What is survival horror? Ask any random person on the street, and they’ll just shrug and probably say, “Surviving something scary?” – If that were true, then every scary video game where the main character survives to the end would be survival horror.
Ask the big name developers, they’ll just point to World War Z or the new Resident Evil; the former being a modern reboot of left for dead and the latter being – quite frankly – a poor excuse of a zombie game.
Darkwood is survival horror at its finest; one of the sparse few games to have ever evoked something akin to general panic within me. It’s a haunting journey into paranoia and stress induced fear – Every wayward twig break, floorboard creak or other random noise in the dark will have you silently hoping it’s just a noise and nothing else. It’s indie Silent Hill – That’s as close to what I can summarise Darkwood as.
Darkwood presents itself as a top down title, set against a disturbing, grainy art style that feels almost hand painted. It sets itself aside from other games in the top down genre by doing away with the leniencies and gifts you’d normally receive from such. Instead shrouding everything in an invisible ‘fog’ that hides anything not in your immediate line of sight – Your immediate surroundings constantly being kept a mystery. There could be some slavering monster right behind you at any moment, and you’d never be able to see it… Unless you turned around.
Even something as simple as a closed house sends nervous shivers up your spine; the game itself is dark, constantly playing at obscuring your already limited vision – It’s the sort of game that somehow makes you feel vulnerable, even whilst toting a loaded shotgun around. It’s the sort of game where a simple dog – or crazed lunatic with a stick – will send you running the other way; in Darkwood, nothing can be trusted. Not a single building, not a single corpse on the ground… Nothing.
As always with games like these, getting stranded at night is a death sentence. The main premise of the game involves you securing a safe house of sorts, typically a shoddy, run down building, long abandoned with crumbling walls, broken doors and huge holes you have to block up with furniture. You have to barricade doors and windows, manage the gasoline usage of the generator, position the paltry few lights you’re given to fight back the darkness… But even then you’re not safe; lunatics will try to break in, you’ll have to deal with poltergeists… And worse if you’re unlucky.
Of course most games of this type give you respawning resources in some way or another, but not Darkwood. Nothing is infinite in Darkwood. Every resource you have is finite and will eventually run out – There’s a mysterious, mute, trader that appears every morning, selling basic resources, but his store doesn’t refresh every morning; this goes for every trader in the game.
Character stills are some of the singularly most disturbing of imagery in this game, with each main character having their own unique still used for dialogue – The Musician especially. The map feels wide, but is claustrophobic at the same time, constantly constraining you with various hostile creatures, thickets of trees, or traps. The forest you’re trapped in feels like its own malicious entity, watching you all the time as it suffocates the environment around you.
That’s not to mention the night time shenanigans the game plays on you, or the hallucinatory drug trips that take you to surreal and twisted parts of the forest. The wisps of poltergeists that shut your generator off, the mysterious holes that seemingly just grow inside your house, spewing out huge beetles that make all sorts of unsettling noises… Darkwood is rich with atmosphere, mostly through the uses of sound alone, and again, that’s just one of the many things that serve to unhinge you – The player. I could go on for hours about each small facet of Darkwood.
Most surprisingly, Darkwood has a story; most survival horror games I pick up these days are just sandboxes – Big, empty, hollow landscapes that serve no purpose. The story involves you, the protagonist, tracking down a person simply known as The Doctor… Though there are side quests, or ‘paths’ to doing so, you can help the Wolfman, a crude, cold, uncaring NPC who deals in weapons, and has a distain for the villagers, or anyone else really… Or you can help the Musician, a stuttering boy whose dialogue still is one of the most disturbing things in this title… And the secrets you find along the way – in search of this Doctor and your Key – will certainly send shivers up your spine.
This game is one of only two games I can name that have ever been able to make me set my controller down, wanting to turn it all off and leave it well enough alone. The first being Dead Space 2, and the other being Alien Isolation. One moment in particular managed to do this to me, just two days into playing. The Wedding; the entire location is masterfully orchestrated. When you first visit it, there’s nothing special, it’s just a ruined building, walled off by a tight packed field of crops. forming a maze of sorts, with a trail of flower petals guiding you through. There’s a few tables, and a locked house – Later on, when I was just fixing up my safe house, I found an invitation to the Wedding, and a combination to unlock the house at the back. Past the maze, past the harvester, the ruined house, the tables, all the way at the back, where the forest grows unsettlingly dense…
…Upon returning, I am greeted by a twirling bride, in dress and shawl, asking me to dance; I thought it fishy, but shrugged it off… It’s just another NPC… But I couldn’t talk to her. Put off, I go to the locked house, punched in the code, and went inside, winding my way through the front rooms till I’m at the generator around back – It’s so dark I still need my flashlight; I catch a glimpse of something dart by my cone of vision. Hairs on end now, pushing forward, I loop around through an open window into a huge room, filled with tables, food, and colourful streamers. I hear loud, grainy music, broken by bouts of static, and a wet… Violent… “Thump, Thump, Thump”… I cast my light over the far end of the tables and see a man, sat at the head; he’s violently, and forcefully pounding his head into the table… As I approach, and try to turn off the radio beside him; he speaks, saying just one word each time he, slams, his head into the table. “We’ve.” Thud. “Been.” Thud. “Waiting.” Thud. “For.” Thud. “You.” Thud.
The door behind him swings open on its own – I leave, stepping out into a pitch black part of the woods, surrounded by twirling brides, all asking me to dance with them as I slowly backed back into the house, only to find the man gone. The lights go out, there’s a banging on the door to my right… I ready myself for some crazed villager or something… But what breaks through that door sent me into genuine panic…
That’s just one location; just. One. There’s dozens in Darkwood. Each one with something unsettling to it, something that just feels… Wrong.
Darkwood was developed by Acid Wizard Studios, initially released in 2017, but recently made its way onto PlayStation 4. I have been watching this game closely ever since first spotting it on Steam’s early access in 2014. I am certainly not disappointed after having finally bought it.
In summary, Darkwood is a haunting, and disturbing game that nails its unsettling atmosphere and sets you on edge, instilling a sense of paranoia akin to that of being lost in the woods whilst camping. It’s a game that only horror lovers will truly appreciate; it’s challenging without the need for unfair difficulty, or skewed odds. It’s violent, disturbing, and genuinely unsettling – It’s a game that pulls no punches, holds no hands, and relishes in watching you descend into an unnerved state of panic.
I happily give Darkwood a solid 9/10, and would kindly ask it to stop throwing rocks at me.