This first impressions article was written while Darkwood was running on Alpha 2.1.
Darkwood is an isometric, survival horror, indie game with a couple of RPG elements and a focus on exploration. A formula that from the perspective of horror enthusiasts might at first seem odd. Horror after all is about immersion, and a first person, or third person, perspective is what we’re used from the genre. It makes those jump scares work all that better. Despite all the monsters lurking between the foliage of it’s forests though, Darkwood isn’t concerned about actively scaring the player, focusing instead in providing a horror experience from the perspective of horror as a setting. It’s not overly visceral, albeit having it’s own brand of disturbing imagery. This is seen mostly in it’s intro, then in short bursts throughout the game. It does not try to make the player feel small. Everything in Darkwood is accompanied with some degree of lethality, the player character included. It’s something we’re not used to seeing in horror, which usually tries to empower the enemy and make the player feel fragile. It doesn’t try to make every area feel threatening. Something that works in it’s favor as a horror game from the perspective of it’s pacing. It is true that in horror even the main character may die and nobody is safe, but by making certain areas feel safe, they provide contrast to the strong feelings of dread it can evoke when the player has to delve deeper into the forest, or survive night time. A good alternative to constantly bombarding the player with dread until they have built resistance to it.
When you first start playing you will be introduced to the game via it’s prologue, which works both as a tutorial and introduction to the setting. You are an unnamed silent protagonist stuck within a forest in what appears to be Russia, where things have started going terribly wrong. A contagion seems to have spread which started to change people and the forest itself appears to be alive — feeding off the dead and creating all kinds of horrors. The tutorial teaches the player the basics, then drops them with nothing but the clothes they are wearing in the game’s first Hideout. But only after a very lengthy loading screen. Once you have control, you are free to do what you want. There is a main quest line to progress, but you also don’t really have anything to defend yourself with, so it’s at this point that you start scavenging and exploring as well. Many of the unique locations in Darkwood aren’t at all related to the main quest, and may instead reward the player with weapons, guns, or sidequests.
There is combat in Darkwood as you might have gathered. Acid Wizard decided to make the combat in their game very lethal and quick, so to speak. Encounters never should take more than a couple of seconds and being careless will get you killed. Combat is a mix of gauging your distance from your enemy, the range your weapon has, the attack speed of your weapon, and when you have the opportunity to strike. Spamming your attacks will get you killed, both because you won’t hit and you’ll run out of stamina quickly. There are also guns available, though ammo can at times be scarce, meaning you should save your ammo for dangerous situations. Monsters are tough, but not so tough as to make fights entirely unfair. That said, you should never fight more than one opponent at once. If you’re outnumbered, you’d best make some distance and bring out the big guns.
The world is randomly generated with every new game, giving the player the option to leave Permadeath on or off for the thrill seekers. It forces the player to explore since things are not always in the same place. New players can’t really access a wiki to find what they want and even veterans will have to search through the game map to find familiar locations. The game’s map is divided in three biomes: Meadow, Forest and Old Forest, each with unique locations specific to each biome, different mobs, and a Hideout. There is a day/night cycle, and every night the player is forced to access a hideout where they’ve repaired the well to cure their thirst status, or they will die. After doing so, it’s recommended to stay indoors and barricade any and all openings while waiting for first light, because even the starting biome is deadly once the sun goes down. The areas currently available are part of the game’s first chapter. When the second chapter comes out, a different map will be introduced along with more content.
I can’t just sing Darkwood‘s praises, though. In the current alpha state it can provide hours of fun, but it still carries the same problems we’ve seen before in early access games. The most recent patch is still buggy, with the occasional crash and performance issues. That said, Acid Wizard have been releasing hotfixes when things are brought up on the steam forums. Night time can start getting tiresome for vets, holing yourself in a house for a while every 10 or 20 minutes starts taking away from the experience even if the idea is solid. Alpha 3 is supposedly going to expand on night time, probably to fix this exact issue. Weapons have durability, and break relatively quickly, requiring a repair kit to be fixed. Repair kits vanish on use, so you’ll quickly have a dumping ground for every broken plank with nails you have, while hoarding repair kits for your axe or shovel. If an enemy spots you, they’ll chase you until you or it dies (Chompers especially love doing this.). Finally, all in all, after you’ve finished chapter one, you don’t have much to do either. But at least it’ll take you around six hours or more to do so. That is, if you don’t have permadeath turned on.
Darkwood might seem a little weird at first, but it is definitely worth checking out if you’re a horror enthusiast. It gets a lot of the little things right. It might be isometric but you have a Field of View. You can’t see around corners, you can’t see behind you. The player might have an idea of how the area inside a building might be, but until they’ve opened the door and looked inside through the eyes of the PC, they don’t know what dangers are lurking inside. Even outside, it emulates walking through the woods in an interesting way. When under trees, you can’t see anywhere besides an area around your mouse cursor, making it hard to correctly estimate if you’re stepping somewhere safe or on a bear trap. Audio, therefore, plays a big part in the game too. You have to keep your ears open to know if there are dangers lurking nearby. Even when there aren’t, walking through the Old Forest in absolute silence can be unnerving. Monsters look weird, corpses look weird, and the NPCs look really creepy, even when friendly. Wolf might be the most normal looking individual you’ll find, and he’s a walking lynx.
Personally, I can’t wait until chapter two of Darkwood comes out. I did like this game, but it definitely isn’t for everyone. It can be difficult and frustrating at times, and loses it’s edge on the horror front once you know what tricks it has up it’s sleeve in each unique location. It also suffers from being a bit short, due to the fact only the first chapter is still available. It does look promising, but it took two months for Alpha 2 to come out, Alpha 1.3 having been released in august. With Alpha 3 only releasing new content for night time, it might take a while for actual new content to be released, and not just changes in already available content. Keep it under your radar if you’re interested though, or buy it now if you want to support the development process. Otherwise, I’d recommend waiting until the full release.