Darkest Dungeon is a game I’ve been rooting for ever since I first set eyes on it. As a Dungeons & Dragons player with a ruthless dungeon master, the idea of a game that promised lasting effects and mental stresses on characters forced to face eldritch monstrosities appealed to me greatly.
After a successful Kickstarter campaign and a promising launch on Early Access, things were looking great for this beautifully crafted, intensely challenging roleplaying game. You wouldn’t think it right now, looking at a store page absolutely filling up with negative reviews.
Just what the hell happened?
Early Access happened, is what happened.
Steam’s Early Access program is an interesting, if often abused, way of delivering videogame content to players in an unfinished state. At its best, it’s a way to shape a game before its official release, using direct feedback from those currently playing it. It doesn’t often work out so well, thanks to chancers taking liberties with the system, but its core goal is a noble one.
Darkest Dungeon has, for a long time, been one of my go-to examples of Early Access done right. I even say so on my Steam Curator recommendation. When it launched, it was already in a working state, with a ton of engrossing content. It was challenging, stylish as heck, and its lofty concepts seemed to be working perfectly.
Over time, the game did what Early Access games are supposed to do – it updated regularly. Unfortunately, things seem to have gone terribly awry, with many vocal players believing the game has only gotten worse with each subsequent update.
As Red Hook Studios continues to overhaul the game and rebalance its systems, the general consensus seems to be that they’re just breaking it.
“For several months I watched little tweaks and improvements hit the live build, and at first the vast majority of them were stellar upgrades to an already amazing (dare I say, perfect?) game,” write user Phasmaphobic in their store page review. “But over time the devs focused more on pandering to a small handful of very vocal posters who complained about “broken” character combinations, and abusable mechanics.
“The game transformed from a Brutal-yet-Fun Planning-Focused Dungeon Crawl to nothing more than a by-the-numbers resource grinder with some Cthulhu-analagous imagery pasted over it. Even the top modders have pulled their mods, choosing to boycott the project instead of contributing to what was once a grand gaming experience.”
The main thrust of complaints stab at three new concepts recently introduce – corpses, heart attacks, and PROT.
Corpses are piles of viscera left behind when enemies are defeated. Rather than simply disappearing from the fight, these piles remain where the opponent once stood, getting in the way. Darkest Dungeon is a game about party positioning, and if a “slot” is being taken up by someone or something, it can impact your party’s abilities. A corpse is a literal meat shield, as it stops the enemy party from changing position.
Whereas before, you’d kill a monster and a previously unreachable one would have to shift forward, now you must essentially “double kill” the vast majority of foes before they’re gone. Corpses are quicker to dispose of than their living counterparts, but they do seem to be an unwanted time waster in a game where every single action brings the player characters closer to death or madness.
Heart attacks are another new addition to the game. Previously, a player character’s stress meter would bring them closer to mentally breaking. Once full, a stressed out party member could start refusing aid, causing their allies further stress, or even dealing damage to themselves. It was painful to witness, but dealing with stress was all part of the game’s challenge. Heart attacks have taken the concept further… perhaps too far.
The stress meter can now be filled twice. The initial fill works as it always did – characters break in some horrible, threatening way. It can now fill a second time, and if it does, the character is instantly killed off via a heart attack. Every single critical hit suffered, every moment spent in the dungeon, every little thing that causes stress is now utterly deadly.
Finally, we have PROT, which indicates a monster that’s protected from basic damage. These high defense opponents take less damage from average attacks, and require status-effects such as bleed or blight to taken them down effectively.
Along with these three elements, players complain that opponents’ critical hit chances have become far too high, and that min/maxing optimum parties has become essential to succeeding. Red Hook have also been accused of making it so that permanent negative stats have a much higher chance of attaching themselves to protagonists, reducing their effectiveness in a dungeon crawl, and generally adding so many luck-based elements to the game that the original concept has been diluted.
“The massive amount of randomness that was introduced in the last few patches has taken a once fun, brutal dungeon crawler and turned it into a massive grind fest where you are at the complete mercy of the RNG,” writes darkside96321 on the Steam forum.
“Please stop listening to the minority of people who exploit the parties and then whine about the game being too easy and take the game back to what it was.”
To Red Hook’s credit, it’s attempted to address issues with its latest balancing patch, reducing the strength of PROT and upgrading some character classes such as the Hound Master. Overall, users appear pleased with the fixes, but still take issue with the game’s current incarnation. Meanwhile, the min/maxers themselves see this as the studio “giving in” to the “whiners.”
I hadn’t had time to replay Darkest Dungeon since its Early Access launch window, but I started a new game tonight in order to research the claims. It didn’t take very long at all to see the problems, even post-patch. Corpses are an illogical hurdle and serve only to cheaply extend every fight, PROT just makes a tough game tougher for no good reason, and it didn’t take very long at all to lose my first hero to a heart attack.
The balancing is improved from when I last played, with characters dealing more damage in general, but compared to the bevy of fresh hindrances, it’s not much of a trade off. Darkest Dungeon is no longer quite the game I admired.
It’s hard not to feel for Red Hook, now stuck trying to please two very distinct sets of fans. One group is bound to perpetually complain that the game is too easy, expecting grueling punishment at every turn and min/maxing their parties to exploit any chinks in the game’s armor. The second group just wants the dark and foreboding experience promised without feeling like they have to obsess over party balancing and playing the game one distinct way.
We’re seeing one major pitfall in the Early Access system, as a studio struggles to meet everybody’s demands at once and fails to please anybody. Rather than having a finished product to show the world, Darkest Dungeon instead introduced us to a very specific work-in-progress, and the direction of that progress has turned off a large contingent of invested customers.
This is an issue we see a lot in multiplayer games, as guns and classes get rebalanced and piss off everybody who was enjoying them. Early Access is a trickier prospect altogether, as players risk purchasing one product and ending up with something totally alien to the thing they initially bought.
As a Curator who recommended this, I must say I’m wondering if that recommendation is even relevant anymore. Even though I label my Early Access recommendations as such, perhaps I ought not to do them at all. Clearly, what you once saw is not necessarily what you will get.
Red Hook’s continued attempts to please the audience are admirable, but they’re definitely going to have to come to a point where they realize they can’t satisfy everyone. Their original concept was rock solid, but this constant tweaking may undo the very bedrock of the game’s appeal. A painter who keeps painting over their work, after all, will likely end up with a splodgy mess on the canvas.
Another question worth asking – though we’ll never know the answer – is how much we’d have hated all these changes had they been there from the beginning. Would corpses be so loathed an idea if Darkest Dungeon had launched with it? It’s hard to tell, but we as a species infamously loathe change, and it’s not hard to imagine that seeing a game mutate before our very eyes can have a negative impact on our views.
It’s one significant risk of Early Access. People get used to the game they bought, and when it becomes something else, there’s a high chance they’ll feel misled or at least disappointed. Early Access can be a useful thing, but it can be damaging to a game’s reputation, and may deflate any positive press it might have earned.
As for Darkest Dungeon, I still believe in it. It’s one of the most original and macabre spins on the RPG genre we’ve had in years, and I want it to realize its potential. It’s not an officially finished product yet and there’s still everything to play for. Not everyone’s going to win, but I hope Red Hook gets the best result possible.