At PAX East this year, one of my favorite surprises was Darkest Dungeon from Red Hook Games. If you haven't yet had a chance to read up on it, I'll kindly directly you there first.
This time out, I had a chance to experience the full cycle of gameplay from dungeon excursion to boss fight and back to town to recover from the horrors of the dark. There have been some significant changes since last we played, along with four new classes that offer their own gameplay styles.
My first trek into the wildneress took us to the forest, a new area fraught with danger both physical and mental. Before leaving, I was able to spend the little money afforded to me on more provisions, including bandages and torches.
I chose all four new heroes for this adventure. The grave robber offers better loot, the chance to disarm traps, and better mobility options in battle (like a lunge that takes the character from third position to the front while dealing damage to the lead enemy). The bounty hunter is a crowd control character, disrupting the enemy lineup. The Hellion is a barbarian type fighter, with a shout that can stun enemies. Finally, the Occultist is a "risky support" character, with a chance to inflict bleeding when healing friends (but dealing in potent poisons to do damage over time).
One of the first things I noticed upon setting out was that exploration is now more interactive. Before, moving from room to room involved clicking on the next chamber, leading to the party automatically trekking down the corridor.
Now, you'll manually march your team to the next destination with the WASD keys, possibly encountering a combination of lootables and enemies along the way. These random fights are less strenuous than those in the rooms, but you'll still need to monitor your team's health and stress.
Also new is the automatic scouting function. Each party member has a scouting stat, which is then aggregated. The higher it is, the more likely you are to see what's in the hallways and even the next room.
Another major changes is the slight tempering of the permadeath penalty with the "death's door" mechanic. When an adventurer takes his or her last hit, an invisible coin flip will determine whether he or she dies or survives. It's a mild cushion against losing a hero forever.
Camping is still a crucial part of surviving in the dungeon, as players will need to use limited time to heal and soothe their party. Of course, things can go badly even at the campground, and making smart decisions (and relying on some luck) is crucial.
Once the battle is over and you've collected gold and valuable heirlooms, you'll head back to town to use them to upgrade buildings. The guild hall can be used to improve combat skills, the camping trainer can do the same for skills used around the campfire. There is also a blacksmith for weapon upgrades, a sanitarium for improving mental afflictions, and a tavern for drinking away the stress.
You'll have to make difficult decisions with your money to upgrade hero skills and weapons, cure ailments and improve stress-induced afflictions. You'll also run into random events that might impact individual characters or force a whole class to sit out the next excursion.
Returning to town was also our first chance to get a good understanding of Darkest Dungeon's experience system, called "resolve." Unlike other games, resolve matters even in between leveling up. The more resolve a character earns, the more resilient they'll be to stress.
The loop feels familiar, but the stress element continues to set Darkest Dungeon apart. The stakes are high in every fight, but it's the uncertainty of interactions among the party that feels fresh and engaging. The variety of the sixteen classes (eight of which we know about now), along with skill progression to create different builds within them gives players the options to experiment with different combinations.
Darkest Dungeon won't be out until mid-2015, as Red Hook continues to build and polish the title. It remains one of my most anticipated games of next year, and if you happen to be at PAX, you'd do well to make time to check it out in the Indie Megabooth.