Developed by Red Hook Studios. Published by Red Hook Studios. Early Access build releases on Feb. 3, 2015. Available on PC and Mac.

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My first week at the hamlet went pretty well, all things considered.

The two starting heroes, a Crusader and a Highwayman, arrived at the town with only minor trouble from scattered bandits. Joined by a Vestal and Plague Doctor, they descended into the Ruins and slew every unholy monster in their path. The first quest was a resounding success, and the party returned to town with an overwhelming amount of treasure and supplies. Useful upgrades were made to local businesses, and for a moment, all seemed well. Perhaps reestablishing a foothold in this community would be easier than I hoped.

During the second week, my new party ran out of food and torches. Powerful monsters, encouraged by the thick darkness, swarmed the heroes at every turn. Tensions were high, and the party bickered constantly, except when they thought shadows looked like traps or enemy encounters. Sometimes they were right. Miraculously no one had died, thanks to the Vestal’s healing abilities barely keeping everyone from death’s door. But paranoia was setting in, and the heroes increasingly refused treatment in the thick of battle.

Eventually, one of the Highwaymen finally fell from a lucky blow before the Vestal could provide aid. The Vestal herself fell shortly after, struck down by a Bone Soldier. The remaining heroes knew the Ruins should be abandoned, but there were just a few more rooms to explore and the quest would be complete. I checked the map for a clear path and sent them forward, only to watch the Jester drop dead from starvation. The final Highwayman pushed on just a little further before collapsing as well, leaving his treasure in the dungeon with a cold corpse.

After Week 3, all of my characters were dead and the graveyard was filled with the bodies of two full adventuring parties. Thankfully I’d upgraded the recruitment coach so that four heroes could be transported into the estate every week, enough for a full team. Looking at the fresh faces of the latest batch of characters, I had one thought – If you all die this time, at least I know you’ll be quickly replaced.

Darkest Dungeon is set in a ruined hamlet the player inherited from a distant, suicidal relative. Sometime before your arrival, the estate was infested by dark forces unleashed from an underground portal leading to some horrific eldritch realm. Your goal is simple: Clear the monsters from the hamlet’s lands and restore the town to its former glory. That sounds easy enough for your typical RPG adventuring party – too bad it’s far easier said than done. Your heroes are not steadfast fantasy warriors, but fallible humans whose mental health is just as important to maintain as physical well-being.

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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.

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