There’s a quiet and tense energy that pervades the world of Darkwood. It’s not a traditional horror game in that there are monsters leaping out at you from every shadow – but it’s this that makes it even scarier.
Developers Acid Wizard Studio reportedly decided to create a horror game of their own as a result of not being fans of the genre, and after a successful Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, and a sometimes difficult four years of development in Steam Early Access, Darkwood officially launched in August 2017.
In many ways, this lack of background in horror shines through positively throughout the game. For a start, the top-down mechanic is at least rare, if not unique, in the genre. And all too often, horror games go for the jump scares, while Darkwood prefers a more psychological brand of terror.
It begins innocuously enough – in the prologue, you play as a man living in a forest cabin and the game teaches you how to move around and manage your inventory. Things get a bit more sinister as you decide whether or not to euthanise your dying dog, and shortly afterwards Darkwood takes a deep breath and takes a long journey into the strange and surreal.
One of the first lessons you learn is to never, ever, under any circumstances, go outside during the night, because you will die a horrible and painful death. The lifeblood of this notion is the gasoline that fuels the generator in your shelter; as long as the lights are on, the paranormal beasties will stay away. Mostly. There are exceptions, such as the foreboding but unaggressive figure who imparts this nocturnal advice, standing with the body of a man and the head of a wolf.
Cleverly, Darkwood slowly descends into madness, instead of plunging straight in deep. For the first few nights, not much might happen. But I recall early into the story, I was huddled in the bedroom of my shelter when the door swung open. There was nothing there. Another time I was pacing impatiently when I turned back around to find a person sat crying on the bed, desperate to go home.
As the loading screen warns you, Darkwood doesn’t hold you by the hand. Hence my confusion when, despite the earlier warning to never, EVER go outside at night, someone or something began knocking at the door after darkness had fallen. In such a situation, you’re gripped by a terrible indecision; do you go and open the door, or do you ignore it? It’s moments like these that truly set Darkwood aside from other horror games.
Suffice to say that these are just the tip of a psychedelic iceberg that descends into trippier and scarier depths as the game continues, but I wouldn’t want to be the one to ruin the experience for a new player.
Despite the strange and terrible things that occur, there’s a reassuring logic that sits somewhere in the background; while it doesn’t hold your hand, neither does the game try and trip you up by changing the rules on you for the sake of adding confusion.
While it’s good, things aren’t perfect. The combat system feels very clunky to operate, and particularly from the mid-game on, it’s really difficult to walk away from a fight – and not in an “I appreciated the challenge” type of way.
But that’s a relatively small part of an otherwise phenomenal game. I’m a big fan of minimalist graphic styles, and here we can see an example of a game that basically just uses different shades of grey throughout and look amazing.
And the sound quality alone is almost worth the cost of admission – moody, sombre drones ramp up the feeling of dread without you even realising it, particularly when you go anywhere near your lupine acquaintance.
Despite a somewhat clunky combat system, Darkwood presents a fresh and engaging take on the horror genre, which stays true to its roots at the same time as striking off in a new direction. Developed by guys who don’t normally like horror games, this one is bound to appeal to scare junkies and newcomers alike.