter, who isn't exactly a world beater himself.

Who doesn't like powerful women?

That all said, the tiers aren't actually that important, at least not compared to knowledge of the game. In my first time playing the game, after 100 missions, I'd had 34 characters die, so about one death per three missions on average. In this time, not counting deaths either in the crimson courtyard or related directly to the crimson curse, I had three deaths after 100 missions, which is literally ten times better. Knowing which skills are actually useful, which characters work well together, which quirks (positive or negative) to look out for, what to expect from the enemies, etc. makes all the difference.

This all underscores another point: Darkest Dungeon is too forgiving to really be considered a hard game. The death's door mechanic is part of this, but it's really just a last resort. The way to assure your success is to first and foremost reduce your reliance on the RNG as much as possible, then to stack the odds in your favor as much as possible, and only then to take advantage of characters having that final safeguard against dying. This is, of course, standard procedure for playing a roguelike, so that's hardly anything novel, nor is it something that negates challenge innately. What makes it too forgiving in the case of Darkest Dungeon is being able to retreat from individual fights with very high chances of success and being able to retreat from whole missions with very little consequences. At worst, you'll waste some money and gain a bit of extra stress on your characters. Neither of those are a real problem. Stress is an issue when it happens in dungeons, but in town, it's just a matter of not using that character for a little while to recover it (or, if it was a shitty character anyway, just dismiss them).

This forgiving nature of the game works to its detriment, sadly, because your character roster size is very limited. There are 15-17 classes (depending on how much of the DLC you have), and at full upgrades, your maximum roster is 28 slots, so you don't even have enough for the Noah's Ark approach (two of every class) until you start doing some darkest dungeon missions to get characters that don't count against the roster. It got to the point where, towards the end of the game, I couldn't really do low level missions anymore because I had too many mid/high level characters to assemble a full party of newbies.

That must've been a hell of a cut

Now, the real question isn't whether Darkest Dungeon is a hard game or not. It's whether Darkest Dungeon remains a fun game after the player knows what they're really doing. In its previous state, I would've had some doubts, but there have been a good number of improvements to actually address that and keep it enjoyable.

In the matter of upgrading the town's services, there have been three major improvements.

The most important of these is that the stage coach gained an upgrade path which can give a chance for new characters to arrive at level 1-3 (depending on how much you've upgraded it) instead of always being level 0. This is a nice time saver because not only does this mean the character skips over the weakest phase in their development, but they also have all of their combat skills and equipment upgraded for free to the maximum for their level and come in with a shorter list of negative quirks than what a character would have if they'd worked their way up from level 0 naturally (which, in turn, means less grinding in the cove and/or the warrens as you try to find curios that clear negative quirks much more effectively than the sanitarium can).

Second, you can now trade hierloom types. It might not sound like much, but having a better solution than cursing when the RNG decides to drown you in crests when you really want portraits or whatever is very welcome.

Third, killing bosses can reward you with blueprints, which are used to unlock special upgrades that cost a fuckton of heirlooms. I wasn't too keen on this at first because I'd thought that the number of heirlooms required for them was excessive enough that you wouldn't get much actual benefit from them by the time you can afford them, but that ended up not being the case. The increased critical hit chance for bounty hunters/grave robbers/highwaymen, the increased status chances for plague doctors, and the innate stress resistance for jesters are all wonderful upgrades; the extra action points during camping for abominations/hellions/lepers is ridiculous, especially since it can't be substituted with an accessory like most of the other class perks can; and the extra benefits for having high torchlight make playing in brightness (something that you should be doing already, in most cases) even more rewarding. Of course, these upgrades become less viable if you're playing with a time limited difficulty level, but that arguably makes it a more interesting decision as to whether or not to go for them.

307 crests is drowning in them, I'd say

On the topic of the town, there are also town events now. These can have all sorts of neat effects like giving a free level to all idle characters of a certain class, making certain town services free, having additional recruits be available, having an optional boss show up, or even allowing you to revive a dead character, among other possibilities. Even nicer, this actually integrates with the "use/collect 3 MacGuffins" missions, in that completing those missions will give a fixed town event. This was a much-needed improvement, since they were otherwise absolutely not worth the restriction on your inventory space unless they were going to reward you with a fantastic accessory.

Again, these aren't huge changes, but they actually go a long way towards breaking up the monotony and keeping the game fun.

Well, I think that gives a pretty good update of my previous post, as it relates to the main game. So, what about the Crimson Court DLC? There's good and bad there, but I'll start with the good.

