|Developer||Acid Wizard Studio|
|Publisher||Acid Wizard Studio|
|Platforms||PC (reviewed), Xbox, Switch, PS4|
|Release Date||August 17, 2017|
Darkwood is an indie RPG-style survival horror game that thrusts you into the unforgiving woods of the Polish countryside. If you compared Darkwood to a checklist of what it takes to make an incredible horror game, it would check every box while also pushing beyond your wildest expectations. Relying mostly on atmosphere, thoughtful mechanics, and detailed worldbuilding, Darkwood is at once accessible and memorable. Rest assured, it will make your heart race and your hair stand on end; not because it’s trying to, but because it makes you care about the game’s context and pushes you to pay attention to every single detail hidden in its horrifyingly complex woods.
There are religious NPCs in Darkwood and some depictions of religious buildings, symbols, and beliefs. There’s a mix of Christian beliefs as well as pagan symbols and the worshipping of unusual things in the forest by the desperate villagers. However, there’s no overt spirituality in the forest itself.
This is a horror game, my dude. There’s violence, fighting, and gore that’s seen visually and described explicitly. Additionally, there’s a significant amount of visible blood and disturbing depictions of murder. While Darkwood isn’t first person, which spares you from witnessing most of the trauma, you’re still surrounded by violence and disturbing images. As for your character’s actions, you’ll often find yourself having to hack, slash, and shoot through enemies as you fight to ensure your survival.
There’s a decent amount of swearing in Darkwood. Not an overwhelming amount, but you will hear f-words, the Lord’s name taken in vain, and other curse words spoken by the villagers around you.
There’s no nudity or explicit sexual content in Darkwood.
The mushrooms your character uses to heal and get abilities could be seen as a drug and there are occasional references to alcohol, cigarettes, and other drugs. However, these are not used by the main character nor are they mentioned often.
Horror is a wild and varied genre. From cheap jumpscares and needlessly creepy storylines to masterpieces of atmosphere and unsettling storytelling, horror games are eternal in both their popularity and their variety.
But every now and again there’s an absolute gem in the genre; something that seamlessly combines all the best aspects of horror and conjures up a truly terrifying yet glorious game. This kind of experience is what Darkwood has to offer. It almost effortlessly dances past all the usual pitfalls of horror- there’s no jump scares, no unnecessary gore, no weirdly creepy plot twist, no overuse of unfair game mechanics. Instead, Darkwood invites the player on a 100 plus hour mild heart attack as you explore and try to escape the infected woods.
Darkwood is an RPG-style atmospheric horror game that is as vast as it is detailed. The main campaign can take several days to complete, but no part of it should be rushed through. There’s plenty to find, despise, and fight in the woods, and all of it is worth exploring.
The complexity of the world of Darkwood is definitely one of its strong suits. The story goes that there’s an infection taking over the woods- polluting the air, overtaking the trees, and causing all life- be it plant, animal, or human- to become monstrous and infected. Once they’ve been infected, the trees grow in seconds, becoming giant, looming, and blocking out the sun and the outside world. People succumb to all kinds of terrifying illnesses ranging from madness to cannibalism to gradually morphing into monstrous creatures. And even when they finally approach the release of death, the forest won’t let them go. They come back as other kinds of monsters, merging with the undying forest more and more as time passes. And this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Darkwood’s extensive lore.
But the genius of Darkwood is that it never makes a show of just how horrifying everything is. Things just…exist. You catch on to the story and lore through random accounts from strangers, the details hidden in various houses, or from observing the efforts undertaken by the townsfolk as they struggle to survive. The extreme ways in which people have strived and sacrificed to survive is often just as unsettling as the overarching story and disease. The small storylines and relationships with side characters are where you can see most clearly that the forest has no mercy.
Quite a few times, I found myself struck by horrifying events that simply presented themselves without much fanfare: a man’s daughters turned to monsters that had to be locked up in the basement, unsettling groans emanated from a garage, a half-dead man appeared with radio dials for eyes, a dead child’s lungs were hooked up to a machine in vague hopes that they might bring clean air. Absolutely none of these events are explained or fleshed out for the player. Rather, you have to pay close attention to details and the mechanics of this world to even begin to understand them.
The design of Darkwood is equally a part of its genius. Even though all those scenarios sound grotesque to witness, and they are, the top-down RPG-nature of Darkwood keeps it from being unnecessarily traumatic. The most unsettling visuals are in the character designs during dialogue, but even then, much of the terror is in the minute details. Most of the game’s fear factor is found in the atmosphere, as you explore in the darkness with minimal sound and limited vision. This makes Darkwood an accessible horror experience for those that hate gory visuals or first-person jump scares.
The design of the gameplay is also integral to the experience. Your character can only see what’s in front of them, and your field of vision is impacted by your surroundings and the time of day. This makes it feel like a first-person playthrough, where your vision is limited and you have to guess what’s around you, but without the full intensity of first-person. The controls are also fairly intuitive, but the combat is a bit different to give every action weight and a feeling of importance. You also have some RPG elements like inventory, crafting, choice-based storylines, combat styles, a home base, and the ability to gain special skills over time. All of these are fully fleshed out and detailed, making it almost impossible to fully understand or master Darkwood. Small dialogue choices have lingering consequences, you can specialize and upgrade weapons, enemies have distinctive fighting styles, and you always have to manage your home base and worry about how you’ll survive the night.
Despite Darkwood’s impressive level of depth, it never feels overwhelming. The forest is unforgiving, sure, but it’s not unfair. There’s a trader to help you every morning and you’re encouraged to experiment and pay attention as you discover how to survive, fight, and progress. There are usually multiple ways to solve a problem and even if you die, you come back the next morning, your progress only hampered by the time it takes to locate your lost items. You will feel terrified, but you won’t feel cheated, even when Darkwood is at its most vicious. It’s a smart game, but it’s not arrogant.
Just as you start to feel like you’ve mastered, certain mechanics, the game will push you to move to new parts of the forest or face new enemies. Darkwood slowly but surely ramps up the difficulty and intensity, while always retaining a sense of unnerving intrigue. Even as you go from being weaponless to carrying multiple guns, the woods are still terrifying as small details like tree density, how many monsters are out, and the variety of monsters keep you on your toes. The maps are also procedurally generated, making every experience different day-to-day and playthrough to playthrough. My only warning is that playing Darkwood on a controller or console could be a bit tedious or clunky, so I would recommend it more for a PC experience. If you’re looking for an impactful, harrowing, and well-crafted horror experience, look no further than Darkwood. You, and your heart rate, will not be disappointed.
The Bottom Line
Darkwood is a masterpiece of the horror genre and at once accessible to wannabe horror gamers and harrowing to fear junkies.