Feature Article

Darkest Dungeon Captures the Hellish Life of an Adventurer

What lurks below?

There were several moments playing Darkest Dungeon when I was certain all was lost. A few unlucky critical hits and a stressed-out plague doctor were wreaking havoc on my team. In her panicked state, the good doctor refused to follow orders and stay out of harm's way. This landed her six feet under at the hands of a mace-wielding skeleton, but her sacrifice resulted in my team surviving the battle. Such is the cruelty of Darkest Dungeon, a game about managing the stress of being an adventurer for hire. If you're not already caught up on this Lovecraftian dungeon crawler, fear not. I've prepared a quick video, embedded below, covering the basics.

For those looking to dive deeper into the many secrets of Darkest Dungeon, read on. I talked with game designer Tyler Sigman and artist Chris Bourassa from Red Hook Studios about how the team is putting this game together, as well as one of their newest additions: the bounty hunter, a mix of Batman and Boba Fett who exploits one of the most important facets of Darkest Dungeon's combat.

"The bounty hunter was one of our first 'aha' moments working on this game," said Bourassa. "We had our four core archetype characters--the crusader, vestal, plague doctor, and highwayman--up and running, and we were looking for ways to play out the positional quality of our combat a little further. The bounty hunter came out of the idea of the grappling hook and what that would do from a design perspective in combat."

Here are some of the bounty hunters' many iterations.

As I mentioned in the video above, where your characters stand in Darkest Dungeon is extremely important. A character in the back of the pack is safer than one in the front, but is also limited to ranged attacks only--assuming he or she has any. These same rules apply to the enemy team as well, and this is where the bounty hunter shines. Using his trusty grappling hook, the bounty hunter can pull an enemy to the front of the pack or push one to the rear. He's a versatile character with a lot of strategic possibilities.

"The bounty hunter is kind of a sniper mixed with a little bit of crowd control," Sigman explained. "Those abilities are more or less useful depending on the dungeon or the types of monsters you're fighting. If there are lots of powerful archers in the enemy's back rows, for example, you can use the bounty hunter to hook and pull them forward so they can't use their ranged attacks anymore. Alternately, for enemies who are up close, he can use this uppercut attack and knock them back, cutting off their melee attacks. The bounty hunter isn't the highest damage-per-second character out there, but he grants a lot of tactical flexibility."

Because of the bounty hunter's versatility, Sigman considers him best suited somewhere in the middle of the party. "I think of him as a rank two or three character, like the highwayman," he said. "With the crusader, you're never going to play him in rank three unless that happened to you, but with the bounty hunter, you could choose to play him from three and still hook enemies, pull them forward, and let the front two ranks do all the damage." Of course, the bounty hunter's capabilities aren't limited to combat. You have to consider how he'll gel with the rest of the team around the campfire.

The bounty hunter uses his grappling hook to reel this weaker enemy to the front of the pack.

Darkest Dungeon has tactical camping. As the team explained, camping is something that has long been a favorite activity among adventurers in all mediums. In the realm of video games, stopping to camp involves little more than hitting a button to refill your party's health. Red Hook Studios wanted to expand upon this idea, and gave each of its characters two sets of skills: one for combat and one for camping.

"That makes party composition one of the most important decisions you make before going into a dungeon," Sigman said. "Knowing about each character and how he or she performs in the different sections of the game, from camping to combat, is vital. A good player won't just throw everything at pure fighting strength. You might burn through the first few enemy encounters that way, but when you get around the campsite and everyone is sick and poisoned and stressed out, you will be out of options and won't last very long. Alternatively, if you take, say, the jester, who isn't a straight-up DPS character but has really useful abilities around the campsite, you'll have much more survivability in the long run."

While the jester may be better at keeping the party's spirits high, the bounty hunter is much more of a lone wolf. His details are still being finalized, but the idea is to have him specialize in healing himself over the rest of the group. One ability, however, will have some benefit for the team. It's a scouting ability that has the bounty hunter exploring ahead in the dungeon and mapping out upcoming rooms. While this intel could prove invaluable, it also denies the bounty hunter any rest, so he may be in rough shape during the next fight.

You can feast on rations to heal your party and reduce stress, but you'll be in bad shape if you run out of food.