The new enemies added in the crimson court are generally much more interesting than the enemies in the base game. Aside from being more threatening by virtue of having notably more potential for stress damage and introducing regular enemies that take advantage of ripostes and multitarget stuns, just about every new enemy also has an attack called The Thirst, which drains health, inflicts stress damage, has a chance to inflict the crimson curse (I'll talk about this more in a moment), and changes the enemy's moveset (generally into something more aimed at raw damage output), which adds a whole extra layer of variety to them. All in all, the courtyard was the most fun area in the game to play, even after getting past the learning curve for that specific area.

That last part is important, by the way, because the courtyard missions are fucking huge. I mean, not so much the general little missions to collect some of The Blood, but the actual plot missions there all dwarf the size of any other missions, including the "exhausting"-tier mission in the darkest dungeon. This isn't a pain in the ass, though, because the game actually saves your progress in the mission if you retreat, so you can take it on in smaller pieces rather than having to do it all in one go. As well, the torch doesn't work in the same way in there as it does in the rest of the game. The light level is just always set to "blood light" (which gives the benefits of any "[X effect] if torchlight is over 75" quirks/accessories), and torches are just used for interacting with curios or giving the party a minor accuracy buff for their next fight. This all works to make it so that it should take about the same amount of time to do all of the missions in the crimson courtyard as it would to kill all six bosses in the other standard areas, but they're condensed into a set of just four missions, three of which end in unique bosses (okay, yes, after killing the countess, you can fight the statue boss as many times as you want, but that's basically just another generic mission at that point).

The main thing that's done to slow you down from ignoring the rest of the game is that, after clearing the first crimson courtyard mission, the subsequent plot missions require you to use up an invitation item in order to go in. You'll get one as a reward for clearing the previous mission, but in order to get more of them, you need to do missions in the main game areas and hope to run into wandering crimson courtyard enemies (gatekeepers, specifically), who'll drop more invitations. I never found it to really be an issue, honestly, though I could see it being more of a problem if you're playing in a time limited difficulty.

Mind your manners!  ...that's seriously the name of that attack, and I love it.

Now, unfortunately, I can't talk about the Crimson Court DLC without also talking about the crimson curse. This is a special disease that can be inflicted by almost every new enemy (I think only chevaliers can't inflict it), but it really works more like a mortality affliction. For one thing, unlike other diseases, it can't be cured except by killing the next crimson court boss (until you kill the countess, after which it can be cured in the sanitarium). When a character has the crimson curse, it gives some pretty minor buffs/debuffs, with the specifics depending on whether the curse's state is passive, craving, wasted, or bloodlust. For the most part, the buffs/debuffs don't really matter (even the +25% damage buff from bloodlust isn't as good as it sounds because about half of the characters treat the actual damage of their attacks as a nice bonus rather than their main appeal). What does matter is that, for any state aside from passive, the character also has a random chance of doing affliction-type things in battle, such as spouting random bullshit that stresses out other characters, attacking other characters as a free action at the start of their turn, refusing to accept a healing skill, using a random skill, shifting their position, passing their turn, etc. This aspect of the crimson curse was pretty much the root cause of almost every death that I had in the main game areas, and it was having some expectation of bullshit mechanics like this as a failed attempt at adding difficulty that made me decide to play the game on a non-time limited difficulty.

Oh, but it gets even better. If a character is in the wasted state, they have a random chance of just dying at any moment. No death's door, just instant death, and it doesn't even have to be in a fight. My first death of the save file was from a character dying as I walked down a corridor. There's actually a tutorial tip to warn you about it, but it doesn't come up until after that first death happens, and in my opinion, that's an awful design decision in a game that otherwise has incredible transparency to its mechanics. The way to avoid this is to feed that character with a The Blood item, which will give a minor buff if the curse is passive, advance the craving state to bloodlust (which eventually turns back to passive), or revert the wasted state back to passive. In other words, The Blood is basically another food mechanic, which wasn't really needed in a game that already had food and stress as ways of limiting excursion length and forcing character choice variety.

There's yet another unique mechanic to do with the crimson curse. It can spread between your characters in town, if they happen to be using the same service building. A minor annoyance, but an annoyance nonetheless.

Yeah, in case you couldn't tell, I really didn't like how the crimson curse was implemented. It's a cool idea to have characters get infected with vampirism, and I can be on board with that giving far more drawbacks than it does benefits, but so many of the actual mechanics that Red Hook put into it seem to just make it annoying and frustrating rather than threatening and fun to overcome.

