More than a popular console, the Switch is an exciting console. It feels like it can do everything, be anything. Nintendo understands both how you play and how you want to play. They’ve made a toy that can reach across the jaded decades and capture your imagination once again. It’s easy to imagine that on the Switch, any game can finally become the best—or at least most convenient—version of itself.
Darkest Dungeon seemed like it would be that kind of game for me. A merciless permadeath RPG, it’s a slab of tactical granite that you chip away at for weeks or months, one short session at a time. In other words, it felt like a game tailor-made for the Switch, something that would turn long commutes and bedtime play sessions into titanic duels against eldritch horror. But the reality of the Darkest Dungeon Switch version that came out last week is a far cry from the one I’ve been dreaming about since its announcement.
It’s telling that most of the tutorial text in Darkest Dungeon seems to be subtly pointing you in the direction of the touchscreen controls, before grudgingly acknowledging that of course you could use the gamepad. The touchscreen controls at least make sense by giving you some way to interact directly with the visual interface.
But I’ve struggled with that because it doesn’t feel like the interface was rescaled for the Switch. All the buttons and icons feel impossibly tiny and delicate on the Switch’s screen, which never seemed small to me until I played this specific game. My problems here do not seem universal by any means: Kotaku’s Gita Jackson seems to be getting along swimmingly with the touch controls, but I don’t know how she got to that promised land. For my part, using the Switch’s touch interface has involved a lot squinting and mis-clicking.
The really bad news is that still might be the most practical way to play. Darkest Dungeon’s gamepad controls are frustratingly unintuitive and awkward. They scarcely bear any relationship to the graphic interface, nor do they really follow consistent conventions beyond, “The shoulder buttons will cycle-through... something.” It almost feels like every single aspect of the game has its own bespoke controls that operate completely differently from everything else.
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The result is an already difficult game that makes even its simplest tasks significantly trickier. If you’re going through your list of items and realize there’s a great talisman for your thief, you can’t actually give him that talisman. There’s an order of operations problem: you can only get stuff out of general inventory and onto characters if the character sheets are already open. You can’t, however, open the character sheets if you have the inventory open. So you exit, then follow the correct steps.
I’ve played enough at this point that I’ve started to internalize the oddities of this interface. It’s not a deal-breaker if you haven’t played Darkest Dungeon before. But this version is still far from comfortable or convenient. And that’s made me realize how badly I underestimated the difficulty of leveraging everything the Switch can do.
The Switch can be a TV console that you play on from across the room in a comfortable chair, or a handheld console, or a mobile touch device. It can be all of the above, but the more of the Switch’s versatility a game brings into play, the more it has to tailor itself to the special constraints that attend the platform’s expanded possibilities.
People who are playing it as a handheld are having such a radically different experience than people playing it on a TV that each Switch game almost contains two different versions within itself. Darkest Dungeon doesn’t seem to find the right ways to reconcile those differences, or maybe it just doesn’t make the right concessions in its transition from mouse-and-keyboard to handheld. It functions on the Switch, but it never quite feels to me like it works.
It’s disappointing. There’s almost nothing I wouldn’t rather play on my Switch than Darkest Dungeon and, conversely, I keep thinking that I should just quit my Switch campaign and start a new one on PC.
Somehow, an elegant, streamlined game on PC was brought to an elegant, versatile platform and they brought out each other’s worst qualities. As a platform the Switch seems like it offers the best of all worlds, but if a game doesn’t properly adapt itself, it winds up caught somewhere between them.