Although Darkwood only saw full release in mid-August of this year, it already has quite the following due to its lengthy (as in three years) Alpha release. Its novel approach to survival horror – with the emphasis heavily on survival – has drawn a lot of attention, and fans eagerly awaited the game’s ending that has only now been included in the full release. From the get-go, the game delivers on atmosphere. There’s something about limiting your visibility that automatically has you on edge; did you see something move in the darkness, or are you just letting your imagination run away with you? The soundtrack and sound effects are also well chosen and judiciously used to increase the tension as well as guide the player toward objectives and away from danger.
The game consists of a Prologue and two Chapters, although the prologue can be skipped as it serves mostly as the game’s tutorial. For first time players, this is a mistake; not because the game is particularly difficult or the controls differ widely from other games, but because this tutorial is carefully designed as an introduction to the Darkwood world, as well as our main character. Backstory is delivered from a doctor living in the woods, although he is quickly marked as an unreliable narrator, with claims of persecution, paranoia, and warped, terrifying images of the people he supposedly helped. The aspersions cast on his character are not lessened as you explore his house, where cages stand empty and behind the door of a locked room, someone cries pitifully to be let out.
Although you gather materials and learn how to wield weapons as the doctor, after he comes across a collapsed figure in a forest clearing and begins torturing the man for information, you begin to play as the captive instead. The tutorial does not attempt to hold the player’s hand through the various game functions; it is very bare-bones instruction as the player moves through the story. Briefly, we are introduced to combat, the crafting system, and how to navigate the game environment, but all of it is done in a minimal, almost under-explained way.
Most of the gameplay in Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 is a combination of exploring the environment and reinforcing various “hideouts”. The passage of time is marked with “day” and “night” segments of gameplay. During the day, the protagonist scrounges for supplies and meets various inhabitants of the overgrown, dangerous forest who will trade with him or ask him to accomplish various tasks in exchange for information. At night, it is not safe to be outside, and the protagonist is forced to take shelter in one of several rundown buildings.
The nighttime portions are where the real horror happens; like a more serious version of Don’t Starve, you hole up and try to keep the darkness at bay. There’s a significant amount of downtime as you wait through the darkness. However, in this game, the light you need to stay safe can also alert certain supernatural elements to your presence. Randomized events happen throughout the night, including phantom images in the room with you, shadows lurking just outside of view, and ominous, persistent knocking at the doors and windows. And of course, stuff that breaks into your house and tries to kill you.
Frankly, despite the developer’s claims that this was a horror game “without jumpscares”, the tension and paranoia induced by the hostile nature of the game environment allow the player to scare themselves. The keyboard controls are not as refined as one might hope, but the ease with which a player can accidentally open a door in the dead of night, while something lurks in the darkness just outside- in the right circumstances, it’s actually something of a benefit to a horror game.
The game’s character designs, which are really only visible when interacting with other characters, are amazing- they are disquieting without being gory or grotesque. The same can be said of any artwork in cutscenes or when interacting with special areas or concocting power-ups, but the bulk of the game is a top-down view of the protagonist and his environment.While every environment is incredibly detailed, the top-down view prevents the aesthetics of the game from being enjoyed fully.
The best thing about Darkwood is that it gives the player an objective, but attempts to provide as much freedom as possible to them while imposing actual consequences for actions. Most of the characters you talk to, you can also choose to attack and potentially kill. For every task a character asks of you, there is potentially another way to gain the information or benefits they offer. Even the power-ups you can get by filling a hypodermic needle with the strange mushrooms growing in the forest require you to choose a negative effect to go along with your new abilities.
Darkwood’s creators call their game “unforgiving”, but what I think they really mean is that the game strives to truly put you in the place of the protagonist- not particularly strong, but a potentially resourceful person who is trying to get out of this frightening place alive. It asks a lot of its players: perseverance, strategic thinking, and constant vigilance. It definitely delivers on being a unique entry in the survival horror genre, but for a lot of players, may end up as something of an acquired taste.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.