PAX West: The Church in the Darkness Offers Gameplay Both Technical and Emergent

By Mark Delaney, 2 months ago
After reading and writing a lot about The Church in the Darkness over the year and a half, I finally caught up with the team behind the game, Paranoid Productions, and got to go hands-on with the cult infiltration game on the crowded showfloor of PAX West. The game's lead designer, Richard Rouse III, introduced the current build on the in-development game, calling it a brand new demo not yet shown off before the event in Seattle. Although a lot of the narrative takes place in the background, its marriage of story and gameplay was strong, and made stronger by the ways the game adapts to how you play.

For those that may have missed it, The Church in the Darkness is a top-down action-infiltration game where you're tasked with investigating a US-born cult that has moved to South America. Among the faithful is your nephew. At the request of your sister you're meant to get him out of there alive before they all start passing out cups for the Kool-Aid. She doesn't trust the Collective Justice Mission and it's no wonder why. The setup in Freedom Town sounds, at least at the onset, an awful lot like the events of Jonestown and many other cults. It's true that the game can end just as violently and tragically as it did for Jim Jones and his followers, but Church offers nuanced scenarios that can change across multiple playthroughs.

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In real life, we don't often hear about the cults that go on living well. We only hear of the Heaven's Gates and the Jonestowns. Surely there are some out there not awaiting doomsday and committing human rights injustices. They are instead just preferring life off the grid. Sometimes that's the Freedom Town you'll encounter in The Church in the Darkness. Other times, of course, players will witness the more typical version of what we consider a cult: slave laborers, wrongful imprisonment, and worship of a central figure (or in the case of the Collective Justice Mission, a pair of figures).

After learning the central mechanics of searching for supplies like bullets, chloroform, and disguises, I got to grips with monitoring guards' vision cones. In Church, you do sometimes need to simply hide out of sight entirely, but other times just hiding in plain sight will do well to keep you alive and protect your cover. Looking like a cult member, or better yet a guard, drastically decreased the size of the vision cones, which was a welcome adjustment because in their default states, things could get difficult in a hurry.

I found the AI and map of Church to be stifling at first. The surrounding sensory overload of PAX West didn't help me focus my nerves as I tried navigating the patrols, homes, and other scenes in the settlement. Certain scenes may unfold in a playthrough that can tip players off to the disposition and ideology of the cult and its leaders, Isaac and Rebecca Walker. At one point early on in my playtime, I saw a group of followers praying by the water. The scene looked peaceful enough and when Richard said such a scene acts as sort of a behavioral cue, I took it to mean I may have been dealing with a friendlier Collective Justice Mission for that playthrough. Still, he added, they wouldn't take kindly to interlopers in any regard. Guards are armed and dangerous and will capture or shoot you on sight. Normal followers, however, won't react that way. Instead, they'll run from you out of fear and likely alert those dangerous guards if you don't deal with them first.

Knocking out guards and followers alike is always an option, although they won't stay down forever, even if you greet them with chloroform. Killing them is an option too, including stealth killing. A lot of moral decisions play into the game like this, but the setup often demands you act swiftly. Unlike story-centric games where you'll have decision points to choose a branch to continue downward, in Church you build your own narrative by making these quick choices. Sneaking in can be a whole lot easier if you quietly kill everyone between you and your objective, but is that the person you want to be, especially if they are an otherwise peaceful group? At another point I saw a quartet of caged followers. Freeing them would set off alarms, but I couldn't bear to leave them there.

Some scenes will play out differently per playthrough and can tip you off to the disposition of the cult.Some scenes will play out differently per playthrough and can tip you off to the disposition of the cult.

That's not to say the only narrative comes from player input like this. Collectibles do well to expand on the cult and in my playthrough I recovered just a small handful of over 40 that would help fill in the world and changing worldview of the Collective Justice Mission. Additionally, the leaders' voices came over the loud speakers all throughout the settlement every few minutes, instilling the "proper" values to the people. For a game that is very systems-heavy, I was happy to see the story points were not lost in Church given that the premise is so ripe for them.

After failing to successfully stay hidden, a chase ensued, alarms rang out — some of which I was able to disarm — but eventually I was captured. I nearly put the controller down when I realized I still had a shot. They had locked me up in a small cage just at the shore of a beach. I was able to break out and resumed my mission to confront Isaac Walker in his quarters. The map told me where to find him although the design of the settlement allowed for multiple routes to get there. I learned other mechanics on the way, like throwing rocks to break enemies off of their patrol routes, scare off other followers, and soon after got to shooting with the game's twin-stick control scheme.

As the whole of Freedom Town was now on high alert for the intruder, I figured it was time to fight back a bit more aggressively. The game uses an aim assist when twin-stick shooting, placing a red reticule over enemies when you've locked on to them. I shot a few guards as I quickly dashed toward where Isaac seemed to be. Zigging around houses and zagging through several guards I finally busted into Isaac's quarters. This was meant to be the end of the demo, the part where I see what he has to say for himself and his people, a small snippet of the game's full offering in terms of map and objectives. Instead, I was shot down in his bedroom. The guards hadn't let up, of course, so my mad rush to his room only delayed my death.

There are a lot of scenarios I'm eager to explore in The Church in the Darkness next time I get to play it. I'm curious what happens if I try to kill everyone there. I also wonder just how varied the permutations of Freedom Town can become and I'd like to learn all there is to learn about the Collective Justice Mission, because its real world inspirations have always fascinated me. The groundwork feels well laid with gameplay that is at once technical and emergent. For a demonstration that went a bit more smoothly than mine, although was not without its share of trouble spots, check out the developer-led playthrough of the same demo I saw at PAX.


The Church in the Darkness is due on consoles in 2018. You can find all of our previous coverage in the game's hub.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark has been gaming for over two decades and writing for the TrueGaming Network since 2011. He greatly prefers single-player to online modes, but is always taking challengers in Rocket League and Madden. Aside from games, he loves sci-fi, NFL football (go Titans), and biking. He'll be disappointed when The Last of Us 2 is announced.