Darkwood Review

A wailing wind rips thru the gnarled clutches of an ominous forest, as the autumn glow of dusk settles in, the harbinger of accursed night.  There isn’t much time left to retreat from the watchful eye of darkness, stalking me from the periphery of perception.  A static howl pierces the facade of the fearless, as dread and despair slither down my spine with the chilling gestures of a spider.  Mocking whispers echo from the woods, tormenting my senses with their rippling crescendos of impending doom.  The sweeping presence of infinite night swallows the remaining vestiges of my sanity, as I prepare my feeble refuge for another murderous onslaught, from the depths of this waking nightmare.  A suffocating silence washes over my stifled reality, drawing the shadows closer with each erratic breath.  I sense their presence now.  I hear their morbid salivations and taste their corruption.  There will be no respite from the jowls of madness tonight…

Darkwood is a top-down survival horror game which preys upon innate childhood fears of perilous apparitions lurking in the dark.  Immersing the player in a world of transcendent terrors, by exploiting human vulnerabilities and exposing them to a reality in which they will never truly be safe.  From the moment the prologue begins, the cryptic narrative and suffocating tone thrust the player headfirst into obscurity.  It is a twisted descent into the bowels of fear and isolation, which rewards the player’s capacity for distress, with one of the most experiential additions to the genre in years.

Darkwood‘s macabre journey begins within the confines of a dense forest ravaged by a mutated plague, which has spread to corrupt the inhabitants of this land.  Abandoned, destitute and disoriented, the player awakens as “The Stanger,” in a dilapidated home with supernatural trappings.  A strange miasma emanates from a nearby oven marked by dire instruction, urging the player to remain within the safety of its noxious haze or face certain death.  A nauseating flood of anxiety convinces the player to follow their intuition to fortify this pitiful refuge for the pending menace of night.  Upon venturing out to gather resources and interact with deranged inhabitants, the player quickly realizes this mutated forest has grown to boundless proportion; trapping both human and wildlife alike, unable to escape to the other side.

Inhabitants who managed to endure this nightmare for a respectable amount of time, whisper of a secret key, which unlocks passage to the outside world.  Others, driven mad by circumstance or treachery, denounce such rumors as desperate falsehoods.  Fabricated by those who still cling to the withering flame of hope.  Without another means of escape, your goal is to locate this key if it does exist, and escape this eternal horror.

Each character players will encounter oozes with maniacal appeal, as you uncover their dark histories and aid them in their unique pursuits.  Textual exchanges reveal their warped visages to players, as they extend their services every morning, despite such sinister appearances. Every side-quest they offer adds depth to the main story by providing integral contextual elements to help the player unravel the intricate secrets of this demented fairy tale.

How players decide to interface with each NPC results in a truly unique experience as the story, world and gameplay evolve around choices you make, providing ample incentive for players to go back and explore diverging plot lines or backstory they may have missed entirely during their first playthrough.

Darkwood is strictly a single-player experience which offers normal, hard and nightmare difficulties.  Normal difficulty gives the player an infinite amount of deaths; however, upon dying, a random selection of half of their inventory will be dropped from their backpack.  Players can recover their equipment by revisiting the site of their death.  Hard difficulty retains the same formula in regards to inventory, however the amount of deaths are limited before the player will be forced to restart their story.  Nightmare difficulty gives the player one life to complete the entire campaign.

Darkwood forces players to accept the rules of its merciless world and to adapt their approach accordingly.  Balancing the juxtaposition of its horror and survival elements can be quite difficult at times, as you struggle to prioritize resources with limited space in your inventory.  This aspect of the game is made even more difficult by the fact that every resource is valuable, and until the player develops an effective strategy for survival, many of these resources will be wasted, sold or overlooked.

Paying meticulous attention to the day and night cycle is just as crucial for players as exploiting every second of daylight to gather resources, fortify their hideout and explore the surrounding area.  Navigating the landscape during the day is not without danger, however the player will be better equipped with visibility and preemptive opportunity as a result.  At night, the woods are fraught with blood-thirsty fiends who relentlessly hunt you no matter where you reside on the map.  As the orange hue of dusk fills the screen, you don’t want to be caught exploring the farthest reaches of the map.  Exploring locations further from your hideout should be prioritized to earlier in the day, allowing you to slowly work your way back as night falls.

In Darkwood, maps and the locations within them are randomized for each playthrough, which makes getting lost within the swirling commotion of the environment easy, as you struggle to recall landmarks without the ability to consistently locate yourself on the map.  One example of this resulted from my over extension into uncharted territory, deep within the woods to the south of my hideout.  As rain began to fall, I pushed further into the wilderness only to find myself adrift within the indistinguishable canopy overhead.  The enveloping grey sky began to fade to black and sheer panic swept over me as my heart began to race.  My circuitous attempts to make it back to relative safety were squandered by a mutated dog I was unable to evade or fend off.

