At its core, Darkest Dungeon is an old-school RPG dungeon crawler. Players form adventuring parties from new recruits and surviving veterans, sending them into monster-infested lands for loot and equipment. Classic RPG fans will feel at home with its buffs, skills, equipment slots, and attack bonuses. But Darkest Dungeon's biggest twist is the stress bar, which quickly becomes just as important as your health points. Almost everything that happens in Darkest Dungeon, be it encountering an enemy, taking a critical hit, or setting off an invisible trap, raises one (or more) character's stress. Even when not facing an immediate threat, simply walking through the dungeon will gradually increase your party's tension until it becomes unbearable.
Once a character's stress bar maxes out, they develop an affliction that changes gameplay. If you're very lucky, they'll pull themselves together with some positive characteristic, rally the group, and lower everyone's stress. But far more often than not, they'll develop a negative affliction like depression, paranoia, or fear. Characters with negative afflictions always have a chance of ignoring your commands during any round:. Perhaps they'll flee to the party's rear instead of attacking, or refuse helpful spells because they don't trust the caster. A character's out-of-control affliction can even heighten the stress of the party, creating a runaway effect that's absolutely devastating.
Not that it's impossible to reverse your prospects. While you can occasionally lower stress in the dungeon (making critical hits works wonders), your safest bet is to give heroes time off from dungeon crawling. As local businesses reopen, you can send characters to the church, tavern, or other locations that help them unwind and recover. But restoring mental health isn't without cost. First of all, you have to spend gold for each hero reducing their stress. Second, characters reducing stress are effectively off-duty - so if you only have one healer but she needs the week off, your party will have to survive without her. Finally, not all characters are welcome at all institutions. Your religious Crusader might only be able to reduce stress through prayer. Your Highwayman might be restricted from gambling at the Tavern. Your Plague Doctor might only take comfort in flagellation at the Church. Balancing the needs of your heroes with the demands of your quests can be tricky to manage, but is essential to keep characters alive in the long-term.
Still, thanks to character permadeath and unforgiving RPG mechanics, your town graveyard will be filled with bodies before you get the hang of it. When characters aren't being driven mad by the dungeon setting, they're bleeding from wounds, recovering from poisons, or suffering from critical blows that demolish their health bars. Thankfully, while the gameplay is difficult, it's far from overbearing. Darkest Dungeon's system and interface are streamed for ease-of-play. You're always moving towards new, clearly-defined challenges instead of feeling frustrated because you can't figure out how the controls work.
Darkest Dungeon is currently in Early Access, although you wouldn't know that at first glance. Even now, the entire experience is surprisingly well-polished, from unsettling animations to a wealth of dialogue as your heroes fall deeper into madness. Perhaps that's simply because the familiar, old-school mechanics allowed Red Hook Studios to focus on the hopeless atmosphere. Either way, it's an darkly challenging and enjoyable dungeon crawler that rewards just as much as it punishes. If you think you can survive it, the Early Access build is available to the public on Feb. 3, 2015.
Good luck. You'll need it.
Disclaimer:This writer is a backer of the Darkest Dungeon Kickstarter campaign. This preview is based on the provided backer reward code.