Darkwood is an unusual game that has been in the works for a while. The game, created by the small Polish indie studio Acid Wizard, has been available on Steam as an Early Access title since 2014, but it wasn’t released to the public until August of 2017.
Over the years, the gameplay has evolved naturally. In light of all the updates and changes that have been made, the game no longer resembles its original form in any meaningful way.
I won’t waste any time sugarcoating it: Darkwood is one of the best games I’ve ever played, and that’s saying a lot. I’ll break down the reasoning behind that statement in this review.
Darkwood begins with a short prologue that puts the player in control of the “Doctor,” a pivotal character later in the story. An unidentified disease is killing off trees in the forest, we learn. The trees are growing at an abnormal rate, obstructing all the exits. Doctor Good has also been breaking his Hippocratic oath.
The Doctor eventually reaches a clearing where he meets a wounded man who also happens to be in possession of a key. The doctor is so intent on finding the door that the key opens that he kidnaps the disfigured mute man and beats him mercilessly while he is in his custody.
From there, things shift in focus. The player assumes the role of the captured man, simply called “The Protagonist” or “Stranger,” who is the true protagonist of the game.
The player escapes, the doctor vanishes, and a horde of monsters nearly kills the Stranger in his home. However, he is rescued by yet another unknown individual known only as the “Trader,” and finds himself back at the original hideout. As we enter this phase, the action really starts to heat up.
You don’t get much information from the beginning; it just establishes the main idea that we don’t know much about the Stranger, the Doctor, or the Trader. However, Darkwood’s narrative is obtuse and complex, requiring the player to piece together clues from the environment and the monologues (or dialogues, since the Stranger is mute) between characters to piece together the story.
There are many strange and disturbing people living in the woods who are sure to stick in your mind. The player will meet a cast of characters early on, including the threatening and sadistic “Wolfman,” the “Trader,” who can’t speak and has mushrooms growing all over his body, and many others. In-depth conversations with each character are depicted in gorgeous, minimally colored art that captures the game’s bleak, melancholy mood.
While the end goal is to get the player’s key back from the Doctor so he can leave the woods, getting there isn’t exactly a straight line. Numerous paths forward can be taken, various moral choices can be made, and numerous intriguing side quests can be undertaken.
If you want to get anything out of Darkwood, you’ll need to give it your full attention and be prepared to be immersed in its mood for a while.
There is no single, definitive answer to the game’s mysteries, and I won’t give anything away by saying otherwise. Can it all be explained by a bad drug trip? Possible PTSD, the afterlife, or even Lovecraftian forces that defy explanation! Perhaps it’s just a forgotten fairy tale. A player’s interpretation of the story is entirely up to them, and any reasonable interpretation will do.
Gameplay in Darkwood defies easy categorization into established genres. One could classify it as a “top-down survival horror game,” which might be the most apt description.
Darkwood excels above all else at making the player feel helpless. The Stranger, the game’s protagonist, has a restricted field of view, and visibility is poor across much of the map, even during the day. Most of Darkwood’s environments are dark and thick, so players must rely on their hearing to find their way and avoid danger.
Moreover, the Stranger has limited reserves of health and stamina. In this respect, the game is similar to Dark Souls (cue the “Dark Souls of indie horror games” jokes), where careful management of health and stamina is essential to survival.
In a matter of seconds, most enemies can significantly lower your health. Your ability to fight back or flee will quickly deplete if you don’t carefully aim and time your counterattacks.
Throughout the game, the player will have access to a variety of weapons. As the game progresses, more and more melee weapons, thrown weapons, and firearms become available. The player can also disable and damage enemies by using a variety of traps and specific environment items, such as gas tanks and explosive barrels.
Unfortunately, the moveset is rather restricted. Consisting of two separate attacks, the first is a slow, wind-up attack that deals more damage and uses up less stamina than the second, which is faster but less effective.
However, the only form of defense is a short-range backward dodge, which requires practice to master against foes with greater range. The combat system in Darkwood is functional, though it may be a little clumsy and could use some additional weapons for variety.
