Being stuck in a seemingly never-ending forest with hordes of demented and supernatural killers on your tail is never a pleasant-sounding way to spend a night.
That’s what you get in Darkwood, a top-down survival horror first seen on Steam in 2014 and recently making an appearance on a Nintendo system for the first time after being announced in a Nindies Direct in March.
Like the majority of survival horrors, the player’s success depends on their interaction with the environment, picking up items to refill their health, weapons to defend themselves and tools to make it into new areas. This is a slow-burner of a horror. Much like in any good horror game, a lot of the chills and scares come in the form of twigs snapping, sudden sounds coming out of the forest or other things which happen just out of your sight. Even if things happen in close proximity, you aren’t guaranteed to be able to see them, as things need to be directly in your line of sight to even appear. As you perform a 360 swivel, things will appear and disappear from the screen in a quite unnerving visual.
For a lot of the time in Darkwood, the player is on the defensive. Safe houses provide the respite from the horrors of the night, but the windows must be adequately secured by boarding up, in order to buy the chance of holding fort through the night. But you never truly feel safe. There’s nothing quite as chilling as the sound of floorboards creaking or even a door swinging open inside a house that you previously thought was secure, and that’s what Darkwood does best.
On the other side of the gameplay, there’s no hand-holding at all with the exploration. The map doesn’t actually show your location in the woods, only giving you a clue if you’re near a previously-discovered landmark. That’s a pretty discombobulating experience, particularly when the progression in the game is largely dependent on getting a good grasp of where everything is.
The main problem during the exploration is that too much darkness can be a bad thing. With the heavy reliance on using resources to craft items including torches, for too often players have to focus on a dimly-lit circle in the centre of the screen and being forced to hunt down new resources without being able to see them, kind of the equivalent of Velma in Scooby-Doo feeling around on the floor for her glasses. It’s an immersion-breaker, which is the worst-case scenario for a horror game – yes, there is the sensation that something might be sneaking up on you unseen, but that feeling is overpowered by the frustration of not being able to see the game.
Even guns don’t solve the problem when they appear. With ammo so finite and a ‘honing in’ system which means you have to aim down the sights for a short period of time in order to get a clean shot, guns feel like more hassle than their worth. Other obstacles to progress include the health and stamina meters, the latter of which recharges at a slow rate or a snail’s pace if you use it all up. Close-quarters combat uses a bunch of stamina, so conservation always has to be at the front of your mind.
Darkwood is a chilling but at times irritating experience. This is a game which has a lot to show, but it shouldn’t be quite so dark that the player can’t take it all in.
Darkwood is a gripping survival horror, but its presentation is too dark for comfort a lot of the time. Players should spend more time being scared than rummaging for resources.