At the outset of Darkest Dungeon, the player learns that they have inherited an estate from a relative who, while seeking fame and fortune by excavating the dungeons and catacombs beneath their manor, has unearthed portals to dark dimensions and released a number of horrific and evil creatures onto the world. Cowardly, the relative took his own life rather than deal with his mistake. As the current owner of the estate and the surrounding lands, the player must recruit a roster of adventurers and mount expeditions to cleanse the estate of its vile inhabitants.
As the player ventures into the manor, the dungeons below it, and the surrounding lands, they find their relative's memoirs telling of the terrible deeds he had done in pursuit of knowledge and power. Eventually, the player is able to send a party into the titular Darkest Dungeon, the source of the land's corruption, taking steps to reveal its ultimate form. Within the deepest chamber, the player encounters the disembodied spirit of their ancestor, who now remains as "an Avatar of the Crawling Chaos." After defeating the ancestor's apparition, the party battles the Heart of Darkness - revealed to be the progenitor of all life on the planet. The party manages to defeat its physical form at great cost, but the ancestor's spirit reveals to the player that this has only delayed its inevitable awakening and, by extension, the end of the world. The ancestor explains that this is merely part of an endless cycle in the player's lineage, and that the player will eventually meet the same fate as he, and their descendants onward. The ancestor then accentuates this cycle by repeating his first words from the start of the game: "Ruin has come to our family."
Darkest Dungeon is a role-playing game in which the player manages a roster of heroes and adventurers to explore these dungeons and fight the creatures within. Prior to entering a dungeon, the player can use facilities in a town near the mansion to dismiss or recruit more heroes, send heroes to perform various activities that will heal them, gain new combat or camping skills, reduce their stress, or remove any afflictions that they incurred while in a dungeon, and buy and sell equipment and supplies to outfit their heroes, using money and loot gained during dungeon runs. Many of these facilities can also be improved to add more benefits or options to the player. The player can recruit up to twenty-five heroes on their roster at any time; each hero belongs to one of fifteen character classes, and has their own statistics and skills that can be upgraded over time. If a hero dies while exploring a dungeon, that hero is lost for good.
Surrounding the Hamlet and the facilities that the player uses are four different areas that must be cleared before the Darkest Dungeon can be accessed. They are: The Ruins, the ancient tombs and hallways of the player's ancestors, now crawling with skeletons and mad cultists, and host to a Necromancer and a mad prophet that are both there due to the Ancestor's machinations, the Weald, the overgrown forest that surrounds the hamlet, now home to slime monsters, witches, bandits and mad dogs, the Cove, the murky caves beneath the cliff that the manor sits on, inhabited by fish-men and bandits, along with a Siren and a ghostly Pirate crew, and the Warrens, the sewers of the manor, filled with offal and swarmed with pig-men that are the misguided product of the Ancestor's first attempts at necromancy. Finally there is the Darkest Dungeon itself, within the manor, where the final boss resides.
Once the player has completed preparations, they select four of their heroes to go explore a dungeon. Access to most dungeons requires completing several previous dungeons and collecting specific types of loot, with such later dungeons being more difficult than the earlier ones. Dungeons are procedurally-generated in a roguelike manner, and presented as a series of interconnected rooms with hallways between each. The parties move between rooms in a real-time, side-scrolling view, with the potential to discover interesting objects to search or random combat encounters during this time. When the party reaches a room, they may be forced into combat, but once clear the room remains a safe zone allowing the player to apply healing and other remedies to the party. When combat occurs, it plays out in a turn-based manner, with each character having their own order based on initiative that changes each turn. Heroes can use attacks, magic, special skills, or items during their turn to defeat the other party. The order which the party moves through the passages and rooms is critical as it affects who may interact with various items, and the available actions that a character can do while in combat; for example, a swordsman in the back of the party cannot easily attack, while range-attack characters like archers and mages can. The positions of heroes can be changed around, but this can consume time or a combat turn. While each dungeon has a target goal, the player can opt to leave the dungeon at any time, retaining all loot collected but forgoing the larger reward for clearing out the dungeon.
A core element of Darkest Dungeon is its Affliction system, a concept of a hero's stress level or resolve. Though a hero will have little stress when they are hired, it will worsen from a number of factors encountered while in a dungeon, such as adventuring without food or light sources, seeing the death or wounding of a fellow party member in battle, or from blights cast on them by enemies. If the hero's high stress remains unchecked, they may develop afflictions that will interfere with the behavior of the character, such as being frightened and unable to fight directly. Less frequently, a stressed character may develop virtues that enhance their attributes, such as becoming more invigorated within battle. Some afflictions, left unchecked, may become permanent quirks that remain on the character. Other afflictions can be removed back in the village and by performing special activities, such as drinking at a bar or repenting at a church, that occupy the character's time, preventing them from being part of a dungeon party. Stress can be lowered while in a dungeon through camping offered at specific locations, or other restorative items, as well as when back in the nearby town. While camping, the characters will have another set of available skills that can be used to help relieve stress and help with other party members.
In addition to downloadable content, Red Hook has announced plans to add two new game modes to Darkest Dungeon. The first, Radiant mode, is aimed to reduce the length of time to complete the game's campaign, from an average 80 hours to around 40 hours, without compromising the core difficulty with the game. This was to address complaints from players that one or two ill-fated dungeon runs late in the game that can wipe out a party can stall any progress towards completion. The second mode is a New Game Plus, which players can take their characters from a completed game to face more difficult dungeons while replaying through the game's story.
Chris Bourassa and Tyler Sigman had become friends while working at Backbone Entertainment, and had talked about the idea of building a game together, but their commitments to other studios left them unable to do so. During 2012 and early 2013, they had developed a number of ideas for potential games to develop. In April 2013, they found they had the time to work on this project, and decided it was a "now or never" moment, forming British Columbia-based Red Hook Studios to develop the game. By 2015, their team included six people in addition to three more supporting their sound, music, and narration for the game.
The main gameplay of Darkest Dungeon started out as a tile-based game that had the player control a group of characters as they moved about in a dungeon, eventually transitioning into a combat mode when they had encounters. The two recognized that players would get bored of looking at icons of the characters' heads all the time via the top-down icons, which would not allow players to come to bond with the characters. This led to the concept of presenting characters from the side view in combat, making the player feel they were at the same level as the characters, alleviating some of these issues. This also enabled Bourassa, the principle artist on the game, have an opportunity to show off more of his work. However, this would have left them the need to transition from top-down to side-view and create more art assets. They worked around this by using the same side-view not only for combat but for dungeon exploration, creating the basic gameplay of Darkest Dungeon.
The side-view mechanic then led into the idea of the characters being in ranks, allowing for certain attacks, abilities, or defenses if they were in the right rank; characters in the front could have powerful melee attacks but take more damage, while characters in the back would be more protected but limited to weaker ranged attacks. This was an idea inspired by The Bard's Tale, but they were able to expand upon it to create interesting situations, such as having characters pulled out of rank by an enemy attack. This in turn led to a new attribute for how likely a character could be moved out of position, creating strategies for the player as to handle a mix-up in the ranks during combat, as well as applying the same principles of rank to the enemy forces and making situations for the player to figure out how to take advantage of a weak rank arrangement. Furthering from these concepts, they crafted the character classes to have various strengths and weaknesses based on their rank positioning, created further strategic elements for the player to explore.
One core idea of the game was its Affliction system, in which the dungeon-crawling characters would gain stress and eventually afflictions as they explored. Bourassa and Sigman noted that while they are fans of classic role-playing games such as The Bard's Tale, Eye of the Beholder, and Ultima Underworld, most of these games lacked the human element to the characters. They give an example of a character being down to their last hit point in battle and the player simply making decisions to win, the character reacting regardless of their low health. They instead wanted to "toy with player agency", giving moments where the player is reminded they do not have full control of the actions of the adventurers in the party. They also sought to alter how most loot systems in role-playing games work so that the player was not always focused on finding the best gear for the characters but instead working to support their characters. Bourassa and Sigman were aware that these facets may turn players away from the game due to the difficulty and inability to have full control, but continued to stay true to their vision of the game.
The Affliction system was inspired by psychologically traumatized heroes, both through historical events as well as works of fiction such as Hudson from Aliens and the soldiers from Band of Brothers who are transformed by the horrors of combat; Sigman pointed to the seventh episode of Band of Brothers where a soldier watches his friends die from a shell explosion, stares transfixed at the event, and then becomes unable to fight any more, as the feeling they wanted to capture. Though they were also inspired by Lovecraftian horror, they did not want to use the concept of "insanity" that is common in that genre, and instead focused more on the nature of stress and how it affected the human psyche. Because of the importance of the Affliction system to Darkest Dungeon, the developers spent significant time to make sure that the impact of stress and afflictions were emphasized dramatically in the game's presentation, using special graphics and sound cues to signal the onset of an affliction. They also created a "bark system", dialog stated by a character reflecting their current stress, affliction, and other attributes as another means to humanize the characters and remind the player that they do not have full control of the characters. Alongside the Affliction system, they developed the town facilities that are used to cure afflictions and reduce stress, using concepts they borrowed from tabletop games. They also included Virtues, positive afflictions that can result from high stress situations, and a means of tracking the afflictions of a given character over time, so that in future stress situations the character will often become encumbered by the same afflication, developing a behavioral pattern that the player may be able to use to their benefit.
A disembodied narrator, voiced by Wayne June, was also included to comment in a sardonic manner throughout the game, furthering the atmosphere they wanted. Bourassa had listened to June's readings of various H.P. Lovecraft works prior to developing the game, which partially inspired Darkest Dungeon. When the two were preparing the game's first teaser trailing, they felt they needed a narrator and approached June for his work. Once the trailer was completed, they recognized that June's voice as narrator was a necessary element for the game. Art assets were created by Bourassa; in addition to the Lovecraftian nature, he wanted to give the game the look of woodcut and illuminated manuscripts, and took inspiration from eastern European artists such as Albrecht Dürer. He further modernized the look by using ideas from comic book artists including Mike Mignola, Guy Davis, Chris Bachalo, and Viktor Kalvachev. The game uses a homebrewed, lightweight cross-platform game engine developed by programmer Kelvin McDowell.
Bourassa and Sigman used their personal savings to fund the creation of Red Hook Studios, and sought to gain a grant from the Canada Media Fund, but were rejected. Having originally anticipated an eighteen-month development period, they sought a way to fund the extended development period. They launched a Kickstarter campaign in April 2014 for funding; prior to starting the Kickstarter, they made sure they had prepared enough of a media interest, including a trailer for the game released in October 2013, to attract attention at the onset of the campaign. Due to the early marketing, the funding goal of $75,000 was reached within the first two days of the campaign, and completed with over $313,000 of funding from over 10,000 backers.
Darkest Dungeon was released on Steam Early Access on January 30, 2015 for Early Access backers, and Steam Early Access on February 3, 2015 for the public. They used feedback from the Early Access period, particularly through those that streamed their playthrough of the game, to help with playtesting and adjust the balance of the game, while also finding that their approach to gameplay and presentation was validated by positive reception from these streamers. Sigman noted that developing in Early Access was comparable to "working while naked in a transparent cube suspended above Times Square", but felt their transparency with players made the final product much better. Bourassa and Sigman noted that they had had some issues with user feedback during Early Access, specifically after they added two gameplay elements around July 2015: the addition of corpses which affected combat positioning issues, and the possibility of a stressed character suffering a heart attack and dying immediately. Some Early Access players were dissatisfied with these changes, feeling it put the player at far too much disadvantage to an already difficult game, and complained to the studio. Bourassa and Sigman had debated what to do with these two features and eventually opted to make them optional elements to gameplay. Though this change was generally met with approval, a number of these players remained bitter about the game throughout the rest of its development, and attempted to have the studio's and the game's reputation derided by Jim Sterling, who has frequently been critical of Steam and Early Access titles; Sterling instead found the game to enjoyable even with this change. Bourassa and Sigman recognized they could have done a better job in the social media to placate the complaints early on, but still felt they chose the right path with retaining these features and sticking to their vision instead of trying to meet all expectations from Early Access players.
Though Red Hook anticipated releasing the game in October 2015, a personal loss affected one of the team members, and the game was subsequently released on January 19, 2016 for personal computers. A cross-buy version for the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita were originally planned for release in the second quarter of 2016, but was pushed back to Q3 2016 to improve playability with the Sony controllers as well as to prepare these versions to align with new features to be introduced in the personal computer versions prior to this release. This version was released on September 27, 2016.
The game's first major update in May 2016 following its full release, "Everything Burns", which among bug fixes and other small improves, adds in Town Events, where upon return to the town the player may encounter a random reward, such an extra recruit to join their party, or the temporary closure of one of the town facilities. Following on the previous issues with Early Access updates, some of these features can be eliminated or their frequency reduced in the game's options menu.
The game's first downloadable content, "The Crimson Court", is planned for release in early 2017 on all platforms, though the content of this expansion has yet to be revealed. Red Hook plans to develop additional downloadable content, as well as build in support for user modifications through the Steam Workshop. They also plan to develop for other platforms, specifically highlight touch-based devices as they found their interface is already well-suited to this input mode.
The game received generally positive reviews on its full release in 2016, holding a score of 84% on Metacritic. The Escapist awarded it a score of 4 out of 5, saying "Darkest Dungeon will kill your party, drive you insane, and leave you a gibbering mess at the Sanitarium. Yet it's so compelling and rewarding at the same time, you won't be able to resist diving back in for one more quest." IGN awarded it 9.1 out of 10, saying "Darkest Dungeon is a punishing and awesome game of tactics, management, and pushing your luck to the breaking point." PC Gamer awarded it 88%, saying "A wonderfully executed, brilliantly stressful reinvention of party-based dungeon-crawling, Darkest Dungeon is great fun, even when it’s cruel." GameSpot awarded it a score of 9 out of 10, saying "Darkest Dungeon plays the long game. It builds you up for a grand bout that will test everything you've learned, as well as your ability to plan several in-game weeks out."
Red Hook Studios reported that a week after the game's 2016 release, over 650,000 copies of Darkest Dungeon had been sold, including those from Kickstarter backers and Early Access purchases. In November 2016, about a month after the release of the PlayStation versions, Red Hook announced the game had sold more than one million copies across all platforms.
Darkest Dungeon was nominated for three 2016 Independent Games Festival awards: the Seumas McNally Grand Prize and for Excellence in Visual Art and Audio.