Some dangers in Darkwood can’t be eliminated with an ax, shotgun, or trap. Concealment spaces become relevant in this context. Hideouts were optional in earlier games, but they’ve since become mandatory due to balance changes. Every one of Darkwood’s four regions has its own secret lair, or “hideout,” in the final build of the game. Unique to a hideout from the game’s other structures is the abundance of helpful amenities, some of which are extremely rare to find anywhere else:
- A worktable that can be used for crafting, repairing, and storing melee weapons and other items.
- A buzz saw, for cutting logs into planks that can be used to build barriers and other items.
- The hideout’s power source is a generator, which also illuminates the area at night and aids in fending off one particular class of foe.
- A well, the water of which can be used once per day to restore health.
- A cooking device used to boil down mushrooms and other items into “Essence,” which can then be used to gain experience and new skills. The stove releases a protective gas into the room, which keeps the biggest nighttime predator out of the woods.
A hideout is not safe, even if it is the safest place to be when it is completely dark outside. Almost every night, enemies will try to break into the hideout, and it will be up to the player to barricade the entrances and exits while still allowing for safe escape routes and funneling the enemies into areas where they can be more easily trapped or fought off.
Of course, as the game progresses, the player will have to defend against stronger and more numerous enemies and increasingly difficult hideouts.
In addition to all of that, a wide range of hideout events, some beneficial and others harmful, can occur overnight, such as earthquakes and poltergeist activity, among other unexplained phenomena. One of the best parts of the game is how exciting the nighttime is.
Although you’re confined to your shelter at night, the forest is your playground by day, albeit a dangerous one rife with bear traps, poisonous mushrooms, stray dogs, savage humans, and other fantastical creatures.
The world is accessible and ready to be discovered, though some areas may be inaccessible until certain conditions are met or for the sake of the story. Although the map is procedurally generated to some extent, the general layout of the game’s key areas remains unchanged between runs.
Much of what you’ll find in Darkwood can be discovered by setting out on an adventure. Not every rock is worth turning over, and not every story has a happy ending, but there are many hidden treasures in the world to be discovered, including supplies, weapons, and side quests that can yield valuable rewards. Don’t lose track of time, though! If you can’t find or afford a watch, you should observe your surroundings to determine when dusk is approaching; you don’t want to be caught wandering far from your hiding place when night falls.
In conclusion, Darkwood offers three distinct difficulties:
- In Normal, also known as the “easy” mode, you will only lose half of your equipment if you die. This is the optimal mode for new players who have yet to learn the game’s mechanics because there are no severe consequences for making mistakes.
- This is the best option for advanced players because it is challenging. With only four lives available, every mistake on Hard mode is costly.
- Permanent death is a terrifying prospect. You should only try this if you’re an experienced player looking for a difficult challenge. The thrills of this method will keep even the most seasoned adventurers on their toes as they face the terrors of Darkwood.
Furthermore, the difficulty slider only affects the severity of the game’s death effects. Nothing changes with regards to your health, the damage you deal, the damage your enemies deal, or the availability of resources in the world.
Both the daytime exploration and the nighttime defense against things you’d rather keep hidden are superbly implemented in this game. It’s incredibly satisfying to find useful resources, and there’s a ton of cool stuff and narrative context going on. In later hiding places and on harder difficulties, it is even better if you can make it through the night.
AtmosFEAR done right
Horror is notoriously tricky to pull off, especially in interactive media like video games. When it comes to emotions, games typically have a hard time telling the difference between shock and fright. Substituting jump scares for genuine tension and dread. Darkwood, the studio’s debut title, does an impressive job of scaring the player. Despite the fact that a top-down view isn’t optimal for immersion, this game still manages to pull it off.