Visually, the bounty hunter was born out of a mixture of several superhero styles. As Bourassa explained, these styles include the likes of Batman and Space Ghost, as well as one of the most famous bounty hunters in popular fiction, Boba Fett. "I wanted a bit of that retro superhero vibe, so I went with the pointed nose and slanted eye slits," he explained. "I think that was a nice little nod given where I was coming from conceptually. We also wanted him to look like he could move quickly but also take a punch--that's where the leather padding and scale mail came from. The bounty hunter isn't some huge, hulking tank, but he's also not wearing cloth armor. After that, it was just the art and creating an interesting silhouette."

The bounty hunter is also one of the most decorated characters in Darkest Dungeon, armed with a collection of tiny trinkets, bombs, scrolls, and other items he has collected during his travels. But he isn't the only one who's decorated. As you explore the game's many dungeons, you will come across new trinkets that can be applied to the other members of your party. These items carry with them small upgrades, such as additional damage for ranged attacks or a resistance to stress.

Outside of trinkets, characters in Darkest Dungeon grow stronger through the power of cold, hard cash. As the developers explained, each character can earn better weapons, armor, and skills--all of which are unlocked with gold. Each character will also have around seven skills to unlock, but you will be able to bring only four or five of those per character into a dungeon. Do you go wide to create a more versatile fighter, or focus on leveling up one or two skills exclusively? Darkest Dungeon is filled with questions such as this as you try to manage your stable of hired hands.

The crusader may have avoided this devastating blow, but the poor plague doctor wasn't so lucky.

Inevitably, some of those hard-working adventurers will go the way of my panicked plague doctor and never see the light of day again. But you shouldn't let this get you down. As Bourassa explained, "People are going to die. Your roster is going to be a bit fluid, especially early on, before you settle into your play style and pick your favorite characters. It's important to remind people that a certain amount of death in their roster is appropriate, and a signal that they're playing the game well."

Darkest Dungeon recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign, and the team at Red Hook Studios hopes to have an early access version of the game available sometime later this year. In the meantime, steel yourself for the many unspeakable horrors that await within the Darkest Dungeon.

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35 Comments  RefreshSorted By 

Looks good. I'm happy that I've backed this one on KS. :)


I personally wouldn't compare the gameplay with the reboot of the X-COM series, but then, McGee here can't possibly know of every possible game in existence.

If anyone is interested, you might want to play the two games from the Spirit Engine series. It has very similar rank-by-rank and party-versus-party combat, albeit without the stress mechanism. The Spirit Engine games are stable freeware, by the way.

I have to say that I can't recall any video game which did the stress mechanism though - but people who have played Fantasy Flight's/Games Workshop's table-top Warhammer RPG would recognize this.


do want


Why are early access games given so much coverage from this website? I don't get it at all. They are constantly making articles about early access games while ignoring legit games. Something is fishy.


<< LINK REMOVED >> It's a very popular thing and still growing, so it makes sense they want to cover it more. Personally I think it's a bubble that is eventually going to burst, but we'll see.



"Legit" how?

I know that you have made remarks such as "Early Access is the cancer of the games industry", but not every other person has the same opinion as you have on them.

That's "why" - not some conspiracy. Yet, I have recalled that you fall back to conspiracy theories when you couldn't figure out why people don't think like you do in the past, don't you, nurnberg?


Looks really interesting! just my kind of game!


Nice to see a games company trying something a little different rather than churning out a cookie cutter FPS over third person game.

Will defiantly be keeping an eye on this one.


Is this a PC only game or what? What other platforms will this be on?


<< LINK REMOVED >> PC only right now.


this looks extremely interesting. looking forward to hearing more of it.

and @Maxwell, thank you for making a video that's complementary to the preview, rather than a retread.


<< LINK REMOVED >> You're welcome. I tried to balance this piece so that it had something for people who had NEVER heard of Darkest Dungeon and people who were already up to speed.


<< LINK REMOVED >><< LINK REMOVED >> well, it worked. never heard of it, but the video brought me up to speed on mechanics, while the preview talked about new stuff. once again, good job :D


one of my most anticipated games alogn with pillars of ethernity , witcher 3 , divine divinity : OS ( for co op only)


Looks fun, but I wouldn't even consider those movements animations.... they just move left and right. They should have used the basic stop motion type animation like in Don't Starve. This effect is just lazyness.


<< LINK REMOVED >> You could call it lazyness, but its their decided on art style. Small startups dont have millions to burn through while making their games. I personally happen to like the style it reminds me of Paper Mario. Gameplay is first and foremost the priority to get ironed out and I think this game is going to have a pretty good chance at being an enjoyable game.



