Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Acid Wizard Studio
Release Date: May 14, 2019


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PS4 Review - 'Darkwood'

by Fran Soto on Aug. 15, 2019 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Darkwood is an open-world survival horror with RPG, roguelike and adventure elements, seen from a top-down perspective.

Buy Darkwood

"You are playing a challenging and unforgiving game. You will not be led by the hand. Respect the woods. Be patient. Focus." These are the opening lines of Acid Wizard Studio's psychological survival horror, Darkwood. Initially released on the PC in 2017, Darkwood is finally arriving on consoles with its impressive atmospheric gameplay. It's a game that boasts horror thrills without jump-scares by providing a deep sense of immersion. Intuitive gameplay makes playing on a controller familiar and easy after some practice. It's a title that gives equal attention to both horror and survival. Despite some minor gameplay snags, Darkwood is a brilliant and terrifying experience for all.

We play as an unnamed protagonist attempting to survive in a hostile, parasitic forest. We have the option to play a prologue at the beginning to familiarize ourselves with the controls and the story. One of the most stand-out elements of the game is its commitment to narrative. Many horror titles (and even survival ones) don't often flesh out any kind of story, which can make a title drag on when there is no endgame in sight. Our prologue starts us as a completely different character who comes in contact with our main protagonist. We act as a doctor, desperate to escape this putrid forest. We come across our main protagonist unconscious in the woods, with an important key on his person. Incredibly sure that this is the key to freedom from the forest, the doctor drags our protagonist to his hideout to torture him for more information.

When we finally wake after being captured by the doctor, we must utilize resources in our environment to escape. We are able to combine different resources found throughout the woods into items for traversal and protection. Escaping the doctor's hideout ends the prologue. Now, in a hideout of his own, our protagonist's quest is to recover the key from the thieving doctor. While the doctor may have the key to our freedom, we know where the door is located. With very little memory of how we were found by the doctor, we must explore our surroundings to gather awareness.

Darkwood truly does not care about the player. Each playthrough has a randomly generated map, so the forest layout and special locations are different every time. Starting with nothing, we must explore the surrounding area to gather resources like wood, nails and scrap metal to fortify our hideout. Darkwood's survival mechanics are brutal and must be approached with a strategic mind. Not only do we have the ability to fortify our hideout (which becomes increasingly important the further we go), but we must also gather resources to make weapons, armor and other gear necessary for survival. Exploring the surrounding wilderness is necessary for finding special locations around the map, which can yield important crafting materials or side-quests.

While every map is randomly generated, one thing remains a constant: we never really know where we are in the wilderness. Our map pulls up the surrounding area, but exploring is a necessity when we can only judge our location based on key landmarks. The map does not highlight our location otherwise. The only time we truly know where we are is by standing near landmarks. Because of this, we must have a keen awareness of our orientation, so we don't get completely lost. Getting lost during the day isn't so much of an issue, but getting trapped in the forest at night is a different story.

Our hideout is our main base of operations. It's where we can craft most complex gear, fortify our base and level up our abilities. It's also our safehouse when the sun drops and the monsters come out to play. During the day, the forest is a hostile environment where rabid animals and humanoid monsters attack us. Even though the sun is out, it doesn't make the forest any less frightening. Darkwood truly shines with its use of atmospheric elements to provide a terrifying experience. During the day, we can hear the creaking of the trees, the low growl of beasts roaming about, and the footsteps of human enemies who have been twisted by the power of the forest. Wandering through the forest produces so many chilling sounds that it feels almost like a living environment. Walking through the grass can cause random twigs to snap, freezing us in our tracks to check our surroundings. Crows take off from their perches in a cloud of "caws" as we approach the tree line. Playing the game with headphones provides the most immersive and hair-raising experience.

