Too many games hold your hand too tightly, I remember as kid games being quite difficult. No generous checkpoints, no infinite lives, you normally had your three lives and had to make them count. Modern games, in the majority, are very forgiving. You can usually die as many times as you wish and most games do not punish you for doing so. On to my Darkwood review then and I was immediately presented with a screen which read “You are playing a challenging and unforgiving game. You will not be led by the hand.” This immediately struck a chord with me, what kind of game comes with a warning like that?
Darkwood is set in a Polish village in the 1980s, it’s a top-down survival horror game that includes randomly generated elements and multiple storylines to uncover. You’re tasked with escaping a randomly generated map which is filled with weird creatures and characters. The whole game, story, characters and visuals fill you with a sense of dread and nervousness. I don’t want to talk too much about the story as anything I say will detract from its experience but it’s very eerie and unsettling throughout.
One thing I really did appreciate about the story and its presentation was the choose-your-own-adventure style scenes you were presented with. Sometimes when looking at an object or interacting with something in the game you were presented with a beautiful scene to interact with. A piece of hand-drawn artwork that was accompanied by several options for you to choose from. It gave the game a storybook-like quality that I really enjoyed.
I found most of my time with Darkwood quite offputting. Like the warning said at the start of the game, there is no hand holding, most of my opening hours were spent wandering around not really knowing what I was doing. I will be honest, this is not the type of game to be wandering around lost. Due to its survival and horror elements I most mostly unprepared for what I was facing. I would run into dogs or enemies without a weapon, I would find myself with no healing items and would eventually die. My opening hours taught me some harsh lessons but I soldiered on anyway.
Darkwood heavily relies on scavenging and crafting and like a lot of games these days using your resources correctly will be the key to success. You can craft light recipes on the move but most big items will need to be crafted or maintained at the workshop. This is all standard fare for a game of this ilk. You have other stations to work with too, things like a cooker and a bench saw to cut logs. It was not long before I had crafted enough items to make me feel confident about going on a ‘proper’ look around. I finally felt I was ready for the harsh world I was about to wade through.
It was now a case of finding out where I should be going and what I should be doing. I was able to hold my own against the games beginning creatures and felt I could survive properly. I was used to the game’s systems and felt a bit less lost. I had met a few characters on my journey and with the help of my journal had a rough idea of what I was supposed to be doing. The whole game felt a bit less fear-inducing and less harsh, I was starting to enjoy myself and make some real progress.
Nighttime is when Darkwood really gets freaky, you must return to your hideout and its relative safety. At night you are hunted by an unavoidable terror. I died a few times until I realized what was happening. You must return home and even then, you are not completely safe. In the depth of night the game evolves slightly into a basic base building game, you must reinforce your surroundings as you can be attacked by an all manner of creatures. Set traps, barricade windows and repair the structural damage to try and live through the night. Its a nice change of pace and once I worked out what was happening I enjoyed it a lot.
The combat in Darkwood is very basic, you have 2 attack types with melee weapons and range weapons speak for themselves really. It does its job but I would have liked to see a bit more variety and a little more depth to the combat system. Your weapons have to be maintained at the workshop as they degrade over time, this system was not too bad though and never overbearing. I just repaired things when I went back to my base at night. Another thing you had to make sure you had was a light source. Most of the time you cannot see a thing, a torch or a light is vital to your survival.
Darkwood has a unique ability system. You gather flora and fauna from your surroundings and use them to create injections that induce ghastly hallucinations. As if you did not have enough to deal with? These injections open up skill trees that not only provide positive traits but negative ones too. It gives you a nice little balancing act to deal with and makes sure you are never quite settled in what you are doing. It’s a novel system that unlike most games means that not all skills are beneficial skills and you have to be flexible in your approach.
Graphically Darkwood was stunning, the pixel art is really well done and it’s all covered in a grainy filter that really drives home the eerieness and gloom that the game is filled with. The lighting is very good, your torches shine through windows and cracks, through bushes and twisted roots. My entire time with Darkwood was dank and horrible but in a very good way. Crumbled buildings, horrid forests and dark fields were all designed and rendered very well. I never really felt settled and that’s a testament to the games fantastic art style.
The sound design also added to the overall feeling of tension and horror. The game creaked and moaned, enemies squelched and growled and due to the dark and claustrophobic nature of the game, it all added up to something special. It gave the overall feeling of the game weight and really made the horror vibes more prominent. The designers really did a good job on both the sights and sounds to make your time with Darkwood unnerving and it’s an excellent experience.
Darkwood performed well for the majority of the game, I did have a few times where the game would skip a few frames but this was very rare. Overall I encountered no bugs during my playthrough and no game breaking glitches at all. The performance was adequate and in no way infringed on my enjoyment of the game.
Once you have dragged yourself over the initial learning curve, there is a very enjoyable game buried underneath. Darkwood’s survival and crafting elements are fun and not too overbearing. It’s graphical and sound design are top notch and really immerse you in this dank and creepy world. I do wish it’s combat had more depth and some players may be put off by its initial difficulty but that’s all subjective. If you like horror games, survival systems and fancy a bit of a challenge then this game is for you. I enjoyed my time with it and recommend it but if you are easily frustrated then maybe give it a miss.
*Code kindly provided by the publisher for review*