9. Darkest Dungeon
Darkest Dungeon is taxing.
Not a single action taken is without cost, whether it’s in the game’s virtual Victorian Gothic/Lovecraftian world or in real life where time is a luxury. Recruiting adventurers takes up limited roster space. Sending them to expeditions is spending gold for provisions or risking survival with just the gear on their persons. Entering this room off to the side of your destination but which the map clearly marks for loot, which you need to develop your town-as-home-base and your contracted mercenaries for further sorties, means battling a random assortment of eldritch abominations, each one eager to claw away at flesh and mind. Igniting a torch now to illuminate claustrophobic hallways and spot traps means one less light later on your long dungeon crawl, increasing the likelihood of ambushes and the pace of building stress as the darkness encroaches.
And 99% of the time, you don’t want to build stress. Hitting the first limit of 100 stress points on a character pushes them to temporarily acquire a negative or positive quirk, with things going bad more often than not.
Either way, this development is almost always momentous, collapsing the best laid plans in a mess of insults and refusals of cooperation, or catapulting your ostensibly doomed party to victory.
Hitting the second limit of 200 stress points, however, leads only to despair, the afflicted suffering a heart attack that reduces health to 1 point or just kills them outright. It’s not unlikely for this to set off a chain reaction of increased stress throughout the group, as who wouldn’t suffer a jolt of anxiety seeing an ally die next to them, potentially resulting in more heart attacks and death.
I witnessed my fair share of catastrophes in my 40+ hour playthrough of Darkest Dungeon, most of which I can point to poor preparation or rash decision-making. Deferring rest by bonfire in the middle of a dungeon to maximize ground covered and the healing the process brings is one such mistake. Going for the big crit with a leper-warrior on an elusive spider instead of debuffing to improve hit chance is another.
You just realize soon enough that success doesn’t come without sacrifice, and attachment to particular “heroes” is an anchor. That plague doctor with “quick reflexes” can shut down backline stress-inducers in the warrens by the very first turn, but her infatuation for a prostitute in the brothel and her sickly frame is draining you of gold quicker than you’d like. Midway through the game, her experience in questing marks her psyche with a list of aberrations in red; she’s afraid of the dark, she’s obsessed with unholy artifacts, she needs to eat more to stave off hungry when stressed. On the lead-up to going on a boss quest you’ve planned for in real-time hours, she decides to stay one more in-game week in her lover’s arms so you can’t bring her along. The next time she shows up for work, you’re sending her off with three fresh faces and just enough food to last a straight-up loot run. You’re trying to save up gold, so they go without torches. She comes back alone, the other three lost to untreated wounds and poison, and she brings with her riches aplenty and a shattered mind. You take the treasures and relieve her of her duties. She can take care of herself.
I thought I grew numb to it when I rolled into the second year of my campaign. Access to the Darkest Dungeon, the ultimate destination, was in sight. I was just cleaning up the last couple of Champion-level boss dungeons. Dismas, a veteran highwayman, was one of the two hired mercs that was with me from the very start. He had fallen out of favor from my usual party line-up soon after the beginner areas, his skills not necessarily syncing well with more formidable members. But I had kept him anyway in the corner, bringing him out every now and then for clean-up in quick and easy missions, earning levels and getting upgrades when I had the spare money. His penchant for a good drink was easy enough to manage at the bar, too.
The depth in class combinations for combat in Darkest Dungeon is too much for me to dive into now, but needless to say, we found a good niche for good ol’ Dismas to show his agile ferocity in the harder dungeons. I like to think he wanted to prove himself as more than a hanger-on when his ambient word bubble requested one more assignment into the Ruins. So I brought him in to face the Gibbering Prophet.
He went to work with his knife and pistol.
With literally two turns away from putting down that bile-spewing madman, Dismas only needed to be healed one point of health to stave off Death’s Door from the blight that poisoned his veins. Morphew, my occultist healer, failed his spell spectacularly, recovering zero HP. He and Dismas died the very next turn, just before the Gibbering Prophet succumbed to the bleeding Dismas inflicted.
I faced the Heart of Darkness and overcame it, sacrificing six more of my soldiers in that climactic final battle. Darkest Dungeon is taxing.