Horror games are typically something you would expect to be played from a first or third-person perspective, but Darkwood turns that ideas on its head. In this new survival horror title for PS4, you’ll be playing from an isometric (top down) view as you wander a supernatural forest filled with creatures and horrors that would make Silent Hill blush.
Does this fresh perspective offer a new way to experience atmospheric horror and pure dread, or is this forest hiding too little in the darkness between the trees? Let’s find out.
Looking at Horror From a Different Angle
All it took was a viewing of the Darkwood trailer (embedded below) for me to check out this game. Some of the imagery in that trailer is downright horrific, and just that small clip was enough to make the hairs on my neck and arms stand up.
Starting a fresh game in Darkwood offers you with three difficulties: normal, hard, or nightmare. Normal lets you die as much as you’d like, but you’ll drop equipment each time (you can go back to pick it up). Hard gives you a set number of lives before it’s over for good. Nightmare gives you one shot and then it’s all over.
Darkwood wears its difficulty on its sleeve, offering a less than welcoming message when you first start playing. The game informs you that it will not be holding your hand and that you should respect the forest. It sets the tone nicely as you move into the prologue.
There is an option to skip the prologue for future playthroughs, but you should absolutely play it on your first time. It sets up the world nicely and cleverly subverts your expectations with some early story developments that had my jaw on the floor. With the prologue complete, I was thrown out into this world, a forest where the trees are so thick and grow so quickly that none can escape its grasp.
The world of Darkwood is immediately engaging. The tense and brutal prologue helps get you immersed right away before you start the slow and sometimes painful process of exploring, collecting supplies, and surviving. The story comes pretty slow after the opening, but you’ll find kernels of information and other characters that offer a slow drip-feed of insight.
In any other type of game, the slow reveal would be frustrating, but Darkwood’s world is so eerie, so intoxicating, and so well-crafted that I always felt the urge to push forward despite the oppressiveness of it all.
Thankfully, survival here does not extend to things like hunger, thirst, or sleep. That doesn’t mean Darkwood will be a walk in the park, or rather, a stroll through the forest. You are free to explore at your leisure once you finish the prologue, but curiosity will often be a gamble between loot and things better left undisturbed.
Of course, you’ll need to push outward and explore to gather supplies, craft weapons, and brew serