REVIEW: Darkwood

 “If you go down in the woods today you’re sure of a big surprise” Takes on a whole new meaning by entering the Darkwoods. Are you up the challenge?

Steam: Released
Title: Darkwood
Genre: Action, Adventure, Indie
Developer: Acid Wizard Studio
Publisher: Acid Wizard Studio
Release Date: 17 Jul, 2017


Darkwood provides a new perspective on survival horror. Scavenge and explore the rich, ever-changing free-roam world by day, then hunker down in your hideout and pray for the morning light. By day explore the randomly generated, ever-sinister woods, scavenge for materials, craft weapons and discover new secrets. By night find shelter, barricade, set up traps and hide or defend yourself from the horrors that lurk in the dark.

Gain skills and perks by extracting a strange essence from mutated fauna and flora and injecting it into your bloodstream. Watch out for unexpected consequences…

Gameplay Video

The first time I encountered a top-down viewpoint game was Into the Eagle’s Nest (Spectrum 1987) then the arcade classic Gauntlet (Atari 1985) I enjoyed these games immensely, so whenever this graphic style was employed, I would generally pick up the title. Alien Breed on the Amiga (1991) was another classic game. Using the miggy’s powerful hardware, Team 17 took the genre to a whole new level with better graphic fidelity and vast sprawling space ship levels crawling with xenomorphs. More recent titles like Door Kickers and Hotline Miami have brought top-down into the modern era with high-quality games. It’s a superbly malleable aesthetic that can be used to service many genres and play types. It can showcase good 2D artwork, fast frenetic, tactical and with this title; slow-paced survival horror gameplay.

I’m not one for Horror. Never been a fan of slasher movies and video nasties. I was unaware of the legacy this game has had in its formative development cycle. Even in its pre-alpha phase, It was taken up by YouTubers looking for the next jump scare/web cam fodder. I don’t watch that content and therefore hadn’t a clue that was being targeted as the next big thing in the indie “pooh yer pants” market.

So I come to Darkwood with fresh eyes and none of the mental baggage that surrounds a title with four long hard years of development hell behind it. From its Indiegogo roots, through its early access phase, it’s been a trial of fire for Acidwizard. (literally, a three man and dog Polish start-up studio) Gainfully, they stuck to their task and all their hard work has been realised with a project dripping with atmosphere and finely tuned gameplay.

The game opens with the following statement.

You are playing a challenging and unforgiving game.
You will not be led by the hand.
Respect the woods. Be patient. Focus

There’s something about the Eastern Europeans and their ability to do “creepy” games. Think Stalker with its invisible nuclear anomalies, Metro Last Light’s rats and the Witcher’s strange woodland denizens. They have an unearthly knack of instilling a dark pagan dread into the most battle hardened player. All these games have an excellent pace and tone. Darkwood is no different. It allows the imagination to run riot with sparse lighting, subtle music cues and muted colours. From the get-go, the mood is set to full-on shred your nerves trepidation as you slowly move through the game world.

After the opening prologue, which sets the scene and also doubles as a short tutorial, your character awakes in a house in the woods. This acts as the main hub for your crafting and survival. As with most spooky games, Darkwood has a day/night cycle. During the light hours, you can explore the procedurally generated world gathering items to help you solve the narrative riddle. By night, bad things happen to you (no spoilers) if you don’t get back to the safety of the dilapidated dwelling. This ying-yang, push and pull mechanic is what underpins the whole adventure. How far are willing to push the envelope in order to unwrap the secrets of the woods. Stray too far off the beaten track, ill equipped and alone. It’s not a good recipe for this punishing game that you will find to your own cost.

There’s always a fine balancing act to weaving a story is into a procedural experience. Sometimes the joints can show and whole immersive aspect can fall apart. During my review process, I created two separate saves to see how the game sessions compare. I was impressed with the results. Not only is the main buildings layout different but the surrounding map had been completely rejigged forcing you to re-explore the perils of the dark dank woods. Key item placements were different too.

To illustrate a typical play session, I’ll take a leaf out of the game’s journal system which documents the players progress through the adventure.

Journal entry day 3.

“Thought I’d done well. Managed to find the underground entrance and the secrets beyond.. Lights failed as I was retracing my steps back to the surface. Something was following me.. In the shadows.. but I’m managed to evade its gaze and return to the stairs. Outside it was still light so I made my way back north, to the safety of the house. With the evening glow of the setting sun, I busied myself by boarding up a couple of windows and fixing one of the interior doors. The strange mist started rolling in again.. I’d forgot to turn on the generator. Too dark to go outside now. The night enveloped me like a thick cloying blanket. What was that? to the south, I could hear repeated knocking on the exterior door. Not a rentman knock, more an instant postman knock, he, she or it wasn’t going away. Then silence… had they gave up and disappeared back into the night?. No.. I could hear the nearby shuffling of feet… they were in the next room..I readied my weapon above my head…almost at once they were upon me. Striking me hard.. I flailed around trying to make contact with my improvised weapon.. Caught it on the shoulder blade.. But it just kept on coming..two more hits..backed into a corner.. I couldn’t escape..fade to red..fade to black…”

The lighting in DarkWood is exceptional. Your field of view cone cuts through the murky almost soup-like atmosphere of your surroundings. Clinks of light cut through barricaded windows like icy fingers reaching out into the inky black exterior.

It’s a strange thing to say, in this digital era, that Darkwood has a handcrafted feel to it. It uses the now de facto indie development engine Unity. Nothing surprising there. Perhaps it’s the artwork which definitely isn’t off the shelf tackle, that separates it from the crowd. There’s a charcoal, pencil and ink aesthetic that underpins all the graphics and textures. A cool blurring effect adds a water colour wash vignette. This slowly morphs tree branches from stalk boney tendrils into softer anemones like tentacles. Add in a couple of layers of film grain and swirling fog, completes the visual look.

Sound design really struck home to me. Not only the attention to detail but the way the layers of atmospherics and near field sounds were placed into the mix. Doors squeaks, chair scrape convincing across the wooden floorboards. Superb Foley work. The stereo separation is beautifully done, sound blends according to your cone of vision. Which if you think about, is pure logic. Our ears are forward facing so they should work in tandem with our eyes. Walls muffle some of the sounds but they still bleed through. Like they are being fed through some kind of low-pass filter. Distance foot falls and coughs conjure up images of axe-wielding maniacs with your fevered subconscious.

After some minutes of playtime, a Barrington Pheloung style tune kicks in. All minimal piano and legato strings.Its slow tempo perfectly fits the mode of the game. I was taken aback by this. I wasn’t expecting some tin pot 3 man Polish team to deliver this quality of a soundtrack. I spent a good 10 minutes not touching any controls, just listening to this theme. A tune that would be fit to grace any Hollywood movie or Inspector Morse episode.

Darkwood is a supremely focused horror game. It’s a labour of love for the small Polish team. It’s tight design and singular approach to detail has an almost auteur like feel. This game hasn’t been through numerous focus test groups which water down the experience, leaving a pasteurized, pallid and bland product. Neither is it the melding of assets by a cabal of satellite studios. It’s refreshing in this day and age to play something organic and unique.

To fully do this game justice you have to play this game with headphones, lights off and no distractions. The meticulous sound design alone deserves it. Every scrape, cough and distance lupine howl amps up the tension in this superbly crafted game. “If you go down in the woods today you’re sure of a big surprise” takes on a whole new meaning by entering the Darkwoods.

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