Playing Darkwood feels like stepping into some dark twisted Eastern European fairytale. It’s undeniably magical, unquestionably disturbing, and often terrifying. It’s a world that will stick into your conscience long after you have stopped playing. An experience that connects emotionally and mentally, it never lets you go. Rarely has a title shocked me as often as this game has, and fighting through the woods is a tense and difficult challenge, but an endlessly engaging gameplay experience. It is a horrifying audio visual trip through the twisted rabbit hole.
Darkwood is a survival game first and foremost; you have to manage resources and fight carefully. Everything is of some value and everything can be misused or lost. It is very possible to stick yourself in a corner and that’s part of the constant tension that it puts you under. As it says in the loading screen, “respect the woods,” – this experience is a punishing one and it demands intense focus. The player is on their own, and rules and techniques are learned through doing. Don’t expect any tutorials here.
After a creepy and gripping prologue, the player starts off in a hideout, this is your base of operations where you can store items and cook on the “oven” which lets you gain new abilities. The hideout has a small amount of supplies, an empty map, and a whisper in the right direction. You are never overtly told what to do but given just enough direction to figure it out yourself, making the whole experience feel like a mysterious search for the way forward. You set out, hoping to fill places on the map, gain resources, and not die. Eventually night will come, at which point you must return to the hideout and buckle in. See, if you’re caught away from your hideout by sunset, a spirit comes and kills you.
The sections in the hideout at night are intense – you must barricade doors and set up traps, waiting for the sun to rise. Creatures will start to bang on the doors, the mind will start playing tricks on you, and paranormal activity is common. Often you will have to fight to see the night through. Some of the most unnerving scares come from these encounters in the dark, and it’s an utter relief when the sun rises and you can begin a new day.
It’s undeniably hard but never feels unfair, in fact Darkwood does a wonderful job of slowly teaching the player more and more. It also helps that the progression system in the game is incredibly satisfying. The more you mutate yourself through using resources on the oven, the more you feel like you can take on the woods. There’s a clear growth in capabilities and understanding as you go through the game and it really feels like you begin to conquer the horrors put in front of you. The day to day activity of fighting, managing resources, discovering new places, meeting new people and defending the hideout at night combine to create a gameplay loop that is incredibly addictive.
There are many horrors though and Darkwood is disturbing and truly macabre. It has a depressing and dreary atmosphere, going from incredibly violent to downright disgusting at moments; but you just can’t look away. It’s a nightmare that draws you ever deeper into its roots. Everything from the environments, the enemies, the characters, and the writing, are unpleasant and provocative.
It treads the line beautifully when it comes to ambiguous storytelling as well, masterful in the way it uses environmental storytelling and dialogue to slowly reveal what is truly going on in its world. It’s completely captivating and I found that I explored every area and picked up every picture, paper, and note I could find, just so it would let me get a little more info on the secrets of the woods. It gives you just enough to know what’s immediately going on but after that it’s up to the players curiosity to find out more, and some of the answers that await are illuminating, giving a greater context. Doing it this way gives the world a thick layer of mythical mystery, every new clue you find feels special, like you’re putting together a big puzzle. To make it all the more impressive, Darkwood has two endings; each one is absolutely excellent and both have a lasting resonance.
The characters you meet however are, in many ways, my favourite part. They embody everything that Darkwood on Xbox One represents – cryptic, strange, and endlessly fascinating. Every time you talk to them, a gorgeous moving portrait of them accompanies the text. Many of them are frightening or grotesque but they are all artfully written. They often speak in riddles and questions, never stating anything outright, but their words linger in your brain. It’s hard to forget their strong personalities and the fantastical circumstances they find themselves in. How you approach these locals and the favors you do for them may lead to further revelations or greater tragedies in their lives. Of any part of the game, it’s those moments speaking with the woods’ unique inhabitants that I will remember the most.
This is all tied together by a captivating visual style and an enveloping sound design. It’s truly impressive how much they can terrify and immerse the player in the world through the ambient sound. The trees sway, planks creak, the gramophone in the corner plays a broken tune, the monster right behind you screams. It’s rich and incredibly detailed audibly and immensely adds to the atmosphere. The art is disgusting in a beautiful way and sets the tone for the whole experience – the Eastern European, former Soviet design of the places and people is uncommon and feels align with the tale being told.
If I had one complaint that I could level at the game though then I’d say that the combat and the world become much less intimidating and therefore less scary near the end, because late game enemies do not properly scale as much as they should to your capabilities. In the last couple of hours you start becoming less of the hunted and more of the hunter. This does not jive with the game’s intended feeling. But it’s a minor criticism and it did not affect my enjoyment much.
Darkwood is a rare kind of game – an experience that is so cohesive and masterful in almost every way. Every time I played, it felt as though I was stepping through the screen to another world, one that is as twisted and dark as the wilderness that surrounds it. Honestly, the less you know the better, so just go play it and experience its brilliance.