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PAX 2014: Darkest Dungeon rains blood, darkness, and madness in 2D

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With a cast of unsavory characters and a dark, disturbing story inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, Red Hook's Darkest Dungeon adds new dimensions to the RPG (role-playing game) genre—even while it takes one away.

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Created by Red Hook Games and shown at PAX 2014, Darkest Dungeon is a 2D side-scrolling RPG. After a long absence, you have returned to your home—a once grand manor that is now a ruined, burnt husk resting ominously in a moor with untold evils beneath its cold, stony remains. Your father sought rumored power and riches in the depths of the earth beneath the manor, but found instead madness, darkness, and death.

With naught but a note written before he took his own life, you have returned home to claim your birthright—or perhaps, more likely, to redeem it.

A lot of depth for just 2 dimensions

Darkest Dungeon is a fascinating 2D tactical RPG that despite its simple 2 dimensions and left-to-right scrolling is layered is surprisingly deep, atmospheric, and possibly the most interesting take on the genre I’ve seen to date. We’re long overdue for a good H.P. Lovecraft-inspired RPG, aren’t we?

And Darkest Dungeon appears to deliver it through a completely hand-drawn art style done in dark, earthy colors awash in blood and shadows. The game is also narrated by none other than Wayne June, a prominent voice talent who has done a fair share of work recording audio books of H.P. Lovecraft’s works. (You can hear a sample here)

Heroes? Or Anti-heroes?

The cast of Darkest Dungeon is a team of 4 “adventurers” who are as dark and as unsavory as everything else in the game. Some bear familiar titles such as Man-at-Arms and Bounty Hunter, but most much darker and mysterious types—such as the Plague Doctor, the Cultist, the Graverobber (yes, that’s a class), and the Leper.

And as you might expect in a Lovecraftian horror, your characters are not the bastions of light and fortitude that can endure endlessly against the terrors of the darkness. The more they struggle against the horrors, traps, and madness wrought upon them by the dungeon, the more their stress levels (or the “insanometer” as I came to think of it) rise.

And those stress levels don’t decrease. You can mitigate some of the effects by camping (which requires ‘camping points’ – a limited resource), but the only way to reduce your party’s stress levels is to return to town and send them off drinking or whatnot.

There is an entire town ‘metagame’ in Darkest Dungeon you must engage in to help tend the party’s wounds and mental health. If you fail to balance your needs to continue plumbing the depths of the dungeon with their fragile states of mind, they can go insane and act unpredictably and dangerously (to you) in combat.

Take care of them, because if they go tentacle-bananas or die, they can’t come back. There is no Resurrection spell in the game. You might be able to re-animate their corpse and make some use of it, but this course of action rarely ends well for anyone, so your best course of action is to return to town and dupe hire someone else to fill their shoes.

Tactics in 2D

Darkest Dungeon adds some other interesting and appropriately themed mechanics to the dungeon crawl as well. For example, as you continue exploring and advancing in your continual left-to-right quest through depths of darkness, a torch slowly wanes. The way becomes darker. New and frightening sounds gibber and screech at you from the shadows. And as the darkness grows, the monsters grow stronger—but the loot gets better.

Despite its 2 humble dimensions, Darkest Dungeon is no lightweight when it comes to tactics either. Each of the 15 (projected) character classes has a wide range of abilities, characteristics, and gear that can be equipped and customized.

In addition, the marching order of the characters (and their encounters) is important and can affect your tactics. For example, in a boss I watched the party come up against a powerful Necromancer, who immediately summons skeletons to place in front of him.

Chris Bourassa, creative director and (very busy) artist for Darkest Dungeon, tells me that the Necromancer is weak in up close combat, but the skeletons in front of him must be dealt with first before the party can attack him directly (barring certain spells and abilities, some of which are crowd control abilities that can change the order of the defenders).

But in this case, none of the characters had any means of crowd control, so their only option was to attack hard and reduce the skeletons to bone fragments, leaving the Necromancer exposed and vulnerable.

According to Chris Bourassa, Darkest Dungeon should be available for Steam Early Access “in 2015”, with the final product shipping in maybe Q1 or Q2, 2015. But Chris was reluctant to pin down a date. “We want the early access release to be good, not a buggy alpha or half-finished product."

Every PAX I usually encounter a “gem” I hadn’t heard of before, or a game I may have glossed over in the avalanche of pre-show press releases that storm my inbox. Card Hunter was one of those games for me in 2012 for example. At PAX 2014, even with only the first day in the bag, Darkest Dungeon is that game for me.

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