Darkest Dungeon And The Perils Of Early Access

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?

00

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.

02

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.”

03

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.

04

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.

stevenkw
Guest
stevenkw

Can you load the old version? I really enjoyed the pre corpse game. Maybe they will get it right in the end. I was pretty happy with the difficulty as it was and trying out different combinations of party members.

Oddjob
Guest
Oddjob
When I went back and played this recently after learning that they had finally added the Hound Master and the Arbalist, I was just left confused by the inclusion of corpses. The only thing I ever really felt like was ‘gaming the system’ was spamming low damage stun moves on the last enemy until you had healed all of your characters, but shifting the enemy’s line up around and pulling their units out of their optimum positions was just using good strategy. Now with the inclusion of corpses, any fight against an enemy that can summon reinforcements is just a… Read more »
Rafael R Piñero
Guest

Have they addressed the fact that the early builds did not have an ending? And min/maxers are only good to break a game. You see what they did, and go in the opposite direction, unless you build a game for them from the get go. And I’m leery of such games, they become either infuriating or boring really quick.

astra
Guest
astra
i always hate when people complain about a game being easy i like easy games but if i want it hard i dont bitch to the devs until they cater to me and ruin the game for those who were enjoying it its the big reason i didnt like shodow of mordors bright lord dlc everyone cried to make it harder and we just got a character with half of everything (though i wasnt using the summon ability like i should and it makes things easier even being that weak) so yeah if you want a hard game just handicap… Read more »
Pangolin
Guest
Pangolin

This is sad to hear. I nearly bought it after seeing the sale, especially because you’d vouched for an earlier version of it, Jim. But the things you’ve mentioned in this article are some of the things I hate to see in a game. It just doesn’t sound fun anymore. I hope they get it to a point where gameplay is less tedious and allows for a variety of play preferences! Maybe you can let us know if you happen to notice when it does. 🙂

Spindrift Prime
Guest
Spindrift Prime

Every time I see a complaint about game changes targeted at a “vocal minority” of players, my eyes glaze over a bit. I wish players saw it as enough to explain their problems with a game without pinning blame on some vaguely defined, sinister Other.

dennett316
Guest
dennett316

In this case, it doesn’t seem all that vaguely defined. It was a subset of players who found exploits, used them, complained that it made the game too easy and called for change to stop themselves from using exploits that no-one was forcing them to use in the first place.

Cameron Ward
Guest
Cameron Ward
except it does seem like that “vocal minority” is the reason why the game is not appealing to the mass anymore. People liked the difficult and atmospheric experience because they can grab the difficulty by the collar of its shirt and deal with it. Now, due to said vocal minority, the game is only playable for those types of players, which leaves out the majority of players who have dumped hours into it, now can’t play it because the balance of difficulty is now out of whack. Sometimes that vocal minority is the worst aspect to any game’s fandom. it’s… Read more »
Celerity
Guest
Celerity

The game is at its least playable state. AoE spam is boring, arbitrary features that enhance imbalance are facepalm worthy. – A Hardcore Gamer.

Also, I am terrible at action games and still beat the Souls series. You just need persistence and learning.

Johnny Publique
Guest
Johnny Publique

And yet Dark Souls has no difficulty settings, and remains incredibly popular. Seems you are incorrect.

Catering to childrens demands never ends well.

TheMagicLemur
Guest
TheMagicLemur

I just wish they could, like, cordon off this shit in a separate game mode. I’m fine with min-maxers getting to play the game they want to play; I’m not so fine with them ruining the fun of anyone who doesn’t want constant excruciating challenge.

If the game continues to exclusively cater to that style of gameplay, I guess I’m done with it

Celerity
Guest
Celerity

The game angers min maxers most of all as a single overpowered skill type is still dominant and that’s what the game revolves around because all the alternatives are weak, unreliable skills. That and we didn’t want tedium, we wanted difficulty, and we wanted tactics – meaning not disregarding entire skill categories or classes because they do nothing.

Dragonzeanse
Guest
Dragonzeanse

Oh dear. I haven’t played Darkest Dungeon much yet, not necessarily because I don’t want it “spoiled” for me prior to release, but I saw it on sale and wanted to have it when that day came. But if they’re having issues pleasing the masses like that, then I’m not sure I want to play the game. Either way, they have my money, and I hope they can ditch those extra mechanics. I’m all for min-maxing, but I don’t like an entire game based around it.

Whimsy
Guest
Whimsy
I don’t have a problem with the heart attacks, though with stress being so easy to get and so hard to remove, I think it’d be wise of them to balance them a bit better. I do like the idea that stress is more deadly than just making people act like ponces. All they need to do is give them a chance to “calm down” when they hit max stress. The corpses were a terrible decision, though, removing a legitimate tactical decision of enemies to focus. It even gave weird team comps (like those that can’t reach the back row,… Read more »
MiddleIndex
Guest
MiddleIndex

Lol news to me, ive just got the game and im having a blasted. I dont think I would want it to get easier.

