If you go down in the woods today, you're sure to need many supplies
You might be familiar with the Teddy Bears' Picnic song, but how well do you know the lyrics? The song, beginning with 'if you go down in the woods today,' seems like an innocent children's rhyme but the phrasing is actually quite sinister. It claims visitors 'better go in disguise,' as though there will be trouble if guests aren’t wearing their teddy bear paraphernalia. And what about 'every bear that ever there was,' which, by definition, includes teddy bears that are now mangled, legless, and burnt to a crisp. So the picnic is for disfigured teddy bears and no outsiders are allowed. Darkwood has quite a bit in common with this song. Not just because they both relate to an adventure in the woods, but because there is something menacing underneath an otherwise modest exterior.
The woods are silent but there is an eerie fog looming around the shack that I’m currently hiding inside. It’s 6am and the interior lights suddenly turn off. The generator has used its last drop of fuel and now there is only darkness. I rummage through my backpack and extract a flare; its piercing red glow casts light over a dead rabid dog that was felled by my handcrafted melee weapon. Some toxic black growth emerges from the ground, covering the exit. A flame burns the growth back from whence it came, but the exit is again blocked by the sudden appearance of two grotesque spider people. One hurls a limb in my direction, and I make a panicked decision to run. Only then do I remember that these creatures attack ferociously when they are not being observed. I turn around but it is too late—one of them lands a fatal blow. Fortunately this is not the end of my journey; mysterious forces resurrect me the next morning and the day will be spent probing the swamp for supplies in preparation for another night alone in the woods.
Darkwood is a top-down survival horror game that contrasts rather strongly to the bigger horror games of the year. Outlast 2 and Resident Evil 7 made good use of the first person perspective, but Darkwood opts for what is effectively a 2D adventure. Given its comparatively basic visualisation, it is quite remarkable how it is able to get so deep under the skin. It puts players in a dangerous woodland area and sets them loose to find resources, craft weapons, and kill or avoid monstrous creatures. Darkwood is unpretentious, and it absolutely deserves to be experienced, especially from gamers with a patient disposition.
The story in Darkwood starts in unusual fashion, as you briefly take control of a Doctor who has been living in the woods for years. He wants to leave the area but the road out is overgrown and unpassable. The Doctor stumbles upon an injured person with an unfamiliar face. After failing to gain information about a way out, the Doctor takes a key from the stranger and leaves him restrained. It is here you take control of the stranger and escape the Doctor's makeshift prison with the help of a local trader. The key does actually lead to the next step in the adventure, so you must search the twisted woods and help a few of the remaining sane locals.
Like a role playing game, side characters across the woods offer information in exchange for services or items. An old hag in the village has locked up a woman, and a young boy in a mask knows where the key is located. Helping him will lead to additional quests, such as one that involves collecting a violin from a creepy house. Doing the wrong thing is often easier than doing what is morally good, and choices will alter events. Special items you find can be shown to characters who will divulge their meaning. Additional notes reveal points of interest or back-story. The text dialogue is sharp and creepy, and the subtly animated artwork of characters during conversations sets a far darker mood than could be attained via the top-down viewpoint alone. While some of the locals are helpful, you still need to wander the woods by your lonesome and deal with the not-so-friendly inhabitants.
The woods themselves are actually the biggest character in the game. They are dangerous and alluring, but must be explored if you want to escape. Exploring them is typically a slow and methodical process, although you can run for a limited time. Vision is cone-based, meaning you'll only see items or foes if you look in their direction. As you explore, a map is updated with points of interest so you can keep track of how terribly lost you are. You will come across abandoned buildings, shrines, campsites, junkyards, and machinery that all have their secrets. There are different areas to the woods themselves: trees are sometimes densely packed and this brings claustrophobia and navigation issues; dark zones, where the ground is covered with poisonous mushrooms, are best navigated with some kind of light source; and the gloomy mire proves troublesome with vision restricting fog and water that slows foot speed. The different areas across the woods create a special atmosphere, with something new and deadly around almost every tree stump.
