Having recently exited Early Access after being in development for over 3 years, this Darkwood review looks at its ability to terrify from the top-down.
The first full game from independent game studio Acid Wizard, Darkwood advertises itself as “A new perspective on survival horror.” This “new perspective” is a top-down perspective, unique for the survival horror genre. It’s part open exploration and part base defense in one scary package. I spent 5 days in the game and here is what I thought.
“This is a challenging and unforgiving game. / You will not be led by the hand. / Respect the woods. Be patient. Stay focused.”
After starting a new game, these three lines of text stand out at the top of the first loading screen and almost completely describes the game. You start the game with the (optional) prologue chapter which teaches you the controls; such as how to use and craft items in your inventory, dragging items in the environment and how to swing a weapon. After the prologue, the game tells you about setting up traps and defenses in your hideout and other basic information on staying alive, like keeping your generator fueled and staying inside at night. This information is all fed to you in an immersive manner through character narration.
Like a trapped animal being let out of a cage, you are immediately let loose without any given direction in a randomly generated map that does not indicate your position. On the first day, the game strongly hints for you to go to the location of an underground passage, which is the only location marked on your map. Out in the field dogs would bark aggressively at me, but did not actively chase or attack unless I got too close or stayed in their view too long. Clusters of poisonous mushrooms litter the ground and can easily poison and blind you if you don’t focus on where you walk, though some variations can be collected and converted into experience points to unlock perks and skills.
The sun began setting and the character narrated that I needed to get back to the hideout before nightfall. I had only found enough wood and nails to barricade one window and used the remaining wood and nails to make a weapon (a board with nails.) Loot is scarce, so the nail board was the only weapon I had for the first three days, though it is possible to upgrade it at the workbench in your hideout after first upgrading your workbench.
When I did have to fight, the combat was slow and clunky. All weapons have a wind-up time before you can attack which is canceled if you are attacked at all. Your enemies do not have a wind-up time making combat consist of staying out of the way while you wind up then getting close enough to swing. This is easy enough against the dogs in the first area, but the aggressive savages in the second area can easily stun and keep you from attacking.
Being outside of your hideout at night will drain your health, so the most you can do is hope your defenses keep out night-prowling enemies, keep your generator on, keep a lamp close so living shadows can’t attack you, and wait for the morning light. The nightly defense drastically slows the pace of the game, forcing an interruption into other activities you were performing. In addition to survival, exploration, and defense, there is an overall objective that you slowly work towards each day.
Darkwood is set in a wooded area that is suffering a plague of unknown origin causing the trees to mutate and grow uncontrollably, preventing anyone from escaping. The character you play has a key to a door in an underground passage that leads to freedom. This key is stolen from you in the prologue and gets lost during an attack at night. Your overall goal is to move through areas on the map, finding new hideouts along the way, and finally getting your key back to escape from the plagued woods. Along the way, upgrading your character with perks and skills causes you to hallucinate, and you meet characters to help guide you to the next location.
The pace of the game can seem slow at times, making small amounts of progress then needing to stop everything to flee back to your hideout when the sun starts to set. It took me four in-game days (approximately four hours) to make it to the second area where the difficulty rose sharply. I spent most of the fifth day setting up defenses in my new hideout for that night only to have a savage break my window barricade in two hits, climb in and proceed to attack me. I killed the first savage and immediately after a second savage climbed in and finished me off. The game warned me to have a weapon before entering the new area; my nail board didn’t make the cut apparently.
It is a unique experience to play a survival horror game from a top-down perspective and the graphics are crafted to match. Everything has a lightly pixelated look to it and colors are dull and muted. Light in the game works through your character’s cone of vision, what you see matches the light in your environment. During the day, your vision stretches far and objects are clearly visible, while the area outside of your cone is visible but greyed out. If you are under a more thickly wooded area you will need a light source to have your cone of vision, the length of which varies depending on the light source you use. As the sun sets, your cone gets shorter and the visible grey circle around you gets smaller. In total darkness, you have no cone and you are limited to seeing only what is right next to you.
Sound plays a very important part in Darkwood, indicating the presence of threats that you can’t see. The only actual music in the game is played when talking to other characters and during the transition from night to day. The ambient sound in this game did something that very few survival horror games have managed to do: make me feel scared. During the day, the wind rustles through the leaves of the trees, grass swishes under your feet, and the occasional crunch of a branch makes you worried that something will run up and attack you.
I could best describe my actions during the night as “cowering.” Huddled in the corner by a lamp, I hear shuffling footsteps outside, the moaning and groaning from creatures I’d rather not meet, and the shrieks and whispers of living shadows whooshing nearby though shying away from the light. Sound like this induces the kind of tension that not enough horror games make me feel. Fearing for my virtual life should be the point of a horror game.
Darkwood was on Steam Greenlight before being moved to Early Access for 3 years, but this has the feel of being a full game. Combat and defense mechanics are clunky, but it is entirely possible that I could’ve done better to defend myself at night or find/craft a better weapon. Even though I spent 5 nights in the game I feel like I barely scratched the surface of what can be done. If you like your horror games tense, or are a fan of crafting survival games, you can pick up Darkwood for $14.99 on Steam.