Survival horrors come in all shapes, sizes, and flavors. We’ve seen heaps of them this gen alone, all arriving thick and fast to captivate and hold player interest. Though, despite how many arrive, a large portion of them tend to consist of the same gameplay framework; kill monsters, endure jump scares, kill monsters, endure jump scares. Acid Wizard Studio and Crunching Koalas aims to change things up a bit with their newly released Darkwood, trading jump scares for something more challenging and robust, and to its credit, it actually works pretty well.
The game takes place within the confines of a hellish, cursed forest that no one appears to be able to escape from. Taking on the role of a doctor, you begin slowly venturing out in a desperate attempt to find a means of escape. Before long, you stumble across an injured man and, assuming he knows a way out seeing as he found a way in, you take him back to your abode and keep him trapped. There’s a sense of immediate mystery thrown into the mix through the unconscious man holding a key with the number 21 written on it. Interesting, eh?
Anyway, the doctor proceeds in torturing the (now awake) man via beating the living shit out of him whilst he’s tied to a chair. Following a mighty smack that sends the man unconscious, the doctor leaves the room whilst threatening a death sentence. Fast-forward a short bout of time, and we’re now taking on the role of the man who has just been sucker punched a dozen times. You’ll play as this character throughout the game’s entirety, and must use your cunning to survive the terrors that await you in the midst of this clearly evil-filled, desperate forest.
It’s from here on out that Darkwood starts to showcase just how effective a horror game can be under the guise of something different. Whilst not particularly scary, it is almost always tense. One thing I appreciated most about Darkwood, and something you’ll learn early on, is that it doesn’t at all hold your hand. You’re alone, and the game makes you feel that way through not helping you one iota. What do you do now? Where do you go next? What’s the point of all of this? Questions will come frequently, and you’ll need to summarize all answers yourselves.
Darkwood plays out as a top-down experience that almost follows the classic formula that few survival horrors achieve in this day and age. You’ll explore, gather materials, and construct items to advance your chances of survival. The only real safe haven is that of the abode you start out in, and to ensure you remain among the living, you’ll be crafting weapons and traps to repel the vast range of creatures and invaders that sit in the wild, waiting for you to let your guard down. The crux of play, despite some frustrating drawbacks, is ultimately enticing throughout.
Defensive tactics are everything in Darkwood, and the amount of mechanisms you can forge is fairly impressive. Weapon-wise, you’ll craft the likes of nail-ridden bats and torches, through to handguns, shotguns, rifles and so forth. Pretty much anything you can hold in your hands can be used as a weapon. When it comes to making traps, you’ll rely on the likes of bear traps, chain traps, and other like-minded tidbits. Plenty of goodies to keep you warm and safe on those cold and lonely nights. Now, alongside the crafting system rests a decent skill system to hit up.
Whilst out in the wild, you’ll be on the hunt for all important food to take back to your safe house to cram into the cooker. Food is collective over time, and once you gather enough of it, you’ll level up. This is where you’ll find the skills, however, there’s a twist; for every aiding skill that you pick, you’ll also need to pick a counter-skill. It’s an interesting system that ensures that you cant simply Chuck Norris your way out of a bad situation. In essence, the game wants you to know that it always has the upper hand, and will always be working against your progress.
Darkwood is surprisingly accessible, and despite its tough cookie structure, it’s very easy to understand. Using the thumbstick, you’ll move your character around the immediate environment, always relying on a cone of view to see what’s ahead. Depending on the time of day (there’s a day/night cycle here) your perception will vary; either getting easier to see, or, on the flip-side, harder to see. You’ll always want to be back at your safe house when darkness starts looming, if for anything to keep you safe from the nasties that will come gunning for you.
There’s a stamina bar to be mindful of, and this will fluctuate depending on your actions. Run from the likes of an angry elk, a rabid dog, or even just a creepy-looking creature, and you’ll expend your stamina rather quickly. Playing it safe and planning your movements is vital to success, because should you find yourself at the mercy of a nasty inhabitant with no stamina to run or fight, and it’ll be over. Constantly bear in mind that you should balance your play time; explore and scavenge in the day, and haul ass back to your safe house when the night comes.
There are plenty of objects to interact with, and heaps of bizarre NPCs to engage with. Collectively, these lay the foundation to your survival, with both elements providing you the means to survive and succeed depending on how you approach each situation. No two playthroughs will be the same due to the game’s randomly generated map and events, so you’ll never be able to rely on the known. That’s where Darkwood becomes such a commendable affair; through its constant uncertainty. You’ll question each and every step that you make.
You’ll also branch the story this way, ultimately paving the fate of Darkwood and its inhabitants based on your actions, and, your inaction. Though, regardless as to how you play, the overarching objective remains the same – fight, defend, and survive. The game’s atmosphere is top-notch, putting to shame many of the horrors that run circles around this game’s budget. It goes to show what a smaller team with a shared focus can achieve, however, with that being said, Darkwood isn’t without its faults. The most dominant being almost equally frustrating.
First and foremost, the game’s loading times are painfully lengthy. It’s not a deal breaker by any means, but it did become fairly irritating before long. Then, there’s the lack of knowing what time of day/night it is early on. Darkwood is scary and tense, but a clock early on to inform you as to how long you have of any given cycle would not have gone amiss. Regardless, with those problems to the side, there’s little else to scoff at here. Darkwood achieves much of what it set out to accomplish, and then some. If you’re even a little bit interested, you should certainly invest.
The game’s sense of tension and uncertainty is elevated elsewhere in play. You’ll never truly know where you should be heading, nor what lurks behind what corner. The game’s field of view is deceptively isolated, making sure that you’re always on the edge of your seat. That, and there’s a lot of risk vs. reward to Darkwood’s structure. Do you listen to the NPCs? Do you spend just that little extra time out and about as you attempt to advance your stretch of reach? Do you rush when things are against you? You’ll always have a choice to contend with here.
The game’s characters and creatures remain varied throughout, all of which sport their own behaviors in one form or another. You’ll slowly make progress through paying attention to your surroundings; gradually unlocking more of your randomly generated map as a result. I absolutely commend Darkwood for its aforementioned accessibility. Combat remains straightforward for the most part, with a crafting system that, to my surprise, is not convoluted. It’s all simple, and removes much of the weight that many games of this type fail to lift.
Darkwood just wants to put you on edge, and it succeeds in achieving that with every passing second. This is a game of endurance and perseverance, a game that drops you into its freakishly haunting world and tasks you with surviving, all the while it’s doing all that it can to bring you to your knees. On that front, this is unlike anything else. It helps, of course, that the audio and visual presentation is very well set; both relaying a lot of care and attention to detail that collectively adds to the already nail-biting framework that Darkwood effortlessly relays.
Constantly tense and surprisingly varied, Darkwood offers a new take on the tired genre, one that never relies on needless scares and cheap tactics to set its captivating, grim atmosphere. Here, you’re simply thrown to the unknown and left to fend for yourselves by any means necessary, with no hand-holding whatsoever, and no easy way out. Despite a few issues, Darkwood offers everything a great survival horror should, and more besides.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.