Master of cosmic horror and open racism Howard Philips Lovecraft has had a rough trot when it comes to videogame adaptions. His vision of a dread indifferent universe seems ill at ease within the confines of the traditional videogame lexicon, but that hasn’t prevented people from trying. A dizzying array of work cribbed from his mythos has emerged over the years and includes everything from the official Call of Cthulhu games to the Alone in the Dark series and the dazzling Bloodborne. However to my mind, none have ever managed to truly embody the crux of Lovecraft’s idiosyncratic obsession. That of the madness and mental breakdown brought on by creeping, suffocating, unyielding dread.
Darkest Dungeon nails it.
Developed by Red Hook Studios and released early in the year after a period of early access development, it more recently migrated to the PS Vita and PS4 where I nabbed it during a recent Christmas Sale. I had been following the game with some interest and also trepidation due to the extremity of the time sink it seemed to represent. Did I really have time to spend endless hours hurling myself into the void?
It was the aesthetics that originally caught my interest. The gorgeous, heavily stylised 2D art represented pretty much everything I really adore about videogames as a visual medium. Coupled with sparse and foreboding music, visceral sound effects and grim, stentorian oratory it evokes the claustrophobia, stress and hopelessness inherent in the heart of Lovecraft’s punishing psychological reality tunnel. Like Dark Souls and Bloodborne before it, it inverts the traditional power fantasy that drives so many games and instead transforms the very act of survival into a heroic, buttock clenching, white-knuckled struggle. A universe where the protagonists are the playthings of indifferent monstrosities and their own frail psyche as one by one they succumb to horrors too cloying, dense and vast to be fathomed by the sheltered human mind.
I set aside the day, drew the curtains and sat down to venture into the titular Dungeon and the next thing I knew 10 hours had elapsed and my body had contorted itself into a wizened, hunchbacked shell. This is a very addictive game, a game that demands your utmost concentration and that in turn rewards you with a rare level of immersion. For something that is mechanically very repetitive, the randomised nature of the procedurally generated levels and the players own determination to persevere in the face of heartbreaking setbacks prove enough motivation, bait and hook to extend play sessions into the wee hours. Where things go bump in the night…and is that something at the window???
Aside from the array of wide eyed cultists and sinister fish monsters, what the game truly gets right in its ode to HP is in the Affliction system. As your party of stalwart adventurers venture deeper into the catacombs the monitoring of their health is almost secondary to that of their stress levels. Plunging into tombs full of unspeakable eldritch horror is a stressful business and as is customary of all visitors to the Miskatonic University, this leads to an array of crippling mental aberrations. From paranoia to necrophilia, the range of quirks and afflictions that can befall each of your minions not only adds a whole new level of strategy to proceedings but in turn gives a unique individual character and sense of ownership to what could otherwise be a horde of disposable Shoggoth fodder. You’ll grow attached to these guys in spite of, and perhaps even because of their cowardice, avarice, irrationality and inevitable gibbering breakdown.
Just don’t get too attached. Cos they’re all doomed. Their singular destiny to expire at the hands of a myriad of grisly barbed hooks, wyrd tentacles, poisoned, blood filled lungs, seizure inducing spasms and complete cardiac arrest. It’s fucking grim. Stressed and afflicted party members will destroy party morale, and act unpredictably in both combat and curio encounters, leading to compound clusterfucks of bad luck and harrowing scrapes at every turn as your best laid plans utterly evaporate in the face of an unforgiving universe.
Though ostensibly an endless parade of turn based battles and character/inventory management there is something about the stressed and desperate intensity on offer that actually relieves my real-world anxiety. The focus it engenders, nay demands, leaves little room for a chattering mind. I know I’ll never truly excel at it due to the need for min-maxing and mathematic nous if the end game is ever to be bested, but I’ll plough on, oblivious to the sea of stats that form the bones beneath the canvas of stellar atmosphere.
So far I’ve cleared two bosses, dispatched endless rooms full of abomination and seen countless good men and women perish in the inky depths of both the dungeons themselves and the putrid recesses of their own minds, as I pushed them to their breaking point and beyond. Hurling them into the abyss, offering them brief respite in the chapel, ale-house or sanatorium and then plunging them back into the fray again whilst the graveyard grew ever crowded and the sheer scope of the struggle that lies ahead of me became dreadfully apparent.
And yet still they come. Each week brings with it a wagonload brimful of hopeful new faces, their bodies and minds still unbent and unbroken. For now.
Lovecraft would be chuffed.
Darkest Dungeons is available now for Windows, OSX, PS4, PS Vita and Linux.