Never trust the shadows
Darkwood is a game of gnarled roots and things that go bump in the night. Savages and mutated creatures hide just out of view, obscured by the heavy shadows cast from thick foliage and impossibly high trees. The forest looms overhead. It’s a natural enemy of sorts, an endless and oppressive force that plays host to a collection of monsters and macabre sites. Under the canopy of an ever-growing forest, Darkwood forces players to confront the unknown.
It’s fitting that developer Acid Wizard Studio describes Darkwood as “a new perspective on survival horror.” The game takes a different approach than other entries in the genre, opting for a top-down perspective with a view cone that represents what’s immediately in front of you. Everything else is desaturated and obscured, meaning that you’re never really safe from the things that hide in the woods unless you’re constantly scanning every possible direction.
And even then, it’s rare that anyone will come out of Darkwood unscathed.
Developer: Acid Wizard Studios
Publisher: Acid Wizard Studios
Released: August 17, 2017
Darkwood‘s design is such that players will almost always be disoriented and threatened by their surroundings. Over my first few hours with the game, I never felt as though I had a moment to breathe. After a short prologue (which introduces some of the Darkwood‘s more nightmarish elements) I was left to my own devices, trapped in a forest where everything wanted to either kill me or wrestle away the last of my character’s slipping sanity.
The bulk of the actual game is divided between exploration during the day and base defense during the dead of night. Darkwood‘s map gets randomly generated at the start of every new save file, which means that every location — save for your starting hideout — is never in the same place. The destroyed, abandoned places you uncover speak to a sense of unease that persists throughout the game. Something terrible happened in the woods, and if you stick around long enough, something terrible will surely happen to you.
It’s this sense of impending dread that drives Darkwood forward. You have to venture out from your hideout to gather supplies and advance the plot. Wood, nails, and other pieces of junk are salvageable and immensely useful. There’s a crafting system in place (of course) to create weapons and bandages, among other tools that give you a fighting chance when the sun begins to set. Darkwood pushes players into its dangerous environments only to pull them back at night, where you have to face off against any number of insidious threats.
When the sun sets on your hideout, the inky blackness invites strange creatures to your position. As color drains from the surroundings, nightly assaults require careful preparation and nerves of steel. Darkwood uses tremendous sound design to create an off-kilter, surreal ambiance during the base defense portions. Weird knocking and haunting growls might signal something stalking your compound, looking for an unprotected window to assault, or it might just be a coy trick. There are many different “events” that take place at night. Though I’m not sure yet, it seems as though they’re random, almost like Eternal Darkness‘ sanity effects, used to reinforce the notion that you’re never truly safe.
Due to scant resources and deadly efficient enemies, actual progress is difficult. I managed to make it out of the game’s opening area and found a second hideout before getting shredded by rabid dogs. Compared to some of the horrifying sights I’ve come across, however, getting turned into raw dog food seems like a blessing. Darkwood‘s wicked in every sense of the word. There’s always something waiting to attack, you just never know when it’s coming for you.
I dig the bits of Darkwood I’ve seen so far. It’s rough around the edges, and it does a poor job of communicating what players should spend their time doing, but its unique blend of horror is super effective. Acid Wizard plans to make a few more tweaks to the game and add in an epilogue to the main story, so I’ll save my final judgment until then. For now, I have to protect my base from a legion of banshees.
[This review in progress is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]