The Best Darkest Dungeon Monsters, Part I
Released back in January 2016, Darkest Dungeon lives up to its name with positively merciless gameplay, inflicting your four heroes with madness and disease at every turn as you trudge your way to the titular Darkest Dungeon itself, miles beneath your family manor. Along the way, you'll unravel the history of your ancestor's many dark obsessions and hideous experiments, piecing together a horror epic unapologetically borrowing all the trademark tropes we associate with "Lovecraftian" fiction.
...Which isn't a setup that usually grabs me all that easily anymore, but between its 90's comic-book art style and some uniquely fun twists on those tropes, Darkest Dungeon would totally qualify for my official seal of approval if that were either something I actually had or something that would ever have any value to anybody else.
So what are those fun twists? What lies in store for our hapless party if not the off-brand Cthulhus of so many other stories? Let's check that out! Almost all of it, even!
The ShamblerWe'll get this one out of the way first, despite the fact that it's sort of a mini-boss and one of the game's most difficult enemies. Out of everything in Darkest Dungeon, it comes closest to what I just said about off-brand Cthulhus, but a multi-eyed tentacle beast is kind of obligatory in a setting like this, and I guess I like how it gives off a baboon-like or even boar-like vibe. For the most part, though, this is a design I feel like I've seen too many times before.
The Shambler Tentacle...A little baby Shambler, on the other hand, has an instantly fun and endearing design. Anything with a 360 degree ring of bulbous eyeballs is always gonna be a hit, and I really like the stumpy, tubular mouths sprouting like little arms from its stalklike body. I'm left wishing, like so many Pokemon, that the "juvenile" and "adult" stages of this monster had been reversed; I could see the mobile shambler up there being the immature form of a huge, tunneling worm-tree closer in anatomy to this mere "tentacle."
Then again, maybe the tentacle already is part of a much larger, stranger creature, and it does just "bud" these into shamblers to spread itself around.
The CollectorBoth the Shambler and this big nerd are encounterable throughout the game, and they're both tough as hell. The origins of the collector are entirely unknown, but it's plainly easy to see what it is the collector collects, and that the collector's collection is also basically the collector's entire body, both of which they seem downright delighted at the opportunity to show us. I'm sure I don't even need to say that all the heads are still conscious and constantly suffering; that's pretty much a given with an entity like this, as is their ability to detach and defend the collector against their will.
The GhoulYou've got to have some basic humanoid ghouls or ghoulesque hominids in this kind of setting too, though they thankfully skip the generic "zombie" sort of ghoul and go straight for the "unnaturally overgrown cannibal" sort of ghoul, basically exactly how traditional tales describe a Wendigo. I haven't much else to say about this one, but I do always appreciate large, blankly luminous eyes like these.
The GargoyleAnother common monster in many different areas, gargoyles are another of those monster types I used to overlook but have grown a little more fond of in recent years. Sure, they're usually kind of generic-looking bat-winged devil things, but there's something interesting about a bat-winged devil thing that's just naturally made out of stone, and the big goofy cow-skull sort of face on this one could only be improved if the eyes were a little more interesting; I've never been too big on the "angry little slit" style of monster eye, and I'm not even sure why, except perhaps because I lived through the 90's I guess.
The SwinefolkAll the rest of our monsters are going to be tied into very particular parts of the game with very particular themes, and the warrens are a really fun one, available from the beginning of the game's release. It seems that your ancestor experimented for years using pigs, sometimes only parts of pigs, as vessels for otherworldly forces before finally moving on to human beings. The result is a whole horrible subterranean colony of porcine abominations, which is an excellent creative choice; pigs are generally adorable, but border so precariously on the uncanny that the moment you take a pig out of a completely wholesome context, it's easily twice as scary as any other mammal could ever be.
The first one we saw up there was the "Swine Wretch," and it may be the saddest and lowliest of the swine, but it's already the most frightening design we've seen, and would be even without the human skull weirdly melded to its torso. Others, like the Swine Drummer, Slasher and Skiver, are a little more capable of self defense. The fact that they clearly display a developing "culture" of some sort might be the most horrifying part, if only for the existential tragedy of an intelligent race coming into being solely as a side effect of an unearthly and probably very unpleasant corruption. Doesn't the world of mankind kind of deserve whatever these poor piggies have in store for it?
The Carrion EatersThese apparent references to my beloved Carrion Crawlers still don't quite hold up to the original (can anything?) but it's pretty fun how the "full size" version appears to utilize a scrounged-up animal skull as a "beak!"
The SwinetaurHow great is it that the swinefolk come in 'taur form? Just a big, burly man-body jutting out of a big, fat piggy-body. I like the multiple shields chained together to protect the vulnerable midsection, and it's interesting for a pig-themed monster to hide its face. Usually, the piggy face is front and center in pig-themed monsters, but Swinetaur keeps us guessing whether its visage is as human as its arms.
