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darkest dungeon pax west hands on

One of the very first games I was able to play during PAX West was over at the massive PlayStation Booth, which occupied a vast space for PlayStation VR and a variety of other games. Among the first one to catch my eye was a game I had heard about on the PlayStation Blog, but never had a chance to experience. The game here is Darkest Dungeon by Red Hook Studios.

Darkest Dungeon is dark, turn-based action experience that has players crawling into the darkest depths of Medieval dungeons. Players embark on a dark adventure deep into forests, castles, and dungeons to fight vicious, dark beasts and terrible monstrosities. The game is greatly inspired by dark fantasy lore, especially the works of author H.P Lovecraft. This inspiration is woven into the combat system, visual presentation, story, and audio designs.

The biggest twist to the combat is the use of the Affliction System. XCOM veterans will know that characters, should the battlefield become unfavorable, can go into a panic at any given time. This can cause characters to react uncontrollably, which in the case of XCOM, can work against you. However, enemies can panic as well, leaving an opening for an exploit.

The Affliction System works very similarly in Darkest Dungeon. At any given time, characters can go into a panic. However, this may allow for characters to boost a stat, such as aggression or attack power. At the same time, this can make them more vulnerable to being attacked.


Additionally, Darkest Dungeon does not play on a three-dimensional plane. The game plays in a two-dimensional aspect with dungeon crawling. Players will utilize a map to their right, indicating chambers to explore. They can move their group left to right in this movement. When combat is engaged, the characters are lined in a single file. Players can swap positions per turn, which is effective to do given the range of individual attacks.

When I had the opportunity to play the game for myself at PAX WEST, I put on the headphones, grabbed the controller, and plunged into the chaos.

Immediately, the presentation was arresting. It was dark, unknown, and a bit surreal. The character designs and their movements were intriguing, haunting, and immersive. I had the sense of plundering into a terrifying dungeon, not knowing what I could encounter.

A few steps in, I was put into a combat situation involving three monsters, several of which were high level. The PlayStation representative guided me on the turn-based mechanics. I was a little naive at first, making silly choices. However, once I found my rhythm, the game was incredibly immersive and hard to put down.

As mentioned earlier, the combat is done in 2D, with my explorers lined in a single stack, back to back. I was able to select several moves. There were items, such as healing, but two attacks involved close-range, and some were ranged attacks. Each character was different, with different attacks and abilities.


Worth noting is the amazing sound design. I could hear the gush of flesh being torn and pierced with my melee attack. The music was also tremendous, which is composed by Stuart Chatwood.

With my next character, I tried a ranged attack, which was a character using a gunpowder pistol to take out an enemy. Once again, the sound design was profound, underscoring the gunshot hitting the target.

With my third character, I attempted to perform a close attack but realized that my character was two places behind the first, and indicated was too far away to initiate a close ranged attack. I maintained a ranged attack for the other two character.

In this battle, the enemy was tough! I was hit pretty hard with ranged and close attacks. I had forgotten to switch my characters in the file but was reminded by the PlayStation representative, which helped.


I was able to be more methodical in choosing targets and initiating attacks. Each battle was exciting and yielded solid rewards during the adventure.  It was the kind of feedback that I look for in strategy games. Having played titles, such as Final Horizon, XCOM: Enemy Unknown Plus, and SteamWorld Heist, it was the right feeling to have when playing this game. Of special note, several trophies popped during combat. For those unfamiliar with PlayStation, the trophy system allows players to obtain special achievements in combat.

Alas, I reached what could be described as a mid-level boss. I knew I wasn’t going to win, but I wanted to go down fighting. One of my characters did panic, which allowed for both heightened attacks but also weakened abilities. The monster was quite terrifying to look at, as it could spawn smaller minions from its abdomen. I managed to dispatch the minions but was suffering further damage down the line. One-by-one, I lost my explorers. However, with each turn, I felt I got better at initiating combat.

Of course, subsequently, the monster claimed my last Explorer, and I had lost. However, I had a good amount of time playing the game before succumbing to the dark forces. With that, my demo was over.

Darkest Dungeon is out now, for the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita.

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