Respect the woods.
Developer: Acid Wizard Studio
Publisher: Acid Wizard Studio
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux
Released: 17th August, 2017 (Full release)
[Note: some of the screenshots presented have been sourced from the developer’s presskit.]
A good horror game leaves anything it can to uncertainty, where player doesn’t know what’s coming, or if they’re going to survive it. The atmosphere of the world or how challenging the gameplay is are crucial aspects to this, though how the camera is implemented can make all the difference. I’ve seen horror done well many ways, with atmospheric first person puzzle adventures, action packed third person shooters, even sidescrolling survival horrors have pulled it off. Acid Wizard Studio however, has gone for a different approach and tried something that I don’t see very often. They’ve tried making a top-down survival horror game that’s actually scary. So, let’s find out if they can pull it off.
Darkwood takes place within a mysterious and overgrown forest that’s teeming with life, yet the woods seems to be hell bent on making you feel unwelcome. You are alone in there. Thick trees cut you off from the outside world, while slowly consuming any signs of civilisation inside. Rusted equipment and ruins are all that’s left, even corpses are concerningly absent. There’s some force driving the forest, corrupting and mutating plant and animal alike, all in an effort to make the woods inhospitable for you. This beautifully macabre world is a great start to Darkwood, sets the tone perfectly.
Darkwood’s core narrative is centred around a single goal: escaping the woods. Easier said than done, everything in the woods is a mystery. Your character does know a way out, why they do is unclear, their identity is just another mystery to solve. The game does give you some initial guidance, tasking you with tracking down a thief and recovering stolen items. From there the story twists and turns with every step, every new character or decision taking you further down the rabbit hole.
Thankfully, not everything’s trying to kill you. You might occasionally stumble upon more friendlier faces. Inexplicable traders, a peculiar inventor, even villagers worshipping the denizens of the woods await you. Everyone has their own twisted personality, purpose, . I immensely enjoyed how story arcs quite often tangling with one another, branching out with surprisingly long reaching effects. Replaying the already packed game was made all the more appealing, especially since the forest changes with every new game.
So, the big question: how could a horror game possibly work if the developers give you a camera angle that sees all? Simple, they don’t. You can’t just see everything, only what your character is facing. Your character’s line of sight provides you with a small cone of vision that reveals items, objects, or even enemies. It’s tailor made for inducing paranoia. You never know what’s hiding on the other side of a door, or lurking just outside the corner of your eye.
Anything can happen while roaming the woods, but the best moments are more deliberate and crafted events, where the developers show off a keen sense of pacing and flow. They’re superb. Everything feels planned, the way things slowly build up from approaching some ruin to whatever climax they have in store. Everything comes together just right in these moments, and they had the best effects on me.
These are the best moments and I don’t want to spoil any of them. I’ll leave it up to you. If you want an example of what I’m on about in action and don’t mind some light spoilers, the Launch Trailer depicts one of these incredible highpoints.
The gameplay of Darkwood revolves around a day & night cycle, the days spent exploring and scavenging, while the night requires you to hunker down in your safehouse. Time stops for no one in the woods. You’re always on the clock, trying to squeeze in as much into the day as possible, while begging the nights to hurry up and end. Knowing that time is constantly ticking away in the background just piles on one more layer of stress.
The day is where most of the progression lies, when you spend the precious daylight exploring the woods, scavenging supplies, and maybe even getting closer to a way home. Planning and preparing for the day is vital, daylight is limited and you won’t want to waste it by running back and forth for more lockpicks. You will have to anyway since your inventory is very limited early game.
It only takes a few days to become accustomed with Darkwood’s crafting and upgrading system, it’s not complex in any stretch of the imagination. Supplies are used to craft and repair anything from lockpicks to firearms, as well as upgrading your more cobbled together weapons. Darkwood never lets up its tone, even leveling serves to remind you how awful the woods is. Injecting your character full of a red, pulsating “essence” grants access to some powerful perks, although not all of them offer benefits. There is a satisfying amount of things to keep you busy on your adventure, right until the end.
As night approaches, its a race back to your safehouse, to the barricades and safety it offers. The nights turn the game on its head. Enemies come for you and light can just as easily betray you, drawing unwanted attention. The sound design is at its best during the night. While you huddle up in your safehouse, all you can do is listen as floorboards, or the wardrobe blocking a hole in the wall scrapes along the ground.
