Where the hell am I? What Am I supposed to do here?! Hey, anyone?! Oh, hi there, dog-faced friend.
The dog-faced man, or man-bodied dog, told me to find ‘the woman that stinks of chickens’. After dwindling through a forest without any quest marker or mini-map to guide me, I found a shack that smelled of chickens. It was abandoned by all but the chickens themselves and a locked door. Logically, I assumed the key would be in one of the chickens, and the chicken lady was hiding behind the door. So I proceeded to thrust my axe into them, hoping for a key to drop out. When the last chicken head hit the floor, I saw the lady. She was silently standing in a dark corner, staring in the direction of the feathery bloodbath. I had overlooked her in the dark mess. “I hope you didn’t come for my chickens”, she said. I’m sorry chicken lady.
Darkwood is a strange world. A strange, eerie and harsh one. It’s about woods, dark woods, awry characters and fucked up creatures. It’s eccentricity kept me intrigued and longing for more of the world and story to reveal. It doesn’t unravel itself though: to progress, you have to work, die and work harder.
A top down horror, does that work?
The fear from playing horror games relies a lot on the bond between the player and the protagonist. In a first-person horror, this effect is boosted by letting the player see through the protagonist’s eyes. It’s much more frightening to see a Scary Harry biting at your face then seeing him bite a miniature man on screen. The further the camera is pulled from the protagonist, the thinner the emotional bond becomes, and Darkwood is no exception. This game would be unplayably frightening if it was in first person. The top-down view puts you in a slightly safer spot. Don’t get me wrong, Darkwood is still goddamn scary, and the pixel art is gorgeous. However, the real horror comes from the incredible audio design.
The audio pulls you in close, even when the perspective doesn’t. There isn’t any background music, but every action has been given a accompanying high quality sound effect. Your footsteps will echo in dark hallways, opening, closing and moving objects gives the appropriate sound, and hostile noises are convincing and fear inducing. The environment is seldom silent and when it is, the serene silence might just get broken by a ‘you should be scared’-sound. The latter succeeds with flying colors and might just double your heartbeat. Though Darkwood’s artistic style is pretty, the audio is what pulls you in the most.
It’s tough out there
Darkwood doesn’t want everyone who plays it to succeed. There is an option for permadeath, but even without that, progressing takes time and a lot of skill. It’s a small open world, but there is no quest menu and no minimap. The only map that’s given to you doesn’t show your location, and points of interest are only marked after discovery.
Hah! I’ll just find my location online if I get lost!
No, You won’t. Darkwood wants everyone to get lost in the woods and everyone to be eaten by the monsters that reside there. All locations, apart from your own hideout, are randomly scattered through the forest. You’re really on your own here.
During the day, you will hunt for scarce resources and complete objectives. Next to weapons and barricading materials, there are mushrooms to collect and use to upgrade yourself W- well, for as long as you live at least. When the night comes, the real terror is unleashed in Darkwood. If you aren’t at your hideout, it will hunt you down and kill you. If you make it to your hideout, get ready to hide it out. Moving will allow the monsters outside to see and hear you through gaps in the barricaded windows. The key to surviving the night is to barricade your room, drag a closet in front of you and hide in a dark corner – at least, that’s how I succeeded. Real heroic stuff. Oh, and you have to drink out of a magical well outside your house that only fills at night, otherwise you’ll die behind that closet anyway. Darkwood’s developers are fans of Dark Souls, and it shows.
Skipping the night
The night is so dangerous that after a while, I started abusing the system. There is nothing to gain from the night: it’s scary, quite difficult and slows your progress. So, every evening I’d put my stuff into a closet, run towards the scariest looking wolf-dog and shout nasty things about its mother. Then I’d happily wake up the next day.
It’s an Alpha though, and a lot will still change. Controls are already smooth, the UI gets the job done and combat is as tense (though slow-paced) as the night is scary. Right mouse button raises your weapon and the left one smashes it into whatever is exactly in it’s reach. Like combat, features in Darkwood require some getting used to. You can’t, for instance, unlock a door by dragging the lockpick to the door, or by having it in your hand and clicking on the door. You have to hold the left mouse button and drag it to an icon that appears. It’s the same learning curve that is apparent throughout the game in all fronts.
For now, you’re only served with one chapter, but there is enough meat in there to last for some days of playing. It took me ages to progress tiny bits into the story, but it still didn’t feel repetitive or bland. The main reason being its uniqueness. There just isn’t anything like Darkwood out there, and it’s shaping up to be a great take on survival-horror.