If a creepy, tense and foreboding atmosphere were all that was needed to make a survival/horror game successful, Darkwood would be at the top of everyone’s “best of” lists. Now on consoles after a long early access residency on PC, the game oozes a palpable sense of dread but a clunky inventory system and awkward controls — and top-down, evocative but purposely low-res graphics — take some of masochistic pleasure from the experience.
Darkwood’s story is a mystery surrounded by an enigma, but it does reveal itself in time. Fundamentally, your character is trying to progress through — and eventually, escape from — a monster-inhabited forest, venturing out from the relative safety of his cabin to collect materials to craft weapons, defensive barricades, traps and other items.
Daytime survival is mostly a matter of situational awareness and luck, but when the sun goes down, the tension becomes untenable and the game really bares it teeth. All manner of monsters and unspeakable evil will visit itself upon your door and you’ll need to be prepared to defend yourself. There are almost never enough supplies, and making it through another night — sometimes by cowering in a corner and hoping the circle of traps and barricades are effective — is a real victory. As the game and story progress, you’ll have access to more robust materials and better items and weapons, but unsurprisingly the enemies and environment likewise become more challenging. The game absolutely never allows you to relax or become complacent.
Adding to the overall difficulty, Darkwood can be played as a roguelike, with limited allowance for death and failure. On normal mode, story progress is retained and items lost upon death are recoverable, but even the game is challenging, occasionally inscrutable and frustratingly opaque. True to its stated premise, there is no hand-holding and systems must be figured out by the player. The frustration comes whenever mistakes are made or puzzle clues are missed and progress come to a halt.
While the game’s sound design is absolutely terrifying, evocative and masterful, I was less in love with Darkwood’s top-down, pixelated graphics, if only because so many roguelikes default to the same perspective and aesthetic. That said, Darkwood’s visuals do make effective use of light and darkness and the unseen horrors that lurk, slither, fly and attack from the shadows. The writing shifts between the macabre and the ironic, but is rarely explicitly expository. There are fleeting brushes with humor, but the tone of terror and oppressive dread are never left far behind.
Although it plays much better and controls more intuitively with a gamepad than using mouse and keyboard, Darkwood’s inventory management system and overall UI could use a few more nods towards user-friendliness. In particular, the mechanics of picking up items and moving them into limited quick use slots feels laborious and a holdover from the PC original. Combat mechanics, on the other hand, are much more effective on the console.
Overall, Darkwood does a good job of presenting a very tense and often horrific story with just the right amount of survival elements mixed in. While I’m not sure it is strictly fun, surviving a monster-filled night certainly is a relief and feels satisfying. Difficult enough at its normal setting, there are ample opportunities for true masochists to enjoy Darkwood’s singular approach to the genre.