In Darkwood, you are lost deep in the Russian woods sometime after World War II, and you play as an unnamed Protagonist trying to discover the mystery of the rapid expansion of trees plaguing the area. Spoilers will be kept to a minimum for this review, but much like Dark Souls, lore is learned primarily through r̶e̶a̶d̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶w̶i̶k̶i analyzing items left around the map, picking up on context clues, and piecing together stories. Only the most eagle-eyed of players will come out of a blind playthrough knowing the full story.
The game’s tutorial and prologue actually have you play as The Doctor; another man stuck in the woods who comes across the Protagonist’s unconscious body. You then swap to the Protagonist and are beaten for information on how to get out of the woods. This is the same goal that everyone with even a shred of their sanity left shares, including you. Now you have to find The Doctor, get back your key, and escape the forest. Just about everything is trying to stop you, including the forest itself.
Gameplay-wise, Darkwood is a masterpiece of the horror genre. I’ve never been a fan of horror movies or games because they rarely put effort into good writing or gameplay mechanics in favor of cheap jump scares, but Darkwood is a clear exception. Not only do you grow your arsenal of monster-killing gear and gain new abilities through a rather unique leveling system, but the horror elements also play off of your ability to fight back. Enemies can be seen from far away when outside, and will sometimes choose not to engage you if you keep your distance. Enemies inside will make noise in other rooms, bang on doors and windows (which they can and do break down), and always prove to be an extremely fair yet thrilling challenge.
As you explore, you find a generous amount of items but start with very limited inventory space. Unlike most games that involve searching for crafting loot, finding materials in Darkwood is actually fun because you’ll quickly be moving on from set piece to set piece, each of which is hand-made. Every item has its use as well, meaning an abundance of nails isn’t just something that eats up inventory space; it’s an opportunity to upgrade your wooden board with nails to be a wooden board with even more nails. Dying out in the wilderness causes you to drop a randomized portion of your loot, but your exact point of death is marked on the map allowing you to recover 100% of your dropped items.
Each day in Darkwood gives the player a very generous amount of sunlight to go out and explore with, and each day they must return to their hideout before it gets dark. Letting you sleep would be far too easy a way to get through the nights in this cutthroat world, so instead, you hole up in your hideout waiting for any number of random bumps in the night. Sometimes it’s nothing, sometimes there will be a knock at your door (answer it), and sometimes a giant walking bird will come scream in your face on your second night and mess you up something awful unless you know exactly what to do. Upon surviving the night, you get reputation (the currency of the game) with a trader, the chance to trade, craft, and prepare yourself materially and mentally for the coming day all while time is stopped. Dying at night will cause you to wake up in the morning, and only penalizes you by taking away the free reputation you get for surviving. Rinse, repeat, escape.
Remember when I said that the Protagonist doesn’t sleep? Remember that.
The art design and GUI, as well as the sound design, perfectly lend themselves to the game’s horror elements. Darkwood is a top-down game, and much like Mark of the Ninja’s New Game Plus, you can only see where you have a line of sight. You’ll constantly be spinning around to make sure enemies haven’t snuck up on you, or peeking through little slits in boarded-up windows or holes in walls to try and see what’s on the other side. Even when the Protagonist drops down to his knees to rummage through his backpack, you can see your vision slowly close in front of you until you’re totally blind to the world around you. Everything outside your field of view is painted over in gray so you can still technically make out where walls are, but enemies are obviously invisible and the real world doesn’t always line up perfectly with what’s outside your field of view. Sounds are also very intelligently designed to add to the atmosphere and keep you on edge as you’re playing. Twig snaps, floorboard creaks, and other random ambiance noises are usually nothing, but still keep you focused and alert on the off chance something is coming for you. You’re generally left without music, leaving your ears open to hear the wind through the leaves and the unholy roar of a Chomper charging after you.
Darkwood is a shining example of how to properly do horror media. It perfectly sets up the atmosphere wherever you go, the art is gorgeous when you take a moment to admire it, everything from sounds to clues to items has purpose, and it ends right around the time where it’d start to drag on. I’d highly recommend anyone who doesn’t hate horror games to try it out. Remember, the best advice is given to you before you even start playing the game: Respect the woods. Be patient. Focus.