The Swine PrinceAbsoTIVELY nightmarish. It's not just the huge, rotten body, but those sunken eyes and look of sheer misery that really drive home the horror of this thing. This is the result of successfully summoning an entity of the "outer spheres" into a pig's body, but unfortunately, this entity wasn't a very intelligent one. It only grew and grew, demanding human flesh, and ruling bruteishly over the other swine-people...or so we're told....
Wilbur...Because, actually, the Swine Prince seems to follow the directions of this little scamp, named in reference to Charlotte's Web, to the point that the "prince" can be interpreted as nothing more than Wilbur's mindless puppet. No official lore offers any hint into what's going on here or anything about Wilbur's back story, but it's kind of better that way.
The FleshJust when the prince seemed like the ultimate boss of the warrens, we end up fighting basically the cosmic horror version of hot dog scraps; an amalgamated mess of all the warped, reanimated pig chunks it took to perfect the summoning processes. Representing a far vaster collection of limbs and viscera, we battle the flesh in the form of a rump, heart, spine and head, each exquisitely horrendous in its own special way. The spine, however, might be my clear favorite, because how often do we just plain fight a spine in anything? I would also argue that the spine is the single coolest looking part of vertebrate anatomy. It's in our names!
The EctoplasmThe Weald is another dungeon representing a corrupted forest, distinct from the subterranean ruins and catacombs beneath the manor. The Weald was created not by your ancestor, but by a former associate of his we're building up to. To begin, here's a simple giant slime sort of enemy, possibly once a slime mold, or any number of other single-celled organisms.
The Fungal ScratcherEver since the movie Matango I've adored mushroom people as horror, but most of all when they have straight-up giant mushrooms for heads instead of the needlessly elaborate mushroom-encrusted skulls you get in most "serious" horror settings. Those are just zombies with mushrooms on them, not proper mushroom people!
These are, of course, the result of people lost in a forest where the air is thick with unnatural, parasitic spores, and their original human consciousness may still be in there, unable to control their own body.
The Fungal ArtilleryThis almost falls more under that "zombie with mushrooms on it" category, except the skull is basically just a dangling vestige. This poor shmuck has been twisted into what amounts to a big puffball with four "legs," and that's great. I am a BIG fan of exactly that thing happening.
The Unclean GiantSome people, apparently, can sort of resist total consumption by the Weald's spores, but the outcome is only marginally better. The semi-infected grow far beyond the natural size and life span of a human, becoming brutal, animalistic, and obedient to something else of the Weald...
The Hateful Virago...WITCHES! FUNGUS witches! If the giant didn't tip you off, this forest of eldritchy toadstools is Darkest Dungeon's excuse to throw in some more fairy-tale flavored horror, with a whole coven of women connected to a mycorrhizal hive mind. In battle, they use an ability called "From Death Comes Life" to instantly transform any corpse on the field into a big, smelly mushroom, which isn't a "monster" capable of fighting, but completely blocks your ability to heal, which is pretty significant in a game marketed around its sheer difficulty.
Where there's a coven, though, you know there's always a head witch, which brings us to...
The HagThe Hag, for a time, was once the ancestor's assistant in his dark research, and apparently also an object of his affection and/or lust, though it's not known if the feelings were mutual. Proving herself far more hardcore in her devotion to science, she tested her various discoveries on herself, until she started to become something more than a mere human, terribly powerful and terribly mad.
Soon, she was kicked out of your ancestor's house and had nowhere else to go but the woods, ostensibly because she was becoming too dangerous but really because she was killing his boner, because surprisingly, the same man who spent years turning tortured piggies into vehicles for shoggoths is kind of an overall bad person and even worse friend.
She seemed to get over him pretty fast, though, if she was ever into him at all. Just look at the absolutely kick-ass life she's made for herself, vastly superior friends and fantastic wardrobe! You'll actually battle her alongside a bubbling cauldron, and she can use an attack called "INTO THE POT!" to just scoop one of your party members right on in there.
The ShriekerOur last creature of the Weald, you can tell that the Shrieker used to be a raven...and that's pretty much its whole story. Despite its gargantuan size, additional eyeballs and crusty mutant flesh, it still has a normal raven's mind and just lives up in a gigantic, mutated tree, hoarding anything shiny and interesting in its nest when it's not just swooping down and eating people.
The PelagicsYou can't have a Lovecraft homage without some nautical nonsense, so of course this messed-up estate isn't far from a nice little saltwater inlet, where your ancestor made various illicit deals with fish people in exchange for whatever riches they could dredge up from the sea floor...or just from passing ships.
The basic design of these guys is about what you expect; they're mean, nasty little fish-goblins whose faces borrow most of all from piranha. Humanoid fish were actually my #1 favorite monster of all time for a portion of my childhood, and still pretty high up there, even if I'm not really as into them now as I was then.