The biggest danger in the woods is the hostile creatures that roam about. Human savages, wild dogs, and exploding mushroom men are just a few of the threats you'll face. Running into them unawares is a good way to die. And once dead, you have to go back to your body to collect lost equipment, which could mean venturing out in the woods sans weapons. While areas repopulate with threats to keep you alert, many foes can be killed to lower the danger in that particular spot, like near a well-travelled bridge. If you take things slow, many creatures can also be avoided. Listening to the monsters' guttural voices and avoiding their gaze can allow you to skirt around their ambling patrols. You can also just leg it when spotted, and hope they lose sight of you behind trees.
To navigate the woods and deal with foes, you'll need resources to craft weapons and supporting items. Resources are limited, found in places like crates or wardrobes inside abandoned buildings. Tractors might contain fuel, which can be used to power saw blades to make planks. Rags and alcohol can be found on the non-toxic corpses, used to make torches, bandages, or Molotov cocktails. There are projectile weapons—pistols and shotguns—but they are costly to build so only became viable in the last few hours of the 15 hour long adventure. Plus guns are loud and they draw monsters from nearby. You don't need to worry about food or water; the "food" you cook goes towards a special concoction that unlocks skills to help you survive, like being able to run without draining stamina or being able to eat wood to gain health. The crafting system is sensible and easy to understand. Limited inventory space will mean you have to make compromises regularly. Managing supplies and building tools is vital since objects wear down with use, and it will keep you engaged between encounters.
Combat versus creatures is a little clumsy but it works quite well considering the camera angle. Many foes will rush at you to perform melee attacks. Each type has different attack patterns so you'll have to learn how best to get your licks in without being licked to pieces. Sometimes you need to avoid them by running sideways or dodging. If they get a hit in, you can suffer many subsequent blows and quickly perish. You can break attacks with a good melee hit, so timing a swing on a charging beast works. Enemies out of your view cone are invisible, making fights tense if you get turned around or try to run. Top down combat was always destined to be a little awkward, but the simplicity ensures its suitable functionality.
During the day, the woods are dangerous, but they are deadly at night. Once the in-game clock hits 8pm (find yourself a watch) you'll be killed by a floating red monster thing™ if you stay out in the exposed woods. The only way to stay alive at night is to head back to a safe house, which can be one of several found in the forest. Safe houses protect from certain death, but death is still likely at night. Creatures will come for you in the darkness, and you'll have to avoid the reaper until 8am if you want to earn reputation for trading purposes. Traps can be placed at chokepoints, and hopefully you don't step on your own like I did many, many times. Preparation is key but it can only get you so far when the threat is unpredictable and persistent.
At night, poltergeists can disable lights and attack you in the dark. Banshees will screech and reproduce in great numbers. Earthquakes will move lamps and furniture. Plus you have to deal with the standard foes, like rock-hurling savages and burrowing centipede persons. You don't need to survive every night, but the challenge is often hard to resist. These night fights are extremely tense and rewarding to live through, but perhaps more could have been done in the way of traps or defenses.
The horror elements in Darkwood are not to be understated and they work surprisingly well given the game’s overhead perspective. Vulnerability is the key to the tension when exploring, but there is more to it. Oppressive music uses deep reverberation and distant mechanical sounds to perfectly gel with the setting. Random sounds in the woods can put you on edge, like the cracking of branches or the pulsing of mushrooms. Any noises that could not be identified will likely make you take alternate routes. The overheard camera does make it hard to see some tiny objects and characters did blend into the background a few times, but these problems lessen with more time in the woods, as you become aware of the finer details. Darkwood rewards the patient, and its slower approach lends itself to absorbing the meticulous world with great appreciation.
Darkwood is a top-down survival horror experience that punches far above its weight class. Despite the simple perspective, it actually matches the horror effectiveness of some of this year's biggest games. It does so with no frills but plenty of thrills. It crafts a creepy world consisting of a varied and dangerous woodland area. Then it uses sounds, music, surprises, and vulnerability to keep gamers on edge. From there players are given freedom to explore, gather resources, and help (or hinder) the abnormal locals. When the night comes, the fright comes. Holding out till morning as you are assaulted by unpredictable threats is satisfying and challenging. Although the game is not easy, it is also not hard if you are patient and careful. Darkwood is a gratifying survival horror experience that gets better the deeper into the woods you go, beneath the trees where nobody sees.