Imagine if you will a tranquil day in the woods. A day where you can enjoy nature in all its splendor, where everything is peaceful and you can simply bask in the beauty of your surroundings. Maybe you’re even with a companion, someone that can hold your hand as you travel through this woodland paradise without a worry or care in the world. That sounds like a wonderful experience, does it not? Okay, now imagine basically the opposite of all that. You’re alone, it’s dark and everything around you is desolate and there is nothing nearby that doesn’t make you suspect your impending death will be upon you any second now. The latter scenario is basically the setting for Darkwood.
Darkwood is a top-down survival horror game with rogue like elements, though the bulk of the emphasis is placed on creating a haunting atmosphere, which is an area where this title excels given what it’s working with. The graphics are nothing too fancy but even with the rather lo-fi presentation Darkwood succeeds in creating the mood and atmosphere it promises. After completing an optional prologue, the player beings alone in a cabin in the woods. The prologue mainly introduces us to the protagonist and teaches us how to utilize the combat controls, beyond that not too much is revealed about the story. Bits and pieces of the plot become apparent as the player progresses through the game, though why the player has to do anything is just as cryptic as what they have to do.
After exploring the house and taking inventory of what is there in limited quantity and trying to make sense of some weird bottle found by the oven, it seems the player will need to venture out into the woods and scrounge up any supplies that might be around. These include gathering matches, gasoline, pills, weapons, boards, tools and any number of things that can help the player survive these cursed woods. The woods are randomized, so learning the way around them with one file won’t do any good during the next one. There are various locations that can be found to look for items, and these range from other abandoned cabins, campsites or broken down vehicles and farm equipment.
During the day is the only time it is safe to be roaming about, and the term safe is being used loosely. Vicious dogs and poisonous fields are still present during daylight,and some creepy characters might be waiting inside the other abandoned houses since they can’t really tell if it’s day or night. No two ways about it, these woods are a very evil place, and it is best to return to the cabin before night fall.
Nighttime is when things really go to hell. Staying outside is basically asking for the horrors of the night to come kill you, but being at home is no picnic either. The cabin is after all just a cabin, and not a fortress designed to ward off demonic attacks. A lot of scary things can happen at night, so it is of grave importance that the player does whatever they need to in order to make their cabin as close to a fortress as possible by barricading doors and windows and having a weapon or two isn’t a bad idea either. Tension, fear, and anxiety are words to describe a typical night in Darkwood, and even with the simple graphics the game is able to achieve this horrific atmosphere, largely due to the bleak color palette and use of staple horror movie sound effects and a minimalist music score. For a simple old fashioned graphics style it really can deliver in creating a sense of absolute dread.
Should the player find themselves in combat they will face even a greater horror. During the prologue, the player is taught combat control initially by using an ax to chop some wood. Using the mouse, this is done by holding down the right button while pressing the left button. This is feasible but awkward and cumbersome with a proper gaming mouse, trying to do this with the mouse that is built into a laptop’s keyboard is nearly impossible, and in my experience actually impossible. I remember the first time I played Resident Evil: Code Veronica on the Dreamcast thinking the combat controls of having to hold a shoulder button to attack was a bad idea. This continues the tradition of abysmal combat controls in survival horror games. Perhaps this was a deliberate design choice to simulate how futile fighting these creatures of the night really is, but the result is combat is an extremely ungraceful disaster. It’s best to just avoid combat as much as humanly possible.
The controls overall are a bit strange in Darkwood. The player moves with the W A S D buttons and moves the mouse to determine where the character faces and shines the flashlight. Navigating the map with this set up is never difficult but at the same time it never quite feels natural either. Interacting with items, adding them to the inventory and using them is actually quite easy by just clicking the mouse on them, though certain environmental items won’t show they can be interacted with unless the character is in close enough proximity. As previously stated, the graphics and sound may not be that impressive on their own but they do a fantastic job of creating an unnerving, tense atmosphere. There are three difficulty levels, with the nightmare including permadeath.
Darkwood is one of those games where it’s easy to have a mixed opinion on it. The control mechanics leave something to be desired, which is never any more true than in combat. Once we get past that, Darkwood actually gets a lot of things right. The story is shrouded in mystery as bits of the narrative are gradually revealed as the player progresses through the game. The very nature of the game is puzzling, but without any hand holding the player can figure out what needs to be done and this feels rewarding. Tension is built through a constant sense of danger and the unknown, with a visual style and sound direction that contribute to the overall sensation of dread. The end result is a more psychologically-driven sense of fear and not one made by the cheap use of jump scares. The lack of direction and poor combat controls could be enough to keep some from entering Darkwood, but horror fans that are willing to forgive these aspects can find a rewarding and chilling experience within.