What am I playing this Week? Embracing Early Access Light with Darkest Dungeon

I keep trying to tell myself “no more early access games”. There are too many stories of incomplete games, abandoned games, people spending money, potentially hundreds of dollars into games with the promise of features, story and controls that just end up never making it into the game. People (including me) end up high and dry expecting more and getting that life lesson ‘buyer beware’ once again. One of the most recent high-profile early access flops was Peter Molyneux’s highly anticipated title Godus. He overpromised, under-delivered, and when it became obvious that the game was going to fail, he left the company he started in order to make it.

Yet, somehow, I keep getting pulled in. I see pictures, video, or gameplay of something that looks really cool, and I jump. It helps that a lot of early access games will offer their entry price relatively low, which increases the temptation. Well, I jump in again, taking a dive into an early access game, and this time I think I hit a winner. This week I jumped into the stylistic, twisted and utterly charming Darkest Dungeon by Red Hook Studios.

Featured at Penny-Arcade expo in 2014, Darkest Dungeon offers an interesting blend of roguelike dungeon generation and character management, turn-based dungeon crawling, and random character advancement. Put together, those don’t sound too unusual, but where Darkest Dungeon excels is in style and atmosphere that I’ve seen in very few other dungeon adventures.

It’s a little hard to describe Darkest Dungeon’s gameplay style. You are in charge of a small village, where you have to enlist a variety of itinerant adventurers to clear out the various areas of your historic estate, left to you by your family. The various buildings in your village provide advantages, bonuses, or recovery options for your adventurers, which you upgrade through the loot you find in the dungeons. Along the way, you encounter dungeon bosses that carry history with the original owner of the estate.

The dungeon crawling is the main component of the game. The game randomly generates each dungeon, and you enter them with up to four adventurers. The adventurers generally fit into the four main types, mage, rogue, fighter, or priest, with some interesting mixes between them. Each adventurer also has four skills, which determine their role in combat and where you want to put them in the party. The actual interface is side-scrolling, two-dimensional with a gothic artwork that really fits the dark atmosphere of the game. Each dungeon is a series of rooms, connected with adjoining hallways, filled with random encounters, treasures, and traps. Red Hook adds an interesting component for your characters though, the ‘stress’ gauge. Traps, monsters, and events can attack a character’s stress, and if your character maxes out their stress gauge there can be some…unfortunate game effects.

I’m afraid I don’t do the gameplay justice with that simple description, but really, the learning curve is hands down one of the most fun parts of the game. Red Hook put together good gameplay with fantastic music, and a drop dead amazing narrator. This narrator is the much-needed ‘ominous voice’ that all gothic horror needs. Whomever they found as the narrator more than earned his money, as even with the many repetitions you hear each comment, they don’t seem to get annoying or grating, as happens so often in games with narrators and announcers. Most games I turn off the announcer after a short time, but I find I am not even tempted to turn off this announcer’s voice.

That’s not to say there aren’t some flaws here. The dungeon crawling does become repetitive after a while. The difficulty scales well, and they try and introduce new enemies at each difficulty tier, but Red Hook obviously follows the typical RPG ‘Same monster, just stronger with a new name’ model of monster advancement. There are also two entire areas of the game you cannot enter as of this writing. Yes, this is part of the Early Access part, but that just means I’m waiting, and almost begging for Red Hook to bring out the other two dungeons.

This is really the danger of Early Access; Darkest Dungeon is a solid, playable game even in its current state. Considering the press, and considering the sales, there is no indication that there is any danger that this game will crash and burn before full release, but if those releases take too long it remains to be seen if I will still be playing it by then. I truly hope so, because this is a wonderful example of how Early Access can succeed.


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  1. Yai

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