But at least it doesn’t hold your hand.
One of the first things the player is told upon starting up a new game in Darkwood is that the game will “not hold your hand.” A survival horror game with an intense focus on the survival half of its genre, Darkwood’s goal is to fling you into a dark and unforgiving forest from which there is seemingly no escape and in which there are very few allies. As with any survival game, resources are scarce and enemies are plenty, but in a lot of ways Darkwood tends to put the survival mechanics ahead of just about everything else. Despite an incredible horror atmosphere, many of the decisions within the game may have a tendency to move the vibe from scary to just plain frustrating.
Darkwood situates the player in a rather unique post-apocalyptic scenario, which is admittedly becoming harder and harder to come by these days. For reasons unknown, a forest has begun to overtake the rest of the environment at an alarming rate, with roots growing faster than any human can cut them back. People trapped within the forest have begun to lose their sanity and transform into abominations, leaving those who have retained their minds to fight for their survival on a daily basis. The player takes control of The Stranger as he searches for a key that was stolen from him, a key that will lead him to the only way out of the forest.
As a horror game, Darkwood is a masterfully-crafted experience, with heavy atmosphere that manages to be stressful and terrifying. The game advertises itself as not having a reliance on jumpscares to make its horror work, and they have absolutely nailed that feeling. While playing, I was reminded of the constant foreboding that came with playing games like Silent Hill, a compliment I don’t tend to give out lightly. The developers of this game seem to understand that the true fear in a horror game should come from the anticipation and imagination of whatever could be coming, not the act of shoving the monster or problem directly into your face. Night time in Darkwood is incredibly evocating and usually had me ready to jump out of my skin at a moment’s notice. The random supernatural events that can occur throughout the night, such as hallucinations, help drive that feeling home.
However, it’s the rest of Darkwood that seems to fall short of its potential. The survival portion of the game is so focused on being challenging that it seems to have given up a majority of quality of life features in the process. By default, the game map does not show you where you are, expecting you to memorize the lay of the land in order to navigate it. This works on paper, but falls apart when you realize that a majority of Darkwood’s scenery is, well, woods. When everything around you looks exactly the same, navigating without a functioning map becomes a much more frustrating experience than it really needs to be. Keeping track of time also becomes an issue, as there is no UI element to help the player figure out how close nightfall is. The game world is always dark, and while the difference between night and day is very noticable, the transition is more subtle than it should be. While dawn is indicated by a musical cue, nightfall has no such indicator and even after several hours of play I did not feel like I ever had a handle on how long days lasted or how to really tell when the day was ending. Items and skills can be purchased or earned that alleviate these problems, but some of them take so long to get to that many players may find themselves turned off before reaching them.
Outside of those issues, Darkwood is your standard survival game. During the day, the player goes outside to explore the surrounding area and scavenge for materials to craft items. Mushrooms can be found around the game world that the player can then cook into a serum, serving as the game’s method of leveling up when the player fills up a full syringe. For every skill or boon the player earns through this method, they must also choose a negative aspect, causing even more strategy to need to be employed in what is otherwise a run of the mill growth system. Every morning a trader will appear in the player’s house, and this presents a rather unique and interesting bartering system where the player can offer up their various items and materials to trade for other materials or goods. Unfortunately, the game’s items can be a bit too expensive, most notably the parts used to build weapons. For this reason, players may find themselves going a long time without a way to defend themselves. Every night that the player successfully survives will give them a reputation with the trader, who will in turn begin giving you discounts on his wares.
On top of its issues with difficulty balance and quality of life, the port is also just poorly optimized. Starting up a new game or even loading up your save file takes Darkwood more than a few minutes sitting on a loading screen to begin, and even while playing the game will often hang for a brief second, sometimes several times in a row. The unfortunate optimization problems as well as the general gameplay may leave somebody who’s not a fan of survival games disappointed, but people already well acquainted with the genre will probably find it a thrilling and spooky experience if they give it a shot. Darkwood is a game with potential, and I certainly hope the developers take any lessons learned from it and return with the killer horror title they’ve come close to creating.