Wandering through the Indie Megabooth is one of the most delightful experiences of attending PAX, because you never know what you'll stumble across. I've been fortunate enough to find a number of gems in the small, closely placed booths. One of the best finds of PAX East 2014 was Darkest Dungeon.
I had been watching Red Hook's Kickstarter effort to fund the title with interest. The art style is one of most visually striking I've seen in quite a while. The character designs remind me of woodcuts, and the minimalist approach to animation works extremely well as characters strike dramatic poses that fit the turn-based nature of play.
What sets Darkest Dungeon apart from other turn-based RPGs is its focus on the mental health of the heroes. For our demo, we were given a four-person party consisting of a crusader (a traditional fighter), a highway man (knife and gun toting rogue), a plague doctor (uses poisons on foes), and a vestal (a mace-wielding cleric).
Each character has a health bar and a sanity meter. Foes and the experiences in the dungeon can inflict mental anguish as well as physical harm. Once the white stress meter is full, characters roll a check (handled under the hood). Should they fail, they will become "afflicted" by a mental ailment, however there is a slight chance that they will instead triumph over the fear and earn a temporary buff.
Two of my characters became depressed, which had a variety of effects on combat. Characters are positioned in a straight line, and the perspective is from the side. At least half the time, afflicted characters were out of my control, retreating in the line, simply refusing to fight, or saying something pessimistic that negatively impacts the stress of other party members.
Position matters, as different class skills can only be used at certain places in the formation. Afflictions also have an impact on camping. Resting your party is an opportunity to heal and restore sanity, but it's also another moment that characters can have adverse affects on one another.
At the campfire, players are given a number of points that activate character camping skills. These might heal or reduce stress, but they can only be used on other heroes. You might also find a situation in which one character becomes unnerved by another. Since you maintain a roster of champions (similar to XCOM: Enemy Unknown), you might want to keep those two away from each other on future expeditions.
Once back in town, you might be able to mitigate afflictions by sending heroes to blow of steam, pray and reflect in church, or seek a doctor. Once you are ready to end the game, you can make your way into the darkest dungeon.
At the bottom, you'll find the source of all evil in the game world. Unfortunately, you'll need to enter multiple times to shut that gate. Once your heroes encounter the horrors of the final labyrinth, they are forever changed and will never go back. You can use those heroes to level your younger recruits, but in terms of taking the fight to the ultimate evil, they are out of rotation.
Darkest Dungeon is the RPG expression of the gameplay I love in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, combined with fulfillment of my interest in Lovecraftian horror. The stress mechanic deeply affects everything in the title, while humanizing and personalizing the cardboard cutout heroes of so many other experiences.
It was one of the best experiences I had at PAX, and I'm looking forward to playing it again when it's released in early 2015 on PC, Mac, and Linux. The title will also be in early access this fall.