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The Darkest Dungeon (2016): The Countess

I enjoy Red Hook's The Darkest Dungeon (2016) a great deal, but one thing that always struck me is how most of the bosses feel a little underwhelming. It's not like they're easy, per se; in fact, many are legitimately dangerous, but not to the degree that I feel frustrated by them. I don't dread fighting them because if one goes into battle fully prepared, they're fairly straightforward affairs. In this sense, one just lines the bosses up, and proceeds to knock them down, one at a time. There's some prep time involved, but once you have the means, it's not really so bad. Call it a harvest, and you the reaper.

Then, there's the Crimson Court... Here, the bosses are truly tough, to the point that one can't simply muscle through them. To be honest, the Viscount is something of a pushover, but the Baron is not, as I recall. Nor, it turns out, is the Countess. I went into the Countess fight having never fought her, before. Fighting her was quite possibly the most stressful experience in a game infamous for such moments, and I technically won the fight! I did so by the skin of my teeth, but cannot stress how close this fight was: using a group that was equipped to specifically deal with her resulted in the closest match I've ever experienced.

Before I attacked the Countess, I remembered how tricky the Baron was. He had a gimmick that not only removed your ability to heal, but also dragged the fight out. It essentially forced me to attack him with a very particular set of characters. Keep in mind, my knowledge of the Baron stemmed from before the Color of Madness update—an update that made sweeping changes to the base game, including the Man-at-Arm's ability to spam Bolster in order to push one's dodge levels through the roof. In the past, with the right gear and two Men-at-Arms, one could make characters literally unable to be hit, effectively making what should be a very hard boss a very easy boss. Thanks to the patch, this was no longer an option.

Despite these changes, I presumed the Countess could still be handled without much trouble. I was wrong. Needless to say I had a few trial matches, going in. The virgin match involved me using a modified version of my go-to group: Hollow (a custom health/stress healer), Jester, Highwayman, and Man-at-Arms. Normally I'd have used the Offering (another custom character) in Rank 1, but decided to go with the Man-at-Arms because of the double riposte effect from Riposte and Retribution; it worked well at the Comet stage so I figured that it would work well, here. Again, I was sorely mistaken.

I also foolishly made the mistake of going into the fight blind (for some reason, I thought it'd be fun: a leisurely jaunt). As a result, I didn't know how her abilities worked, chiefly Love Letter. As it turns out, the parasites don't gestate if you do heal abilities or buffs, but this is just something you have to figure out for yourself. If one's healer is nailed by it, they won't actually take damage unless they attack. A Vestal generally isn't because she'll be too busy spamming group heal. All in all, the game offers no explanation, regarding Love Letter. The fight, itself, is especially complicated, apart from this, and the stakes are stupidly high. It goes without saying that fighting the Countess the first couple times makes for a rough crash course.

Another issue I had (and not just me, it seems) stemmed from not reading the latest core changes made in conjunction with The Colors of Madness update. Following the patch, neither Love Letter nor Sway With Me trigger riposte(!). This made my riposte group poorly equipped to fight her. On top of that, one can't spam Bolster from the Man-at-Arms, so dodging reliably is out. When she enters her third form, she stuns nonstop, and generally has protection through the roof. In fact, having a Flagellant* and a Fawn (a custom character with high bleed attacks) seem ideal, in retrospect. Alas, I had lost my only Flagellant and figured I could get through the fight, regardless. This time, I was technically right.

*Note: In particular, lowering her bleed resist down to zero with the Flagellant seems like a potential winning strategy. He will do most of the work, while the rest of the group peppers her with sporadic damage (and does their best not to die). I'll have to try that, next time.

In that particular fight, I got the Countess down to a quarter of her total health (400) and then lost both my healer and Man-at-Arms. It felt close, but I knew I had to retreat or risk a full wipe. I fell back, and had no more invites. Acquiring those is tedious, at best. Worse, I had to do it one at a time, burdened by the mad knowledge that I was preparing to fight something so strong. It seemed foolhardy in the extreme, as though I were chasing a white whale. Before going in again, I decided to read up on the Countess because I was confused by how strong she seemed. As it turns out, she has pretty high stun resist, too—an effect not helped by the fact that the patch lowered the effectiveness of all stun items and abilities across the board; apart from that, and the "Love Letters" she gives you, the Countess also stuns like an absolute freak, does life tap and throws your group position out the window while bleeding, blighting and stressing you nonstop.

This research made my initial defeat a little less surprising. Frankly it's a really hard fight. I generally don't feel the need to use support items, like the bandages, holy water or antivenom. Here, they felt absolutely essential. Hopped up on the Blood, and using holy water to avoid bleed and blight, I used everything to give me an edge. Each time I went in, I tried a different group. The second time, I tried a Vestal, two Houndmasters, and a Man-at-Arms. I gave the Houndmasters and the Man-at-Arms Camouflage Cloaks (+15 dodge) and Sunlight Cloaks (+10 dodge); I used Bolster (+10 dodge for the battle) and Protect, once (+20). With a base dodge of 30, they'd wind up with a dodge rating of 85 or so. Meanwhile, Love Letter has a base accuracy rating of 120%. So dodge by itself simply wasn't going to cut it.

