Darkwood (2017) Review
Darkwood is a top-down survival-horror game released in 2017 for PC and in 2019 for Consoles. Developed by Acid Wizard Studio, a small team of three at the time of its founding in 2013, Darkwood was crowdfunded on Indiegogo that same year and went through various stages of early access up until its full release in August of 2017. An interesting read on the formation of the studio and development of the game can be found here.
You are playing a challenging and unforgiving game.
You will not be led by the hand.
Respect the woods. Be patient. Focus.
Darkwood starts off with an intro section where you are shown the basics of gameplay in a sort of tutorial area, a cabin in the woods. You can skip this section and go straight into chapter one of the story but if it’s your first playthrough you’re going to want to learn the basics. It is established that a strange plague has been spreading throughout the forest, accelerating the growth of the trees tremendously to the point that the location in which the game takes place, Darkwood, has been completely cut off from the rest of the world by the forest.
The plague, which seems to spread via mushrooms, the air, or some type of gas (it’s never made clear), has mutated the local wildlife into feral beasts and caused tumorous growths and insanity in the villagers that reside in Darkwood, with most turning into savages or abominations of flesh and wood/fungi.
You play as an unnamed mute and disfigured protagonist searching for “The Road Home” – an old photograph of a road, presumably the way out, is one of your only possessions at the beginning of the game. After the intro you awake in a somewhat safe hideout somewhere in the overgrown forest and must find a means of escape from Darkwood while ensuring you have adequate defences and traps setup to survive the terrors that come at night.
The main storyline of Darkwood is to escape the forest. There are a handful of ways you can go about this, there are certain characters you’ll meet, and depending on whom you work with the events of the story and even locations in the late-game can change.
In addition to the main story Darkwood has quite a few side quests. These range from meeting non-hostile characters that will reward you for finding a particular item for them or performing certain actions. The game isn’t afraid to put you in an ambiguous moral dilemma where a reward of high value loot is given for an act that could be considered cruel or downright evil in some cases, however, the bleak setting and scarcity of useful resources will have you carefully weigh out your options.
Darkwood also pulls off ambient side quests very well. Throughout the pseudo-openworld (randomized map layout with named locations guaranteed but not in the same location per playthrough) you will find landmarks and locations of interest that you can explore to gather resources. This can lead to intense situations where risk and reward need to be carefully considered as these locations are often filled with hidden enemies and traps that can easily ruin your day.
Darkwood has quite a few gameplay mechanics behind it, the main aspects being crafting, combat, exploration, and survival.
Throughout the game you will find resources that can be used to craft weapons, traps, and various useful tools such as torches and inventory upgrades. The crafting aspect never felt too cumbersome, for the most part you find everything you need via exploration. Reputation is the game’s form of currency and can be traded in exchange for resources, reputation is unique with each trader meaning buying/selling with one trader won’t affect your reputation standing with another. A trader spawns in your current hideout each morning (I nicknamed him “Trader Bro”) with a selection of resources to buy. If you survive the night you will get bonus reputation with Trader Bro, this bonus escalated as you move into more difficult locations.
Combat comes in melee and ranged formats. Melee weapons such as shovel and fire axe vary in strength, range, and attack windup time, each attack will cost stamina which is also used for sprinting and dodging. Two types of melee attack exist, a normal attack where you wind up the attack and can then choose when to strike, and a much quicker attack that uses more stamina. Utilising these techniques at the right time is crucial as getting hit by an enemy will cancel out your attack. Melee weapons also degrade with use which should be considered before combat as they will need to be repaired at a workbench if broken.
Ranged weapons don’t degrade but require ammo and come in a selection of pistols, rifles, and shotguns in addition to molotovs, rocks, and flammable gas vials.
Learning enemy attack patterns will be crucial for survival and there are a modest amount of enemy types such as dogs, humanoid savages, fast-moving chompers, and the terrors of the later swamp area.
Dying doesn’t carry too heavy a penalty, you will lose some items from your inventory and respawn at your hideout but can go back to the location you died in order to retrieve them. Dying during the night will mean you get no reputation bonus with the trader each morning, limiting the amount of supplies you can buy.