Celerity
Guest
Celerity
Actually, this is something that really doesn’t make either group happy. The optimizing sorts wanted a game that was difficult yes, but we asked for difficulty and not tedium. We also wanted balance, so that effective gaming wasn’t just spamming the same singular broken style until we got bored, but rather that we’d have a range of tactical options (all of which got nerfed). As for wanting difficulty from the game in the first place, the first 2 words of the description are the game’s title, the second 2 are “is a” and the fifth is challenging. I think it… Read more »
jericu
Guest
jericu

Aw, geez, I haven’t played it since around when it first released too, but this is disappointing. Hearing that they made it HARDER is baffling to me, I won’t claim to be amazing at video games but the game was already pretty tough! Hopefully they can adjust the game back to a reasonable level. At least get rid of the corpse thing, THAT sounds like a pain in the neck.

Richard Keohane
Guest
Richard Keohane
I really appreciated the update. The patch notes were in conversational English and provided insight into what the creators were trying to accomplish. As such, I took it as part of the game… something to adjust and adapt to. The patch notes advertised the game as being much harder, and it was. I lost a lot of characters getting used to the new changes, but overall I came to appreciate what they had done. PROT and corpses made several classes vastly more useful, and “meh” skills became great options because they added DoTs or auto-cleared corpses. I am sad that… Read more »
Johndar
Guest
Johndar

Couldn’t you appease both groups at least a little by just having difficulty modes? Maybe a classic mode that belays corpses and heart attacks, and then a more difficult mode that adds them back in. Class balancing would be another issue, but I think having two game modes would help a little.

RedsDead21
Guest
RedsDead21

This was my first thought. If you want something to appease to those who want to have to have the perfect party for the perfect occasion, just make some insanely difficult mode tailored for it, while opting to have the less ‘annoying’ or obtrusive features for lower or more…Saner, difficulties. Perhaps that would raise its own problems due to having to split dev time to each.

Jack
Guest
Jack

This is concerning. I’ve been following this game for a while, but haven’t bought it yet. Was waiting for the PS Vita version that’s supposed to be coming, though I imagine that will take a while.

VET3RANSSNIPER
Guest
VET3RANSSNIPER

I still like the game, got no complaints about the new characters and mechanics.

Chris
Guest
Chris

So bummed about this. I weigh your recommendations heavily as sometimes I find stuff I love. I’ve wanted Darkest Dungeon for a while now but was waiting for the end of it’s Early Access-ness…
Here’s hoping it’s still a good game if it ever reaches the end.

Craig the War Boy
Guest
The minefield that is updating. People demand it in a world with internet access, some games need it to stay functional and salable after launch. But when does fixing bugs turn into “this” problem? When is it no longer about fixing bugs but catering to a demanding minority that is using updates as an excuse to essentially rob the developer of his own creative efforts and goals and cater to theirs instead? Perhaps this is why nostalgic properties are looked on with such reverence and we frenzy at the thought of them being changed. They couldn’t be changed back then,… Read more »
boredgeek
Guest

I bought the game off based off of your and Dodger’s videos on it. I really enjoyed the game, but haven’t played it in a long time. Sad to hear they are trying to appease two vastly different groups. As someone who isn’t hardcore, I of course wouldn’t side with the people who min max the shit out of the game. And I get where Red Hook is trying to go with appeasing both sides, but as someone that has played WoW for a decade now, you get no where trying to play both sides.

Alex Santa Maria
Guest

I can’t say that I’ve personally played the game, but I feel like this could be a simple fix for the developers if they just put in two different difficulties. Make a classic mode that removes some of the new changes and then a hardcore mode which ratchets up the difficulty. Similar to the recent Fire Emblems which had a mode where characters couldn’t die permanently.

Archmike
Guest
Archmike

Sounds like they’ve been got by the feature creep.
What a shame.
I think it’s best to give your fans what they need not what they want. Things turn out better for everyone that way 🙂

SNF
Guest
SNF

If there’s a conflict between players who think the game is too easy and players who think the game is cheap and too hard…why not just make some of these changes optional? Put those features under a hard mode, or something.

(I haven’t played the game so maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see how this is an impossible problem to solve)

Corrodias
Guest
Corrodias

Seems like a reasonable compromise, if they can handle balancing two modes at one.

CleverCrumbish
Guest
CleverCrumbish
This is suggested almost every time a similar problem happens to a game that is still in development and it barely ever works. The problem is that there generally exists a pretty diverse set of split opinions in the fanbase going forward as to exactly what new features are objectionable and for what reasons. Balancing the game against every single feature being individually optional is essentially impossible and realistically you’re really only going to be able to maintain a maximum of three different “modes”, as it were. People still won’t be satisfied, especially when doing this will start to bring… Read more »
Sperium3000
Guest
Sperium3000

Hope they get their shit together soon… D8

Selsk
Guest
Selsk

I was very close to buying this when it went on sale this week. I’ve had my eye on it for a while. But yeah seeing all the negative responses to the recent updates really turned me off.

I was planning on waiting until it goes off Early Access, but at this rate if they keep going back and forth like this, I doubt they’ll ever call it a finished product.

Xan the Eldritch Horror
Guest

I really hope they are able to sort out the game. This was one that I was really looking to get into when it came out. Lovecraftian creatures and references? Check. Dark Souls style utter misery and bleak atmosphere? Check. Interesting mechanics? Check. I really hope this doesn’t turn into a pile of shit and fall into the development hell that some games go into and from which they sometimes don’t recover.

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