For those interested, Darkwood is a top-down twin-stick shooter with a gloomy psychological horror setting and some light role-playing game mechanics. The entirety of the game takes place in a supernatural wood that has overrun a region of Poland during the Soviet era. Your main objective as the protagonist is to stay alive until you can make it out of the forest alive. Darkwood’s central gameplay loop entails venturing out into the world in search of supplies and overcoming challenges placed in your path by the various inhabitants and hazards it contains. The game’s map is shuffled with each new installation, so even repeated runs will feel different. While the order in which the locations appear is haphazard, the structures themselves are consistent.
At first, I admit, I was prepared to dislike Darkwood quite a bit. The survival mechanics are unclear, the difficulty is sky high, and the combat is stiff. Thankfully, my experience with the game improved as time went on. Actually, I’d go so far as to say that I immersed myself in it completely. You don’t actually need to eat or drink, which is a major departure from other games that put an emphasis on surviving in a hostile environment. There is no need to worry about pesky water or food meters, and you won’t fall victim to conditions that lower your social standing, such as being too cold or too wet. Wood and nails, for example, can be used to fortify your home and improve your weapons in times of crisis.
Surviving The Forests of Darkwood
Occasionally, you’ll find food, but it’ll usually have some other useful property, like making it easier to run or healing you. In order to gain in-game experience, you’ll need to bring certain foods back to your base and prepare them in a kitchen. One of Darkwood’s strengths is that it takes a unique approach to leveling up and gaining experience. In order to avoid grinding, experience must be tied to the discovery of specific items, which still allows for leveling up and the acquisition of new abilities. A nice touch is that development of the player character is intrinsically linked to the game’s central mechanic of exploration.
Due to the scarcity of firearms, the initial focus of combat in Darkwood is on close-range melee attacks. Making a crude weapon out of boards and nails will get you through some encounters, but it won’t do much more than that. It’s possible that the melee attack mode’s stiffness and difficulty are intentional design choices. The slow, cumbersome combat makes every enemy encounter feel terrifying, just the way a horror game should. It’s a great way for the game to show that violence should be avoided whenever possible. Especially early in the game when you are vulnerable and have few resources, sneaking around is preferable to other approaches.
A lot of the game’s appeal comes from its mood and story rather than its gameplay. You’ll spend the majority of the game aimlessly exploring the forest on your own, with only the sound of passing crows to keep you company. Due to the minimalist style of the game’s soundtrack, environmental noises can usually be heard clearly. The cone of perception mechanism creates a perpetual nighttime glow that serves as the visual inspiration for the mood. A lack of illumination makes everything seem ten times more foreboding than it otherwise would. In addition, there is no way to know what might be lurking in the shadows because both objects and enemies are concealed from view.
Showing Off Darkwood’s Atmosphere
The prospect of getting lost in the woods with few supplies and the possibility of running into an enemy is terrifying. Creatures in the forest aren’t as frightening as the ones you create in your head while you’re trying to stay hidden. The game’s monsters and creatures are unsettling in their own right, but it’s the prospect of actually having to confront them that gives you the chills. Darkwood’s narrative and cast of characters up the creep factor considerably. Every person you meet is a sick caricature of what a human being should be. The Three and The Trader are just two examples of mysterious characters with seemingly good intentions. The only thing worse than that is a character who is just mysterious but whose intentions are clearly aggressive or even monstrous.
Some of these characters, because of their bleak and depressing histories, have the ability to twist your gut around in knots. Without giving away any spoilers, there was one NPC who came about as close to being a good guy as any NPC could be in this game. Regardless of the decisions you make, he is doomed to a miserable end. I’m not going to lie — I almost lost it when I found the character again near the end of the game.
Depending on your preference, you can face an increasingly difficult challenge thanks to the adjustable difficulty settings. That’s great, especially considering that there are multiple ways to approach the story and a wide variety of missions for each character. If this is your first time experiencing the game, I strongly suggest you do so on the “normal” difficulty setting. It’s already not entirely clear how to progress in the game, and on harder settings, you either lose all of your items when you die or the game ends right then and there.
