Incredibly atmospheric and completely terrifying
Summary : A very unique game with lots to offer in terms of intrigue and outright scares. If you need me I'll be under my bed with the lights off.
I’m really not a fan of horror games, but there are a number of indie survival horror titles that have caught my eye of late. One of these was of course The Forest (which I reviewed here) and another has been Darkwood developed by Acid Wizard Studio. The thing in particular that drew my attention was its unique gameplay style: top-down with your character only able to see within a cone’s area in front of you. While you can ‘see’ the rest of the map while you’re not looking in that direction, things can invariably appear there when you aren’t looking, making for a very creepy, very frightening game. I was lucky enough to play Alpha 1.3 of Darkwood, and below are my thoughts of the game.
While the overall genre of Darkwood is survival horror, there is an underlying narrative to the game which I’ve yet to really figure out. That’s not because it’s particularly complex – or maybe it is – but it seems like there are a lot of supernatural elements doing their work in the background, weaving a web of breadcrumbs for you to figure out at your own pace.
The game begins with a Prologue – one which you can skip if you start a new game – which not only serves as a tutorial to the controls and nuances of the game, but does an exceptional job of setting a bleak and brooding tone. I really appreciate this kind of start to a game as many games shoehorn a tutorial in, usually out of necessity, but generally screams “Hi, I’m your obligatory tutorial”; I didn’t get that feeling at all during the Prologue of Darkwood and instead had me pondering what exactly was going on in this strange, nightmarish world.
The narrative of Darkwood is conveyed in multiple ways: there are the traditional cutscenes which occur when events are triggered by location or finding a particular object or there is also your journal, a source of information which you can readily access and check on updates to entries.
For the most part, while the story might drive your general strategy in the game, you’ll spend a large proportion of your time scavenging for materials and the like to help you survive in this landscape. As such, you will spend a lot of time in silence, with only the ambiance of the forest around you to keep you company (more on this later), but I can’t help but feel that the game might benefit from a few lines – spoken or typed – from your generally speechless protagonist just to give the story a sense of continuity and progression, even when things aren’t actually progressing.
For the most part, I haven’t seen enough of the story to judge it much more than I currently have, but from what I have played, it has provided enough intrigue for me to want to keep play. If I even leave the house that is…
As I mentioned earlier, one of the things that drew me to Darkwood in the first place was the gameplay mechanics – the top down, corridor view that you get of the world is a very unique way of restricting a player’s perspective of the world, one might even say perfect for a game with horror elements. I found myself madly checking around myself as I ventured out into the wilderness, which really added to the whole atmosphere of the game.
Time of day also affects the game very heavily with parts of the story, or at least your character’s story, influenced by night and day. Sure enough, in daylight, you will be able to see to the edges of the window no problems, but come night time, you won’t be able to see your own toes. Of course, you can always find torches and flashlights, but these are finite resources that really only provide a minor improvement over walking around blind (but infinitely less scary) so only using them when necessary is of utmost importance.
There’s one more element that is decidedly subtle in this game but makes it just so much more atmospheric: the ambient sound. I mentioned earlier that the game is essentially silent, and that’s probably the scariest thing about it – once you hear something, it’s probably trouble. But the game fools your sense: you’ll hear birds chirping during the day, wind blowing through the grass, but then you hear a twig snap. You madly check around you for anything approaching. Usually, there’s nothing there, but sometimes there’s a dog or a zombie/mutant thing running at you. It’s this dichotomy between the two scenarios that will have you on constant edge, and I think this is one of the most fantastic things about Darkwood. In fact, it had me so on edge that I would be happy just hiding out in my house until dawn, or sometimes even the whole day, watching from the window…
The controls in Darkwood aren’t anything to write home about with only a finite number of controls possible in a top-down setting, but they do the job. You’re obviously not going to relive the top-down days of GTA 2, blowing everything apart with a bazooka, but the controls are restrictive enough to let you know you shouldn’t get into any dangerous situations if you plan on living. Having said that, Darkwood is a hard game and the controls don’t make things any easier. While you will be scavenging for most of the game, if you can’t find a weapon, you will find yourself running away a lot and the controls don’t lend themselves particularly well to this.
The last gameplay mechanic to mention is the in-game map which gives you an overview of the area immediately around you. The map gets updated when you find landmarks of interest, and can potentially help you find your way home when you’re in a bit of a hurry. Unfortunately it doesn’t show your immediate position on the map, which is probably intentional, but makes exploring an uncharted area for the first time painstakingly tense.
If Darkwood’s gameplay mechanics are one of its highlights, then its graphical presentation is surely one of its others. Darkwood is simply gorgeous, with the relationship with light and dark playing a huge role is defining what is visible and what is not. What is visible looks living and breathing – the grass, the trees, the animals – everything has its place and they make the dark forest you are exploring feel real and omnipresent as if it knows exactly what you’re going to do next.
For the most part, the game does make use of pixellated graphics for your character and his surroundings, but when taken in with the whole environment, the graphics look oh-so-right for the setting. Part of this is the adoption of the top-down view which already gives a retro vibe so the pixellation is almost a given, but Acid Wizard Studio does a good job of making even grass blades look like they are swaying in the breeze.
While I have only played Darkwood for an hour, I can tell that this game has a lot more to offer me. The best thing of all is that the game is still in Alpha and is already looking extremely polished. While the story and narrative can take a little getting used to, the wonderful gameplay elements and beautiful graphics will at the very least give you one of the most unique gaming experiences this year.
You can get Steam Early Access to the game if you pay the $14.99 fee and I highly recommend it if you are looking for a unique, frightening survival horror game.