A new perspective on horror games that provides intense moments of survival
Darkwood is a top-down survival horror game in which you explore a mysterious forest in a search for answers to questions you don’t fully understand. Somewhere in the Eastern Bloc surrounded by dense, consuming woodland this eerie, surreal tale will see you experience an ever-changing, free-roam world by day and barricade yourself in against the terrors outside by night.
After beginning life on Indiegogo in 2013, Darkwood has come a long way from Early Access to full release. The top-down, fear inducing gameplay, which is soaked in a tense kind of paranoia makes it easily comparable to the Hotline Miami series. What Darkwood has to offer though is a truly different experience for the genre. With a unique blend of survival, roguelike and RPG elements, Acid Wizard Studio’s game presents a new perspective on the horror genre, which has been firmly cemented in the first person realm for quite a while now.
From the beginning of the game, players are thrust into a complex narrative in which you play multiple roles. Randomly generated content, alternate story paths and optional endings combine to make the narrative even more unique. In a tale reminiscent of the surreal qualities of Twin Peaks, Darkwood sits somewhere between the X-Files and S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl. It’s this strange design that makes Darkwood so convincing as a horror, they’re not going for jump scares here, it’s a more psychologically unnerving experience.
Mechanically, the game is built with two gameplay elements in mind. One is the survival and crafting part that sees you scavenging for materials and creating new tools. The other is the top-down combat and exploration that admittedly takes a while to master in this unforgiving environment. The controls do take some getting used to as the camera and thereby the cone of light that projects from the player’s point of view, moves slightly differently when walking compared to sprinting. The combat mechanics take a similar period of adjustment, as you hold the right mouse button to prime the swing or shot and time your releases for impact. When Darkwood’s fast and terrifying enemies are crawling out the woodwork it’s easy to find yourself fumbling over the controls.
The crafting menu system is far less complex and is generally what you would expect from a survival game. You gather supplies and combine them at workbenches to create new tools and expand your arsenal. You also have to upgrade your workbench in order to create the game’s most powerful weapons. By the time you get a gun you’ll feel more than accustomed to beating your enemies to death with whatever you have to hand. It’s an extremely powerful feeling to have a shotgun or rifle, as they are highly scarce, particularly in the early game.
The most intense moments of gameplay happen at night, as you cling to what little light you have and watch the darkness surround your hastily barricaded hideout. This is where the survival element of the game really comes into play and it provides some truly nail biting situations. You’ll board up windows, set up traps and make sure your generator has enough fuel to ensure the lights last the night even if you don’t. The true horror of Darkwood is that you don’t always see what haunts you in the dead of night. Doors will randomly open, bangs and screams will echo through the walls and shadows will flicker past the dimming lights. One night all you might hear is a dull thud at the door followed by ‘come to me’. At night Darkwood comes alive as a horror and once you’ve survived a couple you’ll know you can never anticipate what will happen, which is all the more terrifying.
The game’s ability system is almost a game in itself. You scavenge mutated fauna and flora from the surrounding forest and cook it in a bid to retrieve its essence. You syphon this vile liquid into a syringe and inject in an effort to absorb its power. These shots lead to surreal and terrifying hallucinations that the player must overcome to progress. That’s not the only cost of the powerful medicine though, as every time you select a new ability tree you also have to select a negative trait to coincide with it. Abilities allow you to see further and track where you are on the map but come at the cost of lowering your immunity to poison or worse. You don’t get anything in this game for free (well apart from maybe the game itself).
Graphically, Darkwood is restrained somewhat by its top-down perspective. To its credit though, Darkwood’s simple sprites are well designed and animated with each creature bringing its own kind of terror to the party. The dogs have a Resident Evil vibe to them and the various cultists and mutants exude an infectious kind of violence that wouldn’t be out of place in the latest zombie movie. It’s dark, dingy and dripping in gothic aesthetics and Russian folklore. It isn’t exactly a game that has a unique art style, but it projects its own spin on the top-down design in a convincing fashion.
One thing that stood out about Darkwood was the sound direction. It creates a tense, paranoid atmosphere that can change the mood in a second with a mere tap or a creak. This is true especially at night when you wait silently for the horrors to start clawing their way into your inner sanctum. The sound effects have a stark and authentic quality that strengthens the atmosphere Acid Wizard Studios were trying to create and heightens the fear of claustrophobia when surrounded by utter darkness.
Darkwood is not a hand holder, it’s not for the faint of heart, the game provides a genuine challenge, especially if you attempt it on the perma-death mode. It embraces the joy of discovery by creating an environment where the player has to learn the secrets of the game through exploration. This is a style that points to classic game design where the responsibility to unravel the world is handed to the player and no quest markers, hints or glowing doorways lend a hand. It’s horror at its best, unseen, lurking around the next corner or glimpsed out the corner of your eye. It mixes a strange and unusual setting with dark, offbeat humour and terrifying moments of intense survival. It may not be for everyone, but horror or survival fans craving a deep and rewarding experience will not be disappointed.
*Transparency: The opinions in this review were formed on the basis of a review copy played on PC.