The Forest Eats Everything… Eventually

HIGH Getting my hands on an axe, at long last.

LOW Dogs are too good at knocking down my barricaded doors.

WTF The drug trips. Yikes.

With its muted palette and gruesome imagery, Darkwood is an experience comfortable wallowing in bleakness and nihilism. Set in an area destroyed by some largely-unexplained cataclysm, it puts players in the role of a coat-wearing survivor hoping to escape via a tunnel hidden under a destroyed house. The problem? The key to that door is located somewhere deep in the titular forest, and it’s a dangerous area full of ravening beasts, insane mutants, and untrustworthy survivors, each with their own agendas.

As a top-down survival ordeal, Darkwood gets most of its mileage by withholding information from the player — they can only see within a cone of vision in front of them. What makes this visual so interesting is that while the rest of the world remains present outside that cone, it has no fine details. Look away from the house, and it appears to be a run-down wreck. Turn to look at it, and it transforms into a writhing mass of poisonous mushrooms, rotting corpses, and scurrying insects.

This visual trick has concrete effects as well — players will frequently hear enemies clomping after them through the brush, but the only way to find them is to spin around in place and search for features that change as the hero’s eyes sweep over them. In a nice touch, the devs have locked the vision cone in the direction the character is moving when he’s sprinting. So, whenever the player flees enemies — a frequent occurrence — it’s impossible to tell how much of a lead has been established, or even if the enemy’s still chasing at all.

It’s appropriate that vision plays such a large role in the gameplay mechanics, since this is primarily an adventure about exploring hidden places.

Players start in one of the least safe houses to ever bear the name, and once they step outside, they’ll discover that Darkwood is absolutely packed with dangers that can end their lives in just a few moments if they’re not properly armed and ready to fight.

Scavenging isn’t optional here — Darkwood has a day/night cycle, and when the sun goes down, the woods become pitch black. Deadly creatures will come crawling out of every corner, so the player’s only chance is to find enough gasoline during the day to run a generator all night long.

This practice staves off the strange deadly creatures that that appear only as ripples in the shadows, but it rings the dinner bell for standard foes who will follow any light source in search of an easy meal. If they survive the night, the player must search wrecked vehicles and crumbling edifices for enough supplies to illuminate and barricade themselves in a safe haven for one more day so they can do it all over again.

They can’t just bide their time forever, though – resources don’t respawn in the forest, so even though a trader shows up each day to sell gasoline to the desperate, there’s a finite amount of times they’ll be able to afford it. Each night the monsters also get a little bolder and more talented at disabling the player’s security measures.

Darkwood is borderline sadistic. On the lowest difficulty level, players drop items when they’re killed and they must be manually recovered. On the next difficulty, they have a limited number of tries to beat the game. On the hardest, permadeath is in effect – if players die once, they have to start the whole thing over from scratch.

Other cruelties? The map only lets the player know where they are if they’re standing near a recognizable landmark, and it’s not so detailed that they can be guaranteed the navigation decisions they make will lead them home. Inventory space is in short supply, and the player can only upgrade their abilities by brewing a potion that both gives them a new ability and a significant disadvantage at the same time. The crafting system lets players build or upgrade better weapons but the resources are few and far between.

Darkwood‘s plot is also maddeningly opaque. The player is told to escape but every character they meet ranges from quietly sympathetic to openly sinister, and they all discourage him from trying. The quests they offer form the entirety of the plot’s bare threads — there are things to kill and items to collect, but every task I managed to complete only rewarded me with a few meager clues while also raising new questions.

I took a run at Darkwood when it was in Early Access on PC, and found myself so beaten down by the experience that I was forced to step away. Now, in its completed form, the balancing has been fine-tuned to the point where a determined player with the patience to slowly explore a hostile world will be able to make it to the end. It’s still one of the most challenging and bleakest survival experiences I’ve ever had, but I’m happy to see that the developers have found a sweet spot between alienating difficulty and player empowerment. It’s a challenge, but a fair one — and one that I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Acid Wizard Studio and published by Crunching Koalas. It is currently available on PC and PS4, Switch and XBO. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4 Pro. Approximately 20 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: This game is rated M and contains Blood, Strong Language, and Violence. I have to assume the ESRB didn’t check too closely, since they missed out on the huge amount of Gore in the game (there’s a picture of a gutted pig at one point), and the Drug Use inherent in the system of using hallucinogenic drugs to unlock new powers. No kids, please. This is a bleak game about people surviving in the harshest location imaginable, using brutality as their primary tool. Adults only, and even then, ones who aren’t prone to emotional instability or depressive episodes.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options. Also, the game’s colors are so muted that it’s almost black and white.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: You’ll have some problems. Being able to hear enemies approach from one of your many blind spots is extremely important, and there’s no visual cue to help. Beyond that, some of the game’s most tense moments are built entirely around sound effects – the nighttime scenes feature whispers, footsteps, scratching, and wailing, designed to both unnerve the player and to let them know when danger is approaching. With no visual cues accompanying them, the nighttime sequences are extremely frustrating, as players are forced to simply wait around for five minutes until something kicks down the door and attempts to bite them in half.

Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.

Daniel Weissenberger
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