That fight crashed and burned. Finally I tried a Vestal, two Houndmasters and a Hellion. This was my victory group. I kept dodge gear with my Houndmasters, gave bleed chance gear to my Hellion and heal boost to my Vestal. The Vestal healed, the Hellion bled, and the Houndmasters guarded and marked to lower the Countess' Protection rating with occasional attacks. It felt straightforward—as much as a battle to the death can feel when your position is totally skewed and your entire group is infected with parasites that damage you whenever you attack. On top of that, I was being blighted and bled to hell and back, and had horror applied whenever the Countless entered her Bloodlust form (which was often). The only way I can describe it is pressure. I was under constant, unrelenting pressure the entire time. This is not a fast fight, either. You're constantly under attack, with your own meager health bars plummeting steadily downward while hers is gradually whittled away. It only gets worse as the fight progresses. Eventually the Countess simply remains in Bloodlust form; or, she did, for me, having multiple rounds in that final form, amounting to something like twelve turns, many of which include mass stuns and life tap. It's simply brutal.

Eventually my Vestal died, but the Countess was almost dead (again). I'd already fought her something like four times, so I decided to stick this one out. The plan was, my Hellion would apply bleed, and my Houndmasters would dodge, guard, mark, and attack. Even at this stage, I thought about cutting my losses, though; the odds were stacked against me. Then one of my Houndmasters had to go and land a critical attack for 58 damage. It bought the Countess down to 45 hit points, or so. She was so close! Worse than scaring me off, this powerful attack filled me with hope and I decided to roll the dice by continuing to fight.

If this doesn't sound absolutely crazy to you, keep in mind my healer was already dead. The other three were basically dead on their feet, too: there was no time to heal, and no way to manage stress; she simply had too many moves. Her constant application of the horror debuff made it so that, by the end of the fight, my Houndmasters and Hellion were quickly approaching 200 stress. All three were at Death's Door. It really was a mess. From this point on, every move felt like life-or-death, and I went through twelve moves, or three full rounds(!) with the Countess in Bloodlust. She was constantly attacking. If she landed her stun, that was game over. If she landed The Thirst, she would damage me, while healing herself. Worse, it could very easily have killed one of my characters—a death that would have killed the other two from heart attacks.

To quote Lovecraft, "I think I went mad, then." I actually felt trapped, here; I felt sick, sitting on the edge of my seat. Come hell or high water, I was determined to see this through with the end, but also dreaded the outcome. "To the last, I grapple with thee; From Hell's heart, I stab at thee; For hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee!"

Here, the high dodge my Houndmasters had was essential. It wasn't high enough to guarantee dodges, but they still regularly avoided her stuns, and took death rolls if she landed her life tap (which she did, several times). They survived, and managed to keep her occupied while my Hellion used Bleed to chip away at the Countess' remaining health. It got down to 20, went up to 40 and then dropped below 20 again. This part of the fight reminded me of Rocky versus Apollo, in Rocky (1975). In that slug-fest, both sides were close to defeat; by the final round, it was only a question of who would be the first to drop to the mat.

The last exchange boiled down to dodging one last life tap. A swing and a miss. When my Houndmaster dodged it, I sighed—just like Luke did, when he sent the torpedoes down the Death Star canal, into the exhaust vent. One final attack from my Hellion mortally wounded the Countess, who bled to death on the very next move.

I couldn't believe it: the bitch was dead!

This felt like an accomplishment: the one fight in the game where I legitimately felt like I had fought something truly powerful. Not just tricky but genuinely stronger than me no matter how much I prepared, ahead of time. Victory wasn't easy and came at a cost, but frankly I didn't care so long as I got through the fight. Until the Countess, I never fought a boss I actually wanted to keep fighting after losing a character. Most bosses, I'd simply retreat if things felt dicey and generally there wasn't a need to even use support items, either. I'd simply pull out knowing I could just heal up, in town, and return with a fresh group. With the Countess, I wasn't sure I'd come that close to beating her again, and the prospect of me having to farm for more invites before trying again was maddening.

I used everything I could to pull out a hard-fought win. As a result, beating the Countess felt like beating the game itself. After her, nothing could feel so challenging. Like Jack Burton, I'd shook the pillars of heaven itself—had, in the words of Matthew "Monk" Lewis, "felt the sharpest darts in misfortune's quiver; those which remained felt blunt in comparison." I'm also strangely glad that I fought the Countess for the first time, after the patch. It made the experience much more difficult than it would have been, otherwise. Yeah, it was stressful, but I won, and it feels pretty good, in retrospect, precisely because I took such a huge risk and it paid off.

Note: At the same time, I feel like there is room to improve, by trying heavy bleed; but also, room to make things even harder, with the Bloodmoon difficulty setting (and Pitch Black Dungeon, too). "Overconfidence is a slow and insidious killer," indeed!


About me: My name is Nick van der Waard and I'm a Gothic ludologist. I primarily write reviews, Gothic analyses, and interviews. Because my main body of work is relatively vast, I've compiled it into a single compendium where I not only list my favorite works, I also summarize them. Check it out, here!

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