In short, there are innumerable ways a mission can go wrong in Darkest Dungeon, and the descent into chaos can occur with shocking speed. A simple oversight like neglecting the torch can lead to a particularly difficult scrap that leaves your party too bruised to complete their objective. It's possible to retreat from a particular expedition that's going awry, but doing so causes further stress for your Heroes, while the lack of reward impacts upon your coffers.
While the affliction system is fascinating, the game is ironically at its best when the dice roll in your favour. Occasionally, when a hero's resolve is tested, they'll receive a buff instead of an affliction, making them more powerful or resilient to damage, or heightening their abilities. These moments, when everything is going wrong and one of your heroes digs deep and finds something extra, are the highlight of the game, even when there's a good chance that Hero will still be squashed in the very next turn.
Darkest Dungeon has plenty going in its favour. It is an incredibly well-presented game. The heavily-lined visual aesthetic, seemingly comprised of a thousand shades of black, suits the game's grim tone perfectly, and it's no surprise to see Klei's name on the pre-game credits given the heavily stylised nature of both art and animation. The game's audio is equally excellent. My favourite feature is probably the dynamic narration that describes your progress through a dungeon with a foreboding Lovecraftian verbosity. The notion of incorporating a character's mental state into is systems is also ingenious, a clever evolution of an idea that up to this point has only been explored by a handful of games, such as Crusader Kings II.
But here's the rub; Darkest Dungeon is just too darned gruelling to be truly enjoyable. After a few hours, watching heroes gradually tear themselves apart through stress before being mulched by a monster goes from being intriguing to outright depressing. The problem lies not in the concept itself, but in the combination of a fairly simple and repetitive roguelike structure with a much longer meta-game that requires a huge time investment to explore properly.
To finally get to the Darkest Dungeon itself, you'll need four characters at resolve-level 6. This may sound low, but you'll send a lot of Heroes through the meat-grinder to get to it. You'll also need to upgrade their skills, their weaponry, treat their stress and minimise their lasting quirks (essentially smaller yet permanent versions of afflictions). Achieving this requires you to upgrade several buildings in the Hamlet, which in turn requires the collection of artefacts that are found during expeditions.
It's all a bit...baggy, and this prevents you from fully appreciating the lean and taut body of a game underneath these systemic adornments. I found myself thinking back to Klei's own Invisible, Inc, which had a similar emphasis on making difficult choices and forcing the player to take into account both the long and short game. But both sides of Invisible, Inc were much better balanced. The short game had more substance and the long game was beautifully streamlined. By comparison, Darkest Dungeon ends up becoming an arduous slog whose only objective appears to be to beat you down.
This balancing issue exhibits itself in other areas - most notably the character classes. The sheer range of characters is impressive - even Heroes within the same class vary in terms of their attributes and abilities. But as you play it becomes clear that some characters are essential whereas others are all but useless. Heavy damage dealing classes, such as the Crusader and Leper, are a vital component of any party, and any expedition that goes without a Vestal's healing powers is almost certainly doomed. But I barely used the Jester and the Occultist at all.
Don't get me wrong, there's a lot to admire about Darkest Dungeon, an awful lot. But tragically, like an overconfident Hero, it doesn't know when to bow out, when to stop pushing. Eventually, I found that I was suffering the game rather than enjoying it, and because of this, I find it difficult to recommend.