Horror is a difficult thing to get right, especially when it comes to video games. Most of the time games seem to have trouble differentiating between surprise and fear. Substituting startling the player with cheap jumps for actually building tension and fear. The first game from Acid Wizards studios, Darkwood, does a surprisingly good job at actually horrifying the player. Despite the top-down perspective which isn't normally the best option in terms of immersion.
Darkwood is a top-down twin-stick shooter, with a dark psychological horror theme and light RPG elements. The entire game takes place in a supernatural wood that has taken over a section of Soviet-era Poland. As the protagonist, your main goal is to survive long enough to escape from the horrors of the forest. The main gameplay loop in Darkwood is exploring your surroundings to find resources and discover different characters and obstacles. Each new instance of the game randomizes the map, meaning each repeated playthrough feels different. While the placement of locations is random, the actual buildings are always the same.
Honestly, at first, I was ready to hate on Darkwood quite a bit. The combat is stiff, the survival mechanics confusing and the difficulty is quite high. Fortunately, as my time with the game went on I started to enjoy my time more and more. Hell, I'd even go so far as to say that I got really deep into it. Unlike most games with a focus on surviving the harsh environment, you don't actually need to eat or drink. There's no annoying food or water meters, and you don't get status ailments like coldness or wetness. Most of the time the resources that you're seeking are things like wood and nails to barricade your safe house or to build better weapons.
Surviving The Forests of Darkwood
You do occasionally come across some sort of food item, but they usually have a secondary effect like making it easier to run or healing damage. Some of the food items in the game must be taken back to your base and cooked to provide you with what passes for experience points in the game. Darkwood definitely has a non-standard approach to experience points and leveling up which works in its favor. Having experience tied to finding certain items prevents any grinding, but still allows for leveling up and new abilities. It's a nice touch to be able to have character progression tied into the core mechanic of exploration without it being used for padding.
The core combat in Darkwood starts out pretty melee focused, what with firearms being hard to come by. You can construct a simple weapon out of boards and nails, but this will barely be enough to get you through basic encounters. The melee option, in general, is very stiff and difficult to use, but that might actually be by design. The stiff, weight combat adds a sense of panic to every enemy encounter, perfect for a horror game. It's also a good way for the game to convey that combat is usually best avoided. Most of the time stealth is the better option, especially towards the start of the game when your weak and lack resources.
Where Darkwood really shines is actually in the atmosphere and narrative more than the mechanics. Most of the time in the game is spent wandering through the forest completely alone, only the occasional echoes of crows taking flight to keep you company. The music in the game is minimalistic in nature, meaning that most of the time the atmospheric sounds are clear as day. Visually the atmosphere derives from a feeling of constant night given off by the cone of perception mechanic. Unless you're directly looking at something it is shrouded in darkness, making everything ten times creepier than it would have been. Not to mention the fact that objects and enemies are hidden by the darkness, so you can never tell what's sneaking up on you.
Showing Off Darkwood's Atmosphere
Wandering around the woods with limited resources and the constant threat of stumbling across an enemy is very creepy. There's nothing scarier than what your own mind conjures up as you're sneaking around the forest. The monsters and creatures you come across are creepy in their own right, but it's your own fear of having to face them that really gets under your skin as you play. The characters and story in Darkwood add a whole new level of creep to the game. Everyone you come across is, at best, a horribly twisted parody of what a human being should be. Some characters, such as The Three or The Trader, are mysterious and have seemingly friendly intentions. Worse than that are the characters who are just mysterious, but whose intentions are clearly aggressive, or even monstrous.
The thing about some of these characters is that due to their dark and depressing backstories they have the power to really twist up your insides. Without spoiling any specific moments in the game there was one character who was as close to being innocent as it is possible for an NPC to be in this game. His fate, regardless of the different choices you make, is always exclusively depressing. No word of a lie, when I rediscovered the character towards the end of the game I nearly wept.
The different difficulty settings offer a ramping challenge. This is good, especially since the different storyline options and character missions warrant repeated playthroughs. I highly recommend playing through the game on the 'normal' setting your first time through. It's already a little hard to figure out exactly how the game works, and on higher difficulties, you lose all of your inventory on death or just get an immediate game over.
Darkwood Brings A Twisted World To Life
I would say that the only major downside to Darkwood is the way nights work. You have to hole up in your base at night as the forest fills up with evil spirits. Each base has different rooms with different holes and weaknesses. Before things get fully dark you must block up all of the holes in your base and make sure your generator has enough fuel. The problem is that at the start of the game nights can be pretty uneventful. What it basically amounts to is standing around waiting for the clock to count down. Part of the problem is that moving around too much attracts attention. You end up twiddling your thumbs all night long unless something attacks you.
The last really interesting point to bring up with Darkwood is just how good it all looks. Obviously, it's not a game that isn't aiming for realism with its visual design. Everything is dark and twisted, with a very muted color palette. On top of that, the animations are all unbelievably smooth and clear, which is good considering the limited perspective. The character portraits and story moments are where the artwork really shines. Whenever you talk to a major character or interact with specific objects, the screen displays a full-screen rendition. These art pieces or both stunning and horrifically twisted masterpieces. Whoever the artist is they deserve as much credit as they can get. The walls of your neighborhood goth are going to have these prints up soon, mark my words.
Darkwood Review | Final Thoughts
Overall, Darkwood is an amazingly good horror game that pulls off creepy and intense without relying on jump scares. Generally, the strongest points are the atmosphere and the dark narrative. The exploration makes up for the weaker gameplay and stiff control, with the art an animation tying everything together. In the end, Darkwood has ended up as a standout title in the horror genre. Not bad for Acid Wizard's first game.
TechRaptor reviewed Darkwood on PlayStation 4 with a code supplied by the developer.
- Creepy, Horrific Atmosphere
- Twisted Artwork And Character Design
- Great Replay Value
- Slight Stiff Combat
- Dull Nighttime Sections