Facing any of Darkwood’s highly formidable threats can be tremendously difficult, as a result of its clunky combat; which has become an unfortunate hallmark of the genre.  The Stranger moves at a feeble pace compared to the enemy.  Landing an attack is often thwarted by your opponent, as their attack animations often interrupt your setup.  Your primary attack must be wound up by the right mouse button and executed with a click of the left.  Clicking the left stick allows the player to execute a quick attack, however the pathetic amount of damage this deals in comparison to the amount of stamina consumed, nullifies its effectiveness.

With such a steep learning curve attached to the game’s controls, most encounters early on will devolve into the player running away from danger.  Minimizing stamina consumption becomes the crux of combat, as enemies deal substantially more damage with every blow, while your stamina rapidly depletes in attempts to evade or land an attack of your own.  Until the player can proficiently execute well timed attacks and evasive maneuvering, they are going to lose most encounters.

In conjunction with stamina conservation, the player’s field of vision is restricted to a cone which extends directly in front of The Stranger, to the periphery of his visibility.  Thus, relying on the sound of your enemies is imperative for anticipating enemy movement and their relative position outside your range of detection.  While this mechanic emphasizes the importance of proper timing and positioning, it can be frustrating when the player is hindered by such sluggish mobility.

While the overall pace of Darkwood’s gameplay is slow, it’s conscientiously crafted this way, providing service to its horror component by instilling a thorough sense of vulnerability in the player, without the cheap tactic of the jump scare routine.  You rarely possess the capacity to face any engagement with a blustering approach.  Impulsively scanning every corner of the screen mitigates the enemies opportunities to coordinate ambushes or pick the player off from a distance.  Players must utilize every tool at their disposal to effectively navigate, survive, and progress the plot.  Gameplay is well-suited for patient players, constantly revolving around risk versus reward.  Strategically planning your every move is essential, as even seemingly harmless miscalculations snowball into ruinous mistakes.

Surviving the night in Darkwood is one the most harrowing and intense psychological experiences I have ever had in a game.  I spend a significant portion of each day fueling the generator, barricading windows and rebuilding doors, so that I may have a chance of surviving the next homicidal invasion.  As stifling shadows creep overhead, a sheer sense of dread consumes me as the game begins toying with my senses and emotions.  A foreboding silence swarms around me, as demonic babbling can be heard coming from the forest.  The screen begins to shudder as swirling auditory hallucinations dance around my head.  An ephemeral fog proliferates throughout my hideout, while furnishings drift with spectral compulsions.  Guttural screams approach the window, as frenzied clawing strips away my trivial fortifications.  Holding my position, shovel in hand, I swing until the creature lays splayed out on the floor.  The tumultuous audio cue of daybreak flourishes in the background and night recedes to day.

Darkwood’s atmosphere is evocative, chilling, and immersive.  Corpses twitch with unnerving ferocity.  Shadows stalk from just out of reach.  Muddled whispers and aberrant visions call saneness into question.  Venturing further into the labyrinthine construction of each environment, peels away another layer of depth to this oppressive story.  The alluring morose beauty of each surreal landscape, lures the player deeper into its treacherous web.  At times, it feels like the game is unraveling your fears and insecurities as you travel further down the rabbit hole.

Accompanying player’s on their journey is an expansive soundtrack of ample variety.  Eerie electronic beats are layered atop pulsating bass and supernatural tones.  Deep, resonating notes collide with ethereal pitches, which ebb and flow in and out range.  Synchronous tempos setup the atmosphere, intensity and emotion for each scene, by matching the pace of the experience as it unfolds.  The soundtrack is unforgettable and largely reminiscent of The Twilight Zone, serving as a haunting backdrop for the kinetic sounds of gameplay.

The overall art style takes an intriguing approach to dismal and dreary.  The methodical composition of each painstakingly detailed environment is rendered in 2d, with 3d elements incorporated.  Fluid animations highlight each landscape, as foliage sways in accordance with the wind and articles of clothing react to the physical environment.  The depth of field is well balanced by the inclusion of blurred environmental assets and objects outside of proximal range to the player.  Darkwood is a testament to the fact that 2d horror is equally as viable as its 3d counterparts.

Verdict

Equally unnerving and captivating, Darkwood will pull you down into the depths of its twisted reality if you let it.  While I found myself ceremoniously mustering the courage to enter this world once again, I never regretted it once I had.  Time melted away in this dark escape, as I yearned for exploration and revelation.  Acid Wizard Studio has constructed an experience which gives players absolute freedom of pace, exploration, choice and tactic – one that I cannot recommend enough.

9.0

Pros Cons
+Captivating and deranged story -Combat is sluggish and mobility is limited
+Well crafted horror, which doesn’t rely on cheap jump scares  -Resource collection can become tedious with such a limited inventory capacity
+Freedom of choice and consequence  
+Highly immersive world of dark themes  

Link to original publication for Bonus Stage

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