Although I understand your argument, blackotth, I agree to a certain degree with mr_azim there.

I have seen games which have done something similar to Darkest Dungeon here, vis-a-vis its side-scrolling, rank-based party-versus-party combat - the earliest example of which I would use is the Spirit Engine series.

Moreover, the Spirit Engine series was done by mainly just a single very talented person, Mark Pay, who developed his games with his own money - no Kickstarter, no Early Access or such other things back in the previous decade. (Not to mention that Mark Pay eventually made his games freeware.)

On the other hand, I personally would cut Red Hook Studios some slack here - they may have had to write and iron out the code for the stress mechanism, and thus have less time for animation assets.


<< LINK REMOVED >><< LINK REMOVED >> Agreed. Papers Please is a nice example of that.



You might want to notice that blackothh mentioned Paper Mario - not Papers, Please.


Max should do more articles. While other editors delve in weak poetry or get caught up in hypes or political issues, Max goes straight to old school video game coverage. I miss the time when game media would talk directly to devs, and not a PR executive from the publisher.

Keep it up, Max!



Who the game media meets is up to the game-maker.

If it's the big-names, it's guaranteed a PR ogre.

With that said, you should be giving credit to Red Hook Studios - they are the ones who approached Maxwell - or rather, GameSpot - instead of the other way around.


I saw this on kickstarter, and backed it, then I saw it in action at PAX East, It looked very very interesting and im glad that indie devs exist!


<< LINK REMOVED >> They're planning to have a playable version at PAX Prime as well; hoping to learn some more about the game then.


Well keeping an eye on this one.


I don't know why i saw " Hellish Life " like " Half life " :D

anyway , I love reading your posts max , you always write about special games . those articles about Civ Beyond earth were amazing and full of information . so is this one .

i'll keep an eye on this game .combat seems sort of ... boring . but i love the graphics style .


<< LINK REMOVED >> Thanks! Those Beyond Earth pieces were a lot of fun to put together, especially the interview with Sid. I was pretty star struck during that whole discussion.


Lost interest at "early access".


<< LINK REMOVED >> u lose interest when a game has more then 2 buttons to push i bet



Oh sure, revert to attacking a person when you see someone says something that you don't like to hear. I recall that you very much like doing that, don't you, vadagar1?

Has that ever made the other person shut up, *hm*?


<< LINK REMOVED >> so then wait till its done........is that so hard?


<< LINK REMOVED >><< LINK REMOVED >> some people prefer to buy early access games and then complain it's not finished


<< LINK REMOVED >><< LINK REMOVED >><< LINK REMOVED >> i agree cant wait until this fad dies, how people get enjoyment playing an unfinished game is beyond me not like there isnt a million other finished games to play


<< LINK REMOVED >><< LINK REMOVED >><< LINK REMOVED >><< LINK REMOVED >> I dont understand why you think its such a big deal that some people choose to get into the beta of a game? we are only trying to make the game better for release by giving feedback. Nobody is forcing you to buy early access and and its no loss to you to wait for official release. If people are simply buying early access games and complaining that its not done, then its their own stupid fault for not paying attention to what they are buying. The people that enjoy getting into early access have a good passion for video games and dont mind helping the little devs by giving feedback. Not to mention games at early access are usually cheap, and discounted on top of that.


<< LINK REMOVED >><< LINK REMOVED >><< LINK REMOVED >><< LINK REMOVED >> i dont think its a big deal and i think its great that new devs are getting their games made, unfortunately what i'm seeing now is over saturation of indie games way to many being made, games going on kickstarter/early access that I'm 99% positive would of been developed anyway without it, the pie in the sky games that will never get finished or made and wil run off with the money, those little indie studios that have hit it big time with backing and are now going off on a different tangent with company expansions and new games (chucklefish i'm looking at you) And who can forget the stupid gamers buying early access never understanding what kickstarter and early access is.


<< LINK REMOVED >><< LINK REMOVED >><< LINK REMOVED >><< LINK REMOVED >> it's important for indie/self-published devs, because they don't have paychecks to rely on, so the sooner they can get money rolling into their accounts, the better. it gives them the added benefit of unpaid alpha/beta testers, and it gives people the chance to try out early versions of games they're interested in and help shape it.

personally, i prefer waiting until it's done, but i can see why it exists.