Darkwood Brings A Twisted World To Life
The way nights work is probably the only real drawback to living in Darkwood. At night, when the forest is full of evil spirits, you must take refuge in your base. There are numerous weak points and vulnerabilities in each section of the base. You need to make sure your generator has enough fuel and that all holes in your base have been sealed before nightfall. The issue is that early on in the game, evenings are often rather dull. All that happens is people just wait for the clock to strike zero. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the speaker is constantly on the move, drawing unwanted attention. Unless something actually attacks you, you spend all night dozing off and fidgeting with your thumbs.
The visual quality of Darkwood is the last noteworthy aspect to discuss. Aiming for realism in its visual design is obviously not a goal of this game. The overall tone is gloomy and twisted, and the color palette is subdued. Plus, the animations are incredibly polished and crystal-clear; this is especially impressive given the fixed viewpoint. The artwork is most impressive during character portraits and key plot points. Full-screen depictions pop up whenever you have a conversation with a major character or use certain items. The works here are masterpieces in their own right, but they also have a horrifyingly twisted quality to them. Regardless of who the artist is, they should get all the praise they can. It won’t be long before you see these prints hanging on the walls of your friendly neighborhood goth.
Darkwood is, as I have said before, one of the best games I have ever played for many reasons. The art style, the presentation, the fact that it doesn’t spoon-feed information to the player, the game’s sheer originality, and the fact that higher levels keep things interesting even after you’ve mastered the game’s mechanics, environments, and enemies are all major selling points.
The graphics are basic, but they accomplish their goal of conveying the sense of isolation and desperation that is Darkwood’s primary theme.
A top-notch sound design adds to the immersion, making the player jump at the sound of breaking branches and the echoes of ghostly footsteps throughout the hideout. You can’t help but be disturbed by the unholy sounds made by some of the game’s monsters.
The stories told in Darkwood, both the main one and the ancillary ones, have a lot of staying power because of the interesting symbolism and the clever foreshadowing that help the endings (most of which are bittersweet) leave such a deep impression.
Apart from the game’s short length and the lack of downloadable content (at least for now), my only real complaint is that there are a few minor issues with the game’s pacing and balance.
To begin, the first chapter’s first three areas do a fantastic job of making the players feel vulnerable and forcing them to play slowly and carefully, whereas the second chapter’s final area appears to do the opposite.
You can get your hands on an ax and a pump-action shotgun practically at the very beginning of the second chapter, which doesn’t help the situation, and some of the enemies in the final area feel undoubtedly weak in combat despite their awesome designs.
Many players have remarked that the fourth hideout is noticeably easier to defend than the third one, and that the second chapter felt a bit too easy when considering the powerful new weapons and experience gained. This is not to imply that the last part is simple. However, it does become somewhat more manageable, whereas I would have preferred a greater increase in challenge.
Second, while I thought it was executed adequately, some players may find the melee combat to be too slow, sluggish, and clumsy. The game doesn’t reward reckless button mashing, so be strategic and deliberate when facing off against multiple enemies or a single powerful one at close range. The game could benefit from additional weapons, even if they are just reskins with slight stat adjustments like I suggested before.
The game’s leveling system is the last major component, and it’s not particularly complex. You go out and find various things that can be cooked into Essence, and then you get to choose a new ability from a pool of four. Any combination of two beneficial and one detrimental new ability/perk may be selected from each tire. While this may sound appealing, the linear nature of the progression and the lackluster utility of some abilities and perks make it less so.
When all is said and done, Darkwood is an impressive game that has pretty much everything you could want from an independent game. It has clear goals and achieves them with remarkable proficiency. It’s terrifying without resorting to jump scares, it keeps you on edge the whole time, and it has a compelling plot that reads like a dark fairy tale. It’s hard to put it in the same category as other games, but there are echoes of titles like Don’t Starve, Dark Souls, and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
If you’re not the type to play games for long periods of time, focusing on the story and the setting, or if you’re not into the “scavenge, craft, survive” gameplay model, then this game is probably not for you.
Darkwood can be played on many different devices. It’s playable on a wide variety of platforms, including Windows, Ubuntu, macOS, and consoles like the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch.