I’m about one… maybe two good jump scares away from being institutionalized. Playing as an Indonesian schoolgirl with a magic phone, an archeologist with amnesia, and a toddler with diapers full to the brim has had an ill effect on me. My heart just can’t take it – my mind just can’t take it. The filaments that hold my fragile psyche aloft are pulled taut, straining as each frayed fiber falters and my sanity slips closer towards the cold, dark depths of derangement. Which isn’t super great, really. But I’ll gladly surrender my faculties for a game as fun as Darkwood.
Darkwood isn’t a Slender or Amnesia clone. This is a game in the vein of old school horror where atmosphere was king – you’ll hear lots of comparisons to the Silent Hill series. The key to good horror is cultivating a crushing, foreboding world environment… one that fosters paranoia and unease the whole way through. Sure, jumpscares are necessary to finally break the tension, but the best horror games are dripping and oozing in atmosphere. The whole world should feel hostile, not just the denizens that inhabit it. This game doesn’t want you playing it, no. It wants to play you.
Here’s what you can expect playing Darkwood: your hands should be clammy with an itch you can’t scratch, not now. Your face should be inches from your monitor, blinking only when necessary, scanning wildly back and forth for something, anything, to betray the game’s ill intent. As you talk with each bizarre NPC you should feel nervous, wondering when the conversation will go from benignly creepy to malignantly violent. And when you finally encounter an unspeakable horror, you’ll have to make that gut decision whether to run or stand your ground. I recommend running. Like with all survivor horrors, you are at a notable disadvantage. You’ll also be able to set up hasty barricades… rocking back and forth as claws scratch and jaws click outside, tearing your defenses down piece by piece.
There are a lot of cool things happening with this game. Your vision is funneled, forcing the aforementioned wild scanning. You can see the world generally in your “peripheral vision” but you have to be looking relatively dead-on to see any actual threats. They’ll be effectively invisible otherwise. You’ll inject yourself with concoctions extracted from fauna and flora that provide mutations. They will grant a boost in one way and a hindrance in another. There’s a crafting aspect that’s pretty basic right now but feels natural… rough and raw. Besides health you have a stamina meter, one you’ll have to keep an eye on when deciding whether to fight or fly.
Graphically speaking, Darkwood isn’t exactly next gen, but it is highly stylized and creepy. It’s a beautiful, dark, Gothic painting – like the ones where the eyes follow you wherever you go and it talks smack about your mother. And the music will chill you to the bone. If the environment and enemies start to give you a little break, don’t worry. The music will swell and put you right back on edge, or the heavy creaks and sudden cracks of the sound design.
Like any good horror this is a challenging game. I do recommend playing with permadeath on. Adds to the spook factor! Anticipate shedding lots of your own pixelated blood. My biggest gripes? It’s hard to determine sometimes – between how dark the game is and how… generally dark the colors are – what I can search and interact with and what’s just a creepy thingy. The controls also take some getting used to, but that seems appropriate considering the genre.
Now seeing that this is an Early Access title my recommendation is tentative and subject to change. But at the moment there is nothing out on Steam quite like this. Every day you hear people bemoan the death of “true survival horror”, myself being one of them. Well folks, it wasn’t dead. Just waiting for the right moment to sing its siren song… and draw us in at least once more, into those dark and dreary woods where light dares not penetrate and your screams can’t quite escape.