When night falls, Darkwood elevates the atmosphere by playing on our fears of the things that go bump in the night. We must run to our hideout in the woods so we don't get caught by the creatures in the dark (in a similar fashion to titles like Don't Starve). One of the main elements to our survival is making sure that our hideout's generator is running with gasoline we find in the world. Every night, we must turn on the generator to provide light to the hideout. Light is one of our few reprieves, but depending on how far we have progressed in the game, our nightly ritual can turn into a patrol around the base, making sure that bear traps are in place and the windows are fortified.

When night falls, we see a more supernatural side of the forest. Hiding by a light source, we can hear the swirling darkness and monstrous moaning from the outside. The longer we survive, the more elevated these elements become. Eventually, the humanoid enemies that dwell in the forest attempt to break in to kill us. Spirits will play at the edges of the dark, making it a terrifying experience to venture beyond our light source. If we're lucky, we may even hear a knock at the door in the middle of the night, which bears gifts to those who are brave enough to answer. Because Darkwood plays so heavily on atmospheric elements to provide chills, it becomes a herculean feat to do anything at night. We can only wait until the sun rises before venturing out again.

If we are able to survive the night without succumbing to the evils of the forest, we begin a day of exploration and survival. Each morning, we are visited by a trader who provides resources for sale in addition to narrative elements. Being able to accumulate enough currency or reputation with the trader is difficult at first, but it takes an easier turn as we explore the forest and find more items. The trader will have more rare items that are not easily found in the woods, such as weapons parts and upgrades, which become necessary to our survival. The trader also deals in tidbits of information and components for leveling up.

The last major component of our survival is our special skills and abilities. Some skills are passive, while others require activation. Within each of our hideouts is an oven that cooks a repellent for the creatures of the night. While creatures still attempt to attack us, the degree of attacks is less due to the cooking repellent. The oven is also necessary as a source for leveling up because that's where we can cook the resources that we've found in the forest. Cooking is how we level up and attain skills that help our survival, such as the endurance to run for a lengthy period of time or being able to see further so we can more easily traverse the forest. With every skill we choose, we must also choose a negative element, so while we may be able to run longer without tiring out, we may also be more susceptible to poison. Leveling up is a formula of give and take.

Despite the negative perks that we must pick up when we level up, most positive perks can outweigh their negative counterpart. This is especially useful for combat and traversal. Darkwood is an isometric (top-down) title, which can make combat a bit clunky. Utilizing twin-stick controls becomes difficult when facing fast enemies that can close the gap quickly. There is a dodge mechanic, but with no ability to adjust button mapping for the controller, it's in an awkward position for the R3 button.

Melee combat becomes almost Soulsborne-like, as we must get right up on our enemies and take advantage of their blind spots. It's tricky and feels sluggish compared to being able to use a ranged weapon, but since guns are so difficult to come by, players can go through much of the game without a ranged weapon. After over 20 hours of gameplay, I was able to outfit my protagonist with an emergency pistol for tricky situations, an upgraded pitchfork, and a few Molotov cocktails for occasions when you need to kill things with fire.

The most surprising thing about Darkwood is that when you think you're done with the game, you're only beginning. After finding the doctor again, losing him again, and following him through the special door he opened with our key, we close out Part 1 and enter Part 2, which features new landmarks, new horrors, and a more challenging setting. I was ready to kick supernatural butt with my loadout because I thought it was the end once I walked through the mysterious door, but we must continue to survive in the dank, hellish landscape that is Darkwood. I was slightly disappointed because I had taken so much time (about 18 days within the game) to get to this point, and it had felt like a challenge within itself.

With its many surprises, Darkwood is a title with immeasurable depth that will keep horror fans gripped until the very end. An important focus on narrative-driven gameplay kept me hooked and desperate for answers. A horrifying aesthetic with spooky soundscapes plays with our instincts and terrifies the senses. When the title boasted "a horror game without jump-scares", I initially rolled my eyes. Most titles incorporate some kind of jump-scare to get a cheap reaction out of players. Even tastefully done jump-scares feel cheap to me because I'm not actually "scared," I'm just surprised. Darkwood succeeds where many other titles fail. It's a heart-racing experience that any horror fan worth their salt should attempt to survive.

Score: 8.8/10

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