The Pelagic GuardianSo here we go with the tentacles already, not that I'm really complaining, I just definitely saw it coming. I think the strong suit of this more advanced pelagic is its big, bulbous forehead and the horrible teeth exposed by its pursed, fishy lips, giving off the vibe of one of those hilarious, hump-headed parrotfish. You know the ones. I think that's even exactly what they're called.
The Sea MaggotI really like the idea that a sea snail can be analagous to a "maggot" in some way. These are apparently pets of the Pelagics, incredibly slow but capable of spitting sticky slime to mire their prey. I also find it pretty neat how the suckers make this snail look a lot like a chunk of something's tentacle.
The Squiffy GhastThere's actually a mess of ghost pirates for you face alongside the fish people and gary the snail, but it's this one that stands out because he loooooves to play the fiddle, and his name is Squiffy Ghast. What else do I NEED to say?
The Uca CrusherI'm really fairly so-so on this design. I like crabs a lot, don't get me wrong, but a crab's weird face is half the charm, and this has more of a chitinous lizard head I can't get as into. Give me the old stalk-eyes any day. Almost no lore for this one, either, besides speculation that it may be the corrupted form of a regular crab, or it may just be a heretofore unknown species of sea life.
The Deep StingerThis might seem like your ordinary, monstrous jellyfish, but you'll notice that its tentacles are more like the whips of a squid, and that its central body trails into a pretty sharp-looking "tail." That's actually used to suck blood, which is a really awesome thing for any jellyfish-shaped monster to do.
The SirenIn case the Hag's backstory didn't make him bad enough, this monster used to be a young villager with a persistent crush on your ancestor that only "annoyed" him, until he basically traded her to the Pelagics in exchange for buried treasure. She's now said to be "both the queen...and the slave" to the fish people, who live in fear of her even as she's forced to play her constant siren song on a gigantic conch shell, steadily supplying her "people" with ships to scavenge.
She has a pretty nice mermaid-anglerfish design, though not all that different from a few other sea monsters I've seen.
The Darkest Dungeon Itself
The CultistsYes, the Darkest Dungeon is an actual, literal place really called that, and it's where Things From Beyond are leaking into our own world. It's the end of the game, but it's not the end of our review, which is good because its monsters actually aren't really as cool to me as most of the other themes we'll have explored here.
Anyway, those Things From Beyond have quite the fandom pretty much wherever they go, don't they? You'll encounter "ascended" versions of old human enemies here, wrapped with alien flesh, and "rapturous cultists" who couldn't be happier to be breaking out in eyeballs. Some people even get enough extra meat to pretend they're giant bugs!
Flesh GrowthsI guess I should mention that the DARKEST DUNGEON has walls of living elder-god flesh, as it most certainly should, and sometimes you'll have to fight little polypous protrusions of that directly. I like the way the first growth here is hiding its skull head behind a tentacle so shyly.
The PolypAny monster you can rightfully call "a polyp" is usually going to be high on my list of favorites, and this simple, winged mouth-ball is fairly nice, though I feel like it didn't even need the mouth part. The best polyps are all polyp! None of that fancy stuff!
The AntibodiesWhat a difference mouth placement can make! The left side of an "antibody" looks like such a cute, innocent little snarling baby, while the right side looks like a horrible old man scolding you to get off his porch.
The Flesh HoundI think this is my favorite of the designs from this area. A squiddy face with spider eyes is another of those things commonplace enough that it's ceased to intrigue me, but I really like the overall shape of this being, the skin membranes between its limbs and just the fact that it's considered a "flesh hound" at all.
The Mammoth CystThis is a miniboss without much in the way of lore, but fairly self-explanatory, and seemingly a nod to the Beholders from Dungeons and Dragons.
The AncestorEventually, you'll battle against your ancestor himself, corrupted with the lower body of a fleshy, squiddly mass, and he'll split off both an "imperfect reflection" and "perfect reflection" to assist him. The reflections obviously look a lot cooler than the original, especially the "imperfect" one and its split head.
All this apparently happened due to the guy having even a "sliver" of understanding of just what it is that lies under The Darkest Dungeon...and you can't beat the game without finding out for yourself, so, good luck with that down the road.
The Heart of DarknessOkay, as far as Slumbering Lovecraftian Elder God things go, this one has a pretty solid concept. It doesn't usually have the dramatic devil man sticking out of it - that's just your ancestor completely integrating into the thing - but this giant heart is, SPOILER, revealed to be much more than just the source of the "corruption" turning things into monsters; it's actually the source of all life as we know it.
Yep, this thing is our true origin, actually just on its way back to reclaim everything and effectively undo the world it created. This actually keeps happening in an endless cycle of your family in particular defeating, re-awakening, merging with and re-defeating the thing generation after generation until one or other is eventually going to give out. Probably not the side that created everything alive on Earth.
...And that's basically it for the "main" quest of Darkest Dungeon, but a DLC dungeon is so good, I had to save it for an article of its own.