Bonus points for degree of difficulty awarded to the guy eating his own chest

The other main complaint that I have about the Crimson Court DLC ties back in to what I'd said about Red Hook not knowing how to balance their game, and that's that the missions seem to not know what level they're supposed to be balanced for. The first courtyard mission is classed in the easy tier (level 0-2 characters allowed), but trying to go into it gives a warning message that you should have as many level 2 characters as you can because it's supposed to be harder than other easy tier missions. Okay, cool, except that you can't shield your lower level characters from the tougher enemies for long because (a) completing that mission triggers wandering crimson courtyard enemies in the main game areas (which I like, for the record, because having completely self-contained expansion pack DLC is something that irks me) and (b) your lower level characters can still go into the crimson courtyard afterwards to do the easy tier versions of the "gather The Blood" generic missions. The second plot mission is the crimson courtyard is middle tier (level 3-4 characters only), and the other two are hard tier (level 5-6 characters only), but aside from the unique bosses, the same types of enemies show up in all of those. Yeah, I'm sure there are some statistical differences between them, but aside from accuracy and dodge rating, stats really aren't as important in this game as the special effects of attacks (notice how the only raw damage dealer in the top tier of characters is the one who's overpowered enough to be restricted from partying up with crusaders/flagellants/lepers/vestals, and that's ignoring that the abomination's human form would be second tier by itself already).

The fact of the matter is that the last two plot missions in the courtyard were easier for me than the first two because I knew how the enemies worked by that point, and they didn't gain any notable new tricks. This is in contrast to the other main game areas, where enemies do gain special effects on their actions in their higher level versions. Altogether, what I'm saying is that the enemy design in the crimson courtyard is significantly harder than the enemy design in the main game areas for easy tier and middle tier missions, but the hard tier missions lose much of that extra punch, comparatively. They're still a little harder just because stress damage is so much more prevalent, but it's not nearly the same divide as the earlier missions had. That was a disappointment, because those earlier missions in the courtyard are pretty much the only time when Darkest Dungeon gets close to being hard.

That all said, let me go back to a positive note and say that the bosses of the crimson courtyard were all very cool. Aside from all having more durability than their stats would indicate by virtue of having The Thirst (or having inanimate enemies that he can drain, in the case of the viscount); and mind you, even the first boss in the courtyard has more health than all but three main game bosses, so what I'm saying is that they can all take a hell of a pounding; they've also got unique gimmicks. The baron more or less forces you to play three card monte while he blocks all of your healing abilities, and in between those breaks, he specializes in tickling your party while inflicting piles of stress damage and bleed effects. The viscount has a number of self-healing moves that also grant various buffs, which further synergizes with him also being able to trigger ripostes. And then there's the countess, who's basically a stance change boss and comes with a unique ability to inflict a shuffle-over-time effect on your party, on top of an absolutely massive mountain of health. In my opinion, she's a lot more fun than the final boss, especially since she doesn't rely on a bullshit instant death attack to pretend to be hard.

Ding, dong, the bitch is dead

Anyway, all of that said, the Crimson Court DLC adds a lot to the game, but it still doesn't do much to address the overall flaws. The content is fun enough to bump the game up from a B to a B+, despite the gripes I've said above, and the mission design in the courtyard felt a lot less monotonous and repetitive than in the main areas, but when it's all said and done, Darkest Dungeon remains a fairly tedious grind. While the grind isn't as bad as it was when I'd played Darkest Dungeon for the first time, it does still wear on longer than it ought to. In theory, this adds difficulty because it gives more chances for RNG screwjobs, but since player knowledge and good play can almost completely negate the threat of the RNG, in practice, it just adds length.

The funny thing about me complaining about that is that I don't usually have issues with grinding. I've enjoyed games like the first two entries in each of the Diablo and Sacred series, I've spent hours essentially rolling dice to get what I want in Infinity Engine character creation or Shin Megami Tensei demon fusions, and I even went out of my way to complete everyone's mantra grids in Digital Devil Saga 1. Where I draw a line, though, is between grinding because I choose to and grinding because the game's developers force me to. The former is an actual decision to invest my time towards future benefits. The latter is a disrespectful disregard for the value of my time. That's what annoyed me about grinding for the items to fight Vishnu and Shiva in Digital Devil Saga 2, and likewise, that's what annoys me about the grindy design of Darkest Dungeon.

That having been said, I'll repeat that the grind isn't as bad as it used to be. It's still a problem, but I'd say it's almost within the bounds of being a non-issue now. I'm not sure how much more Red Hook intends to tweak it, but if they streamline it just a little bit more, that could bump this up to being a great game. As it stands, it's still very good, and I'd recommend it to any dungeon crawler fans.

Rating: B+

Playing Time: About 250 hours total


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