One of the best horror games of the year is a terrifying tale of survival and madness in a world where everything is against you.
Darkwood is the best game we’ve never heard of. Apparently it entered early access in 2014, on PC, and was officially released in 2017. But although the name rings a vague bell, we have to admit we had no idea what it was until last week and have certainly never played it before. That is entirely our loss. As we understand from those that did play it at the beginning, it’s changed an awful lot over the years but has never been better than it is now, with this new console release.
The one unfortunate problem with the console versions is that they’re being released just as summertime gets into gear, when clearly the best way to play it would have been on a cold winter’s night. Darkwood is a horror game, but one very different to the zombie-fighting norm. It has elements of survival gameplay and normal combat but since the true evils of the forest only come out at night there’s also lots of quieter moments where you’re exploring and interacting with other people.
Darkwood is an impressively malleable game in terms of style and pacing and always makes it as difficult as possible to guess what’s going to happen next. Not least at the start of the game, where the rug is pulled out from under you at the end of the prologue, in what is a very accurate indication of the terrors to come.
What we can say about the start, without fear of spoilers, is that it begins with a warning of a virulent plague and the woods coming alive and claiming everything around them. You begin in a small, boarded-up cabin, were you’ve apparently learned how to survive in the short term but lack a plan on how to escape. Exploring outside, where the forest has overtaken the roads and buildings, and corpses, both human and otherwise, litter the ground, it’s made clear that there is no obvious answer to that problem.
Darkwood is a very low-tech game, with the top-down, 2D viewpoint offering little in the way of visual spectacle. There are some nice lighting effects, as the first rays of sunshine creep through the windows at the break of dawn, but also some distractingly poor character animation. But, like a low budget horror movie, most of the time that’s a benefit to the oppressive air of inevitable doom and uncertainty.
In terms of gameplay, much of your time is split between exploring the game world and fortifying your safe house. A map is auto-generated as you wander around but it’s not annotated in any way, so you have to work out where you are by orientating yourself via prominent landmarks. You also have to keep a constant lookout for any useful items left hidden or laying around, as you learn to craft torches, bandages, lockpicks, traps, and barricades.
The game’s structure is split up into discreet chapters and eventually you begin to think and plan ahead but preparing for the night is always at the back of your head. As well as items and equipment you can also cook up alchemic buffs to prepare for the long night ahead, as well as try and keep a generator topped up with scavenged oil.
As apocalyptic as the situation seems it’s clear from the start that you’re not the only survivor in the woods. Unfortunately, most have been driven mad by what’s going on and while some are relatively coherent most have given up hope and you take a great risk in trusting any of them. It’s relatively rare to have a lot of speaking characters in a horror game, but the ambiguous nature of most of the people you meet adds greatly to the sense of tension and paranoia.
Even surprisingly small decisions or interactions can come back to haunt you later, but what’s most fascinating is the nagging feeling that you’re better off trying to survive on your own – something the game constantly tempts you into believing but always provides reason to doubt.
Although the gameplay is very different it’s clear that Dark Souls was a great influence here, especially in terms of the opaque storytelling and the decaying, doomed world you and the other survivors are trapped in. Predictably, that means Darkwood is not an easy game, although there are difficulty settings – so it’s up to you whether you play with full-on permadeath or not.
The game’s only real flaws are a fiddly interface, whose PC origins are very obvious in the sense that it was clearly designed around using a mouse and keyboard. But there are also some unfortunate bugs, including inexplicable bouts of slowdown. The game has a physics engine of sorts, where you can push and drag objects around, but it can be rather temperamental and it’s easy to get stuck behind furniture and other obstacles.
Some may also be frustrated by the roguelike elements, where the map is randomised each time you play, and the purposefully clunky combat, but Darkwood’s great achievement is not only that it’s scary but that it’s scary in a very different way to most other games.
Some of the most terrifying moments involve you simply sitting in the corner of the room, in the pitch black, hoping the demonic horrors you can hear outside never find you. This doesn’t involve any gameplay, just blind hope that the monsters won’t get you. And that’s a marvellously horrible feeling.
In Short: An impressively original horror game whose doom-laden atmosphere and relentless day/night cycle is more terrifying than any jump scare.
Pros: A clever mix of survival elements, traditional horror, and tense character interactions, with distinctive visuals, excellent sound design, and a constant sense of dread.
Cons: Interface could’ve done with a bit of streamlining and the randomised levels can cause frustration. Some bugs.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC
Publisher: Crunching Koalas
Developer: Acid Wizard
Release Date: 14th April 2019
Age Rating: 18
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