Games are meant to be fun, right? I just thought I'd double check, because Darkest Dungeon has me doubting myself.
This is a game, after all, that revels in making you suffer and curse and fail time and again - a game that's almost unstintingly downbeat. And yet somehow it's brilliant.
What manner of arcane magic is this?
I'm sorry I haven't a Cthulhu
In answer to that last question, I'd say 'Lovecraftian'. Darkest Dungeon sets you in the role of an unlucky soul who inherits a grim mansion with an ancient and terrible secret buried deep in the caves below.
It's up to you to make up for the mistakes of your predecessor by leading a rotating crew of adventurers, warriors and ne'er-do-wells through dank dungeons and haunted crypts, hoovering up loot and vanquishing unspeakable monsters.
At its core, then, Darkest Dungeon is a side-scrolling dungeon crawler. You form a party of four and enter simple multi-room locations, touching and holding to move forwards and tapping on interactive elements (chests to loot, traps to disarm, bookcases to scour) when necessary.
But it's a lot cleverer than this straightforward structure might suggest.
Strike a light
There are two important systems at play here - light and sanity. There's a light meter at the top of the screen, and the dimmer your torch gets, the more dangerous your encounters will become - but the richer the rewards for overcoming them.
As for sanity, the more weird or unfortunate stuff happens on your run, the more stressed your party will become. Allow their individual stress meters to max out and they'll start flipping out in unpredictable ways. One might refuse to fight, while another will break formation and another will lash out unpredictably. You can take steps to lower this stress when you're back at home base, but that's not much good when you're squaring up to a crew of skeleton warriors.
Talking of which, Darkest Dungeon's fights are brutal and surprisingly strategic affairs. They're as simple as waiting each character's turn, then tapping an ability and the enemy you want to use it on.
But there's also a clever positional system that really spices things up. Each character has a preference of where they stand in your four man team, and from here they can only attack certain positions in the corresponding enemy ranks.
Positions will get all mixed up for a variety of reasons in the course of a battle, including the aforementioned effects of stress and even powerful moves that push you forward.
Something doesn't feel right
There's so much more to talk about with Darkest Dungeon - too much for a single review. It really is a treasure trove of interlocking systems and rules, all underpinned by its distinctive comic book art style and deliciously hammy, deliriously overwrought dialogue.
In fact, there's only one real flaw here that I can put my finger on. Darkest Dungeon doesn't quite fit on iPad.
From its intricate art style to its stat-packed UI, the game simply feels too dense for a 10-inch display. I dread to think how cramped it would feel on an iPad mini.
The text is just that little bit too small for comfort, and buttons are a little too indistinct and fiddly to interact with. It doesn't feel like the game has been as optimised for this platform as well as it could have been.
Certain elements within the dungeons seem to require multiple stabs to activate, indicating that the window of activation is perhaps too small. Meanwhile, pressing and holding on certain commands or items to learn their function brings up a tiny stat screen that can fall (particularly in battle) right under your finger where you can't see it properly.
Of course, Darkest Dungeon doesn't particularly want you to feel comfortable, and these quality-of-life issues don't change the fact that this is one of the finest dungeon crawlers on the App Store. It's a game that revels in surprising and dismaying you with some new infernal incident or unlucky turn of events.
It's the most fun you'll ever have being miserable.
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