Before Darkest Dungeon II, Seek the Punishing Black Reliquary

Games Features Darkest Dungeon
Before Darkest Dungeon II, Seek the Punishing Black Reliquary

If creating a hit indie videogame that offers dozens if not hundreds of hours of replay value is rightly regarded as a labor of love, then what does one call a fan-created total conversion mod–a free one–offering just as much new content? Try as I might, it’s truly difficult to imagine the dedication that must have been required to create something like Black Reliquary just because you’d like to see it exist. The team behind this recently released total conversion mod must love Darkest Dungeon with a passion exceeding any hobby I’ve ever possessed, because why else would they commit the absurd amount of time and resources it must have taken to create what is essentially an entirely new game? This mod doesn’t just offer “more content” for Darkest Dungeon fans; it effectively doubles the footprint of the original game, coming just a couple weeks before the long-awaited proper sequel Darkest Dungeon II finally arrives with its full release. If, like me, you’ve been eagerly awaiting that sequel since the original game from Red Hook Studios way back in 2016, it certainly feels like an embarrassment of riches after a long wait.

Black Reliquary is likely to be particularly welcomed by fans of the original game because it embraces the philosophy of simply piling on vast amounts of new enemies, regions, classes and story onto the original Darkest Dungeon framework, as opposed to the full-on sequel from Red Hook, which is instead reimagining the core gameplay loop of their horror-focused roguelike. Where Darkest Dungeon II may actually lose some fans with its attempt to innovate by streamlining elements of the game and creating a campaign that can be played through in a far shorter amount of time, Black Reliquary embraces the heroic marathon grind that was necessary to complete the full story of the original. Not only is it just about as long as Darkest Dungeon, in fact, but it’s probably even more difficult than a game that already stood out for its punishing disregard for your favorite heroes. This is an experience of grinding away at a monolithic, evil foe, fighting inch by inch to level up your roster and position them to take on the extra-dangerous bosses.

And lord, what foes you will face. Black Reliquary offers a frankly stunning new array of enemies in each of its regions, from the Middle Eastern-flavored Levantine soldiers, to the pox-scarred Troglodytes, the feral Wilderlands residents or the plant-based Cactonids. All are lovingly rendered by developer Team Reliquary with artwork and animations that are absolutely on par with the original designs from Red Hook, feeling completely indistinguishable in most cases. Gameplay is supported by more of the macabre music you would expect, and the experience can even boast full narration, even if this aspect could never truly hope to compete with the instantly iconic voiceover of the original Darkest Dungeon. The aesthetic here is impressively on point, though it can often be sexualized to a slightly distracting degree that was never present in the original game–it’s like someone made a note that the original was lacking in heaving bosoms, and then vastly overcompensated.

Regardless, tinkering around with the new player classes in particular is a joy, as is finding new compatibility to combine those new classes with all the existing ones that were already introduced in Darkest Dungeon and official expansion The Crimson Court. Those new classes range from ones that are instantly understandable and easy to use such as the Musketeer–basically just a back line ranged damage dealer, and fairly similar to the crossbow-armed Arbalest–to particularly complicated and multifaceted support classes such as the Veiled, which take many attempts to use to their full potency. Particularly fun, meanwhile, is the Hexer, a fiendish combination of damage and support who must build up his own supply of “corruption vials,” which he then expends to apply huge buffs, debuffs or single-target damage. Another melee combat class, the Judicator, is built around taking advantage of two of Black Reliquary‘s new status effects, “Amberblight” and “Expiation,” meaning that the class works particularly well when paired with other heroes who can apply those status effects.

Combat, meanwhile, is just as wild and brutal in Black Reliquary as ever, but the innovation of a starting “prep round” gives each combat encounter a new layer of strategy. Although it is possible to go on the offensive during the initial prep round, both accuracy and damage are greatly reduced, which gives the player an incentive to instead experiment with buffs and debuffs, powers that all too often went unused in the original Darkest Dungeon. It’s an excellent idea in principal, though in practice it’s just one more aspect that can make each combat encounter longer and more draining for the player. After the opening prep round, both party members and enemies frequently end up with half a dozen different buffs and debuffs layered over them, which can make it difficult to tell at a glance if any given character or enemy is being more bolstered or hampered by the various statuses affecting them. Combined with stages that are generally longer than those in Darkest Dungeon, it can make each expedition feel like an epic quest in and of itself. Add in the management of stress, personality quirks and disease seen in the original game, and there’s always half a dozen aspects clamoring for your attention.

One thing that remains constant is the sadistic difficulty level present in Black Reliquary, which takes its mandate to kill your characters quite seriously indeed. There are enemies here with abilities that at times seem pointedly unfair–I had a character killed at one point by a series of three straight critical hits before they even took a turn, each of which dealt more damage than the character even had in total HP. There was nothing I could have done differently in that instance to keep the character alive, because as in the original Darkest Dungeon you are ultimately at the mercy of random number generation. Players who hate the reliance on RNG will find no solace here; it’s best to just accept the brutality of fate as an aspect of the game’s overarching aesthetic of encroaching doom. The bosses, meanwhile, are even more absurdly powerful, combining astronomical health pools with abilities that allow many of them to frustratingly avoid attack after attack. Overcoming them can require a Dark Souls-esque willingness to suffer repeated, costly failures, though painstaking preparation will hopefully pay dividends.

When it comes to total conversion mods, it’s difficult to ask for any more than the precise, polished presentation afforded by Black Reliquary, especially on the visual side of the experience. In its own way, this mod may ultimately serve as more of a direct follow-up to Darkest Dungeon than the official sequel from Red Hook, at least in the sense that it more faithfully expounds upon the same style of gameplay that was seen in the original, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. And did we mention that it’s completely free for customers who already own the original game? Provided you don’t mind having your heroes butchered before your eyes, what do you have to lose?

Jim Vorel is Paste’s resident genre guru. You can follow him on Twitter for much more film content.

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