The main focus of the game is exploration. Different parts of the forest feature different named locations that can be explored to find resources and lore items. The game’s at its best when you stumble upon an eerie location and have no idea what could be lurking inside. Often trying to brute-force your way through means certain death, instead a cautious approach is best, scoping out the location, taking note of its exits and routes, and ensuring you have adequate supplies to deal with any problems that arise. You will have many chances to try out these tactics as the game features many interesting locations for you to explore. You cannot always see your current position on the map, rather if you’re at a known location, that location will be highlighted, to travel to another location on the map you need to head in its direction, taking note of any landmarks on the way.
True to the game’s name darkness plays a big part in its aesthetic. Your character’s vision is limited by light and direction, this can be extended via the use of torches and the like, allowing you to see further and giving you a wider viewing angle. The game has a pretty cool overlay effect where you will be able to see the layout and structure of locations but not items or enemies that lie within without them being in your view. Usually sound is your first indication of what to expect as the music will turn sinister or you may hear an enemy screech or grunt.
A core feature of the game is the night-time survival aspect. Each night from ~8pm the land becomes shrouded in darkness. If you wander around in this darkness it means certain death as a shrouded mass of what appears to be roots will consume you. To overcome this you need to hold out in one of the protected hideouts. These hideouts are protected from the darkness via a power generator you will need to keep topped up with gas, and an oven emitting a protective substance that keeps the instakill away. However you will still need to contend with wandering enemies in the night as well as spooky events that can occur such as some of your lights going out or a sudden influx of enemies. To overcome or lessen the impact of these events you have the option of barricading doors and windows, setting up traps such as bear traps or exploding barrels, and utilizing the furniture found in the hideout to try and block off certain routes.
I had a love/hate relationship with Darkwood, on one hand I loved the atmosphere, visuals, and the freedom it gives the player regarding exploration and story. On the other, the gameplay itself can be extremely tedious, especially during longer sessions.
Darkwood’s visual style, a unique blend of eldritch and grotesque from artists Artur Kordas and Jakub Kuć, is nothing short of amazing. Given the unconventional top-down perspective I was surprised at just how much the developers managed to do with it, and how often they succeeded in unsettling me.
Complementing its unique visuals is masterful sound design also from Kordas. Everything from its soundtrack to ambient creaks and droning will be used to instil a sense of dread and fear in the player. This does an excellent job at solidifying its horror atmosphere and managed to truly creep me out from time to time, something most modern “horror” games are incapable of doing with fancy jumpscares, something this game doesn’t rely on.
The night-survival mechanic was fun at first, especially when trying out different blocking strategies with all the furniture, but very quickly loses its charm once you get the hang of it and experience all the events that can happen. After awhile it just amounts to barricading yourself in your hideout and doing nothing while you wait for morning. It can also be extremely inconsistent in difficulty, some nights may be fairly uneventful, some may be intense but manageable, and in others the game can just decide “you’re dead now” as you get overwhelmed by enemies and random events.
It would be interesting to see how different the night-survival mechanic would be if it was used more sparingly, say rather than every night, every 2 or 3 nights, or maybe extending the day/night cycle to accommodate this. Too often I felt that the game came to a standstill as I’d have to stop exploring and rush back to a hideout to get my defences ready and stand around until morning came, this is especially frustrating when you get stuck on a particular objective or are moving into a new hideout in another location as you’ll have to do it piece-by-piece over a long period of time that can easily be set back if you die or get lost.
The melee combat is extremely clunky and possibly my least favourite aspect of the game. Anyone familiar with Dark Souls will see what the developers were aiming for with combat heavily based on timing, range, and stamina conservation. It’s highly unforgiving and I never really got the hang of it, luckily in the later game firearms become more accessible, making combat somewhat more manageable.
Darkwood isn’t going to be for everyone. The main contention for most will undoubtedly be its difficulty which is hard to gauge due to its random nature, it can be hard to tell if you’re going to enjoy Darkwood on a session-per-session basis and on more than one occasion I almost rage quitted never to return.
Despite this Darkwood kept me coming back for more, maybe I’m a glutton for punishment, maybe the game’s outstanding art style and sound design drew me back in each time, but I think what ultimately kept my interest, aside from my own stubbornness, was the overall experience Darkwood provides. Its power lies in the unknown, from the first stage of discovering its mechanics and gameplay features, to utilising them in exploring a beautifully cryptic and unforgiving world where you often have to rely on your own intuition to survive.
The 20ish hours of my first playthrough were filled with wonder, terror, and frustration but the combination of these elements made for an experience that I won’t soon forget. I’d highly recommend that you give Darkwood a try, preferably without knowing too much about what to expect outside of mechanics and difficulty, it might just surprise you.