Trapped in a Polish village surrounded by an insurmountable forest of trees and threats, you head back to the one place you know can provide some amount of safety. As the sun goes down, your pace quickens with the knowledge that if you’re caught out after dark, you may as well start digging your own grave there and then. With seconds to spare, you reach the confines of your hideout and flick the generator on. And then you hear it: the roar of the night. It’s a monster’s playground now, and you’re its prey. This is Darkwood, and you’ll be lucky to make it out alive.
Developer Acid Wizard Studio has been making waves over on the PC for quite some time now with its top-down rougelite survival horror experience, and after playing on the PlayStation 4, we can see why. It’s unlike anything we’ve come across for some time, as the three man team promises a terrifying ordeal without a single cheap jump scare. They achieve that with an unmatched atmosphere that is sure to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up from the word go, and a range of ghastly creatures you’d normally only come across in the very worst of nightmares. A day and night cycle will keep some of them at bay while the sun is up, and it’s during those hours where much of the title’s gameplay takes place.
Venture out into the wilderness and you’ll quickly start to come across hand-crafted environments, the locations of which are randomised with each playthrough. Here, you’ll scavenge for materials, resources, and weapons to be taken back to your hideout for crafting purposes. Alongside that, progressing the story is an essential part of the loop. With the simple objective of escaping the village and surrounding woods, what you actually need to be doing in order to achieve that is left intentionally vague at times. Characters you encounter can offer guidance at certain points, but it’s not enough to go off of the majority of the time.
It leads to frustrating periods of simply roaming the map in search of anything that might trigger a breakthrough. You’ll need to look for keys and door combinations to access further parts of the map, and it just isn’t fun to be perfectly honest. Staying alive is always going to be the most important factor, but there comes a point where you want to feel like you’re making some headway. Darkwood provides that in fits and starts, but there were far too many a time where we were unsure of what to do next.
Lesser enemies, such as dogs, are worth taking out for the meat they give. Combat feels very deliberate, with a stamina bar that dictates your actions and the act of readying up an attack with a hold of the L2 button that makes you time your hits. It’s another part of gameplay that feels nothing more than serviceable. You’ll find yourself running around in circles a lot as you wait for the stamina gauge to refill before letting off another blow, meaning there’s very little strategy in how you approach encounters. It’s clearly not the main focus of the experience, but the clunky nature makes for a couple of teething problems upon first engagements.
Thankfully, one thing the title does get right is crafting. We’ve played far too many games where a confusing and overwhelming crafting interface pretty much kills the experience, but that’s not the case this time around. Take a look at your inventory and to the right, you’ll see a list of everything you could craft with your current belongings. Simply select what you want and it’ll appear in your inventory in a matter of seconds, along with a list of the materials needed to craft another one. It can be done anywhere at any time, making for an easy to use mechanic that doesn’t implement any sort of stress.
While gameplay is a mixture of highs and lows, we have to return to the title’s horrific nature. There are certain scenes that are going to stick with you for a while, from the intimidating areas you’ll explore to the creepy and horrifying monsters you’ll meet within. It creates an incredibly tense atmosphere that’ll keep you on edge at all times, even when you’re in the seemingly safe confines of your hideout. Hiding away during the night time is genuinely chilling, but it’s the imagery you encounter as you make your way through the game that becomes even more twisted. It’s going to take you out of your comfort zone, scare you silly, and leave a real impression – shifting the possibilities of horror into a spine-chilling reality.
This carries over into the lighting, which is nothing short of phenomenal. You can only see so far ahead of you, represented on-screen by a vision cone, and all surrounding area is shrouded in darkness. This creates numerous intense moments where you can tell a monster is creeping around in the shadows, but because of your limited perspective, all you can do is hastily swivel about as you try to pinpoint its position. It’s frantic fear that really gets the blood pumping.
On top of that, it’s beautiful too. Due to the way light moves, it can create some magnificent spectacles as you work your way through a cornfield – the light will bounce around every single crop turning a farmer’s handiwork into a worthy painting. And then, as the sun starts to set, a hint of orange seeps into the atmosphere to build a picturesque end to the day. It’s powerful and dazzlingly stunning – a contrast to the horrors that lie in wait.
Darkwood is on the verge of greatness. The terrifying and foreboding atmosphere it manages to create is unmatched in the genre, while the scares themselves are earned and equally alarming. The experience is somewhat held back by gameplay annoyances, but they’re not enough to sway a recommendation.