If you go down to the Darkwood today, a bear will rip out your eyes.
Lost, alone and in near pitch-black, you walk through the blockade of trees with just a burning piece of wood for light and a two by four with nails in it for protection. You can hear the rabid dogs nearby, but you have no clue which direction they’re in or if they know you’re there. At least you’re pretty sure there aren’t any more human spiders about to erupt out of the ground. You hope. There’s no time to worry about any of that though, as you’d best get back to your hideout before the sun goes down or things will get really unpleasant. The Darkwood is not a friendly place to be.
I quite like horror games, particularly those that don’t rely on jumpscares left, right and centre. I can safely say that Darkwood is my favourite horror game of the past few years. It’s unsettling, atmospheric and has one hell of a bizarre mystery to uncover over the course of its twenty-or-so hours of gameplay. Without spoiling too much, after a brief prologue in which you are introduced to the forest and meet a doctor, you are swiftly and violently nearly killed by some sort of monster. You awake in a house somewhere else in the forest, having been rescued by some sort of wolf man. You’re told that the woods have taken over the entire region and that there is no way through it back to civilisation. Trying to cut through the trees just results in them growing back almost instantly. The inhabitants of the woods have seemingly become corrupted and been driven crazy. You are tasked with surviving this world, to try and find out as much as you can about what’s going on and of course, escaping. Assuming escape is possible.
At its heart, Darkwood is a twin-stick survival horror game with some minor Rogue-like elements. Every day you’ll set out from your hideout to explore the local area, filling in your map with landmarks and maybe finding the next part of the plot. Aside from a few key locations, landmarks are randomly placed on the map, whilst you don’t appear on it, meaning you need to navigate by those landmarks you find. The map will at least show you which landmark you’re close to and that’s quite helpful as you really don’t want to be away from your hideout for too long.
Then comes nightfall — things get serious and you’ll die in moments if you aren’t protected by your hideout’s ‘protective substance’ that is pumped around it. That doesn’t mean you’re safe though, as everything in this game wants to kill you. You have a generator to provide power to your lamps to help you see what’s going on, and what’s going on tends to be horrifying monsters trying to break down your doors and crash through your windows to kill you. Or spiders bursting from the ground to eat you. Or ghosts shutting down all but one of your lamps to drain your life if you aren’t close to one. Or maybe something entirely different. Darkwood is tough, and you’re going to die a lot, whether it’s day or night.
When you’re not fighting off monsters during your explorations, you’re gathering supplies you need to survive. That generator needs fuel, those windows need boarding up, and you’d best have built yourself a weapon with those planks and nails as days can be as dangerous as nights. Should you die ー and there’s really no ‘should’ about that ー you’ll drop a handful of your equipment from your backpack and respawn back at your hideout. You can go and collect your gear — and it won’t disappear if you die again — but navigating to it may not be easy.
Now, this might make Darkwood sound like a lot of other horror themed survival games, but there’s a lot that makes this stand out as quite unique. Your vision cone means you can only see in front of you, meaning you’re constantly under threat from behind. There’s nothing more terrifying than hearing the sound of a Red Chomper nearby but you have no idea where it is. This is compounded as you can’t just see through things, making walking through tree lines extremely dangerous. You are weak in this game and everything will kill you in moments if you aren’t on guard.
Then there are the other characters around the woods who range from the strange to the downright terrifying. When a lady who is absolutely obsessed with her horde of chickens is the most normal individual you come across then you know you’re in for a weird time.Then there’s the overall mystery about what the Darkwood even is and where it came from. The story, in combination with the strange characters who only give you half a story, makes this feel somewhat like Silent Hill. The grotesque monsters, the story you can discover more of if you really want to dig and the twisted rendition of reality that’s present by the wood itself come together to create something deeply unsettling at times, and in no small part terrifying.
The presentation is equally fantastic, especially the sound. Whilst the music is suitable, it’s nothing to write home about, but the sound effects are excellent. You’ll hear monsters long before you’ll see them, leading to a panicked look around the local area. Accidentally breaking a twig with your footsteps will set you on edge. Did something hear it? The sound that accompanies the gradual rising of the sun, signalling you almost surviving the night is as glorious as it is tense as you try to hold out those last few minutes. The visuals appear simplistic, but the animation style works really well and the lighting is fantastic. You’ll see shadows that could be a savage beast or maybe just the mist moving with a breeze. Branches from trees could be a human/spider monstrosity about to leap out at you. The atmosphere built by the visuals and sound is nothing short of outstanding.
The only thing that I could possibly complain about is that melee combat is a little clunky. This makes sense as you’re just an ordinary person in this awful situation, but when that’s your main method of fending off enemies if can be a little irritating when it isn’t as responsive as you might want. There are ranged weapons, but the weapons themselves and their associated ammunition isn’t always easy to come by. Then there are the nights towards the end of the game as you’ll realise that you don’t really need to worry about surviving them anymore as you can simply collect your supplies from your corpse in the house you respawn in ー at the cost of a small loss of currency with traders ー which really drops some of the fear in the late game. With that said, the late game daytime elements are still horrifying!
There’s so much more I could go into, such as the multiple endings, the other characters who you can help, hinder or outright kill, and the nightmarish dream sequences. Even without that though, I can safely say that this has been one of my favourite games of the year so far and absolutely one of my favourite horror games. I want to go back and try to get a different ending and help different people. I still regret letting Mushroom Granny be eaten by the locals…