If there’s one thing the nights do, its show you how precious your supply of fuel is. Making the choice to craft powerful items with it or feed your thirsty generator makes the difference between surviving the night. In a world where the shadows themselves are deadly, managing it is paramount to surviving. The way a night ends is done wonderfully, a warm tone slowly rising as daylight begins to sweep over the woods, its a beautiful end to a tense night.
The morning is a brief respite from the horrors of the woods. Time freezes, allowing you to rebuild barricades and interact with the daily trader, spending “reputation”, mostly generated by surviving nights helped along by a serene piano piece. It’s nice, it lets you gather your thoughts and prepare to do it all again. These quiet morning tie the pacing together.
When they work, they’re great, but the nights can be my least favourite of Darkwood. The first quiet nights allowed me to bask in the atmosphere, but that eventually got old. An uneventful night is safe, but turns your house into a boring waiting room that keeps you from enjoying the more interesting parts of the game. Even the more eventful night outstay their welcome as it’s ultimately just the same thing over and over. As the game went on, the night time segments were getting on my nerves, to the point where I found a way to skip them altogether, but we’ll go into that later.
You will eventually encounter something aggressive, but you’re not defenseless. Combat plays a huge part in Darkwood, so you’d hope it’s done well. What you get is a pretty robust and challenging system. Melee combat is vicious and brutal. The weapons feel heavy and unwieldy, but deadly. These weapons are often slow to use, but connecting a hit gives satisfying results, interrupting and knocking back the victim. Whatevers on the receiving end will definitely feel it.
Combat is dangerous though, enemies can stop your attacks just as must as you can. What adds that extra bit of tension is your limited stamina, consumed with every swing or dodge, leaving you defenseless if you let it run out. These dances of death can offer quite the challenge, and victories often fell well earned.
Melee weapons aren’t the only tools in your arsenal, traps, molotovs or even bottles of poison gas can be used to get the edge over the fiends. Then there’s the guns. Having a gun can make you feel unstoppable, making short work of anything caught down the barrel. Ammo is limited, knowing when to use them is yet another difficult choice the player has to make.
The game also likes to mix thing up by throwing different types of scenarios at you. Plenty of mind bending puzzles that require some detective work. The game rewards smart play, through progression in the form of puzzles or by making fights easier. It offers more depth to Darkwood, progressing through a more complex game all the more satisfying.
Darkwood is a fantastic game, but it isn’t flawless. Though thankfully rare, I found some issues here and there.
Playing on “normal” difficulty is a good way to ruin any tension in the combat. Normal difficulty gives you infinite lives, the only penalty dying carries is dropping a few items. These items will never disappear, no matter how many times you die. This is what ruins the night segments, why bother surviving, why bother waiting? You won’t lose anything essential. It’s a game-breaking exploit that’s so easy to pull off. My advice, don’t do a full playthrough of the game on normal, maybe use it to get familiar with the mechanics. If I could re-experience my first playthrough on anything but normal, I would.
I also have some minor issues with archaic save system. First of all, you only get three save slots, and I couldn’t tell you why. Secondly, no manual saving, the game decides when and where to record your progress. It saves regularly enough and i see how it would prevent save scumming, but I feel like such a vital control should be in the hands of the player.
Then there’s the big problem with a game so focused on combat: the enemies stop being scary, They become benign after a while. While seeing each new creature gives it a haunting first impression, seeing them over and over . Some are rare enough that they can avoid this, the majority sadly don’t. The AI also getting stuck on objects, that certainly doesn’t help. I’ve caught one or two stuck on a couple of chairs, stuck in an infinite walk cycle while I sit at the other end of the room.
That all being said, Darkwood is easily one of the be best horror games I’ve played this year. Turning what could have easily been a major drawback into it’s most unique strength is quite the feat. Coupled together with a beautifully grimdark world filled with bizarre and interesting creatures, a tense combat system and a robust, if not basic, scavenging and crafting system. Darkwood might be one of the easiest recommendations I could give. Not bad for a development studio that started off being “afraid to play horror games”. Not bad at all.