Darkwood takes place after some unspecified disaster has forced you and numerous others to eke out an existence within the confines of a sinister forest. The mechanics are an unusual hybrid of RPG, RTS and survival horror, but gameplay comes secondary to the primary objective of scaring the everloving crap out of you. A goal, by the way, at which it more than succeeds, principally down to some fantastic sound design, the ambient music and effects of which are reminiscent of the likes of Dead Space or Silent Hill. The top-down view could have diminished the horror aspect by allowing you see your whole surroundings, but the sight line means objects and individuals are only shown when they are directly in front of you.
The diurnal parts of the day/night cycle are spent exploring the forest, scavenging for limited resources, and talking to an esoteric cast of nightmarish NPC freaks to advance the story and piece together clues as to what the hell is going on. Although the game is semi-open world, your decisions affect how it progresses, with the various branching storylines playing out in different ways depending on your choices.
As darkness begins to fall you must make your way back to your safe house, as after full night descends the forest is strangled in an impenetrable black mist and the shadows explode into hordes of hostiles, meaning if you’re caught outside there is little chance you’ll survive. Within the protection of four walls you’re still not free of danger, since even if you’ve barricaded the windows and doors and strewn traps about the floor something will often find its way towards you. Such is the unknowability of the creatures hunting you, you’ll find yourself alternating between straining your ears for the slightest sound other than your own pounding heartbeat, and remaining utterly motionless lest the source of that unidentifiable scratching noise come bursting through the door and surge towards you in a murderous frenzy. And god help you if the generator runs out of fuel and the lights go out. In real time the nights last about five minutes but subjectively feel about five years, and upon hearing the musical crescendo heralding the approaching dawn you feel a sense of physical release that the current ordeal will soon be over.
Every night the creatures you encounter become stronger and add a sense of urgency to your strategy, which is not especially helpful when the unnerving atmosphere is already enough to contend with. To better arm yourself against the dangers you must face, a workbench in your safe house brings a crafting aspect into play, combining materials to make better equipment and weapons or repairing your current items damaged from use, and as your abilities improve so does your capability of creating batter items. Organic matter can be flung together into a pot and stewed into an eldritch essence, which is injected to give yourself bonuses to aid in your explorations.
Some items can be purchased from traders by bartering with ‘reputation’ points, which is functionally the same as money but more realistic in context, and with the slight difference of being appropriately different for each character encountered.
The lack of a manual save could be a little frustrating for the casual gamer, but it prevents the save-fail-reload cycle that eventually allows you to overcome difficult situations without repercussion and instead forces you to accept the consequences of your decisions and plough ahead in spite of any mistakes you may have made. Whether or not that’s a suitable tradeoff for having it dictated to you when you can end a session without losing all your progress is down to each individual player.
A seamless fusion of genres and playing styles, Darkwood is a creation as engaging as it is deeply unsettling. The insidious sense of psychological violation at the core of its gameplay is inexorable and pervasive but also instils an emotional masochism that demands you come back for more.
DARKWOOD / DEVELOPER: ACID WIZARD STUDIO / PUBLISHER: ACID WIZARD STUDIO / PLATFORM: PC, MAC, LINUX / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW