Darkest Dungeon might just have you questioning your sanity. This is a game that delights in making you feel wretched, whether through its brutal difficulty or its oppressively bleak atmosphere. And yet before long you'll swear blind that you're having the time of your life.
Sanity plays an integral part in DD. This brutal dungeon-crawling RPG from Red Hook Studios treats your rag-tag party's mental wellbeing as a stat that's as important to monitor as health or status. Fear saturates this dark Victorian fantasy world, as our protagonist resolves to clear his family mansion of an ancient supernatural threat.
Each self-contained dungeon sees your four adventurers - picked from a random selection of knights, assassins, rogues and priests - trudging from left to right. The tension of the situation steadily saps their spirits, as do frequent battles and random events. Allow your team to become too highly strung and they will snap in a range of unpredictable ways. One might freeze with fear, another might refuse medical assistance, while yet another might flee to the back of the party.
That latter example is a problem, because positioning is in important factor in each of DD's turn-based fights. Each party member has a preferred position within the team. Knights, barbarians and other tanks favour the front lines, while healers and projectile specialists tend to bring up the rear. It's not just a matter of preference either. Certain attacks and moves will only make themselves available to each member when they're stood in a particular position. This works the other way too, so utilising moves that force your opponents back or pull them forward is a viable disruptive tactic.
Once your mission is complete, returning to town brings its own strategies to consider. You'll need divert some of your limited resources to lowering your bedraggled team's stress levels, and perhaps even work on some damaging character traits that appear when things get really hectic. This might be as simple as leaving them in the local pub for the next mission, or as severe as booking them into a sanatorium.
Either way you'll probably be without their services for the next mission, so you'll need to recruit additional members to keep the lineup fresh. Finding effective new party members with special abilities or strong stats is one of the real pleasures of DD, and there's even a certain morbid pleasure in dealing with their negative personality Quirks. One member of your team might become more prone to disease, while another will become scared of excessive light - a particular problem given that keeping your torch well lit makes the dungeon you're in easier. That said, letting things get dark makes the rewards meatier, so there's a layer of strategy here too.
You're probably picking up that there's an awful lot to consider in DD. We've barely even scratched the surface of what it has to offer, such is the sheer depth of content on offer here. One negative result of these layers of systems is a screen that's always dense with information. Like so much of this grisly RPG, it's initially rather overwhelming, and it takes a while before you can properly parse everything that's put before you. Unfortunately, this information overload also poses platform-specific problems both when playing on your TV and directly on your Switch.
When docked, the game's text-rich, menu-heavy interface has plenty of room to breathe, and you can really appreciate DD's beautiful hand-drawn comic book art style. However, that same busy UI maps uneasily to a control pad. It just never feels wholly comfortable or consistent, and flipping between menus and remembering which stick you're meant to be using to navigate ends up being a bit of a chore.
It's much more easy and natural to control in handheld mode, where you can directly interact with menu elements through the touchscreen. Unfortunately, Switch's 6-inch 720p display isn't quite big or sharp enough to render all of the aforementioned UI elements (or the small text) optimally. All in all, neither way of playing is without its issues, leading us to conclude that Switch isn't the ideal platform on which to play DD. It's a PC game at heart, and that remains the preferred format.
Of course, DD is a game that revels in imperfections, whether you're managing the psychological flaws of your party, limping home with a sole surviving party member, or struggling to pull your drunken field medic out of the pub for a mission. In this context, squinting at some slightly-too-small text or working an awkward control layout is no major hardship - especially when the rewards for perseverance are so rich.
Darkest Dungeon has always been an RPG that finds ways to make life uncomfortable for the player, and this Switch version manages to add a couple of usability issues to that list. However, this remains a dauntingly deep, thoroughly absorbing dungeon crawler that will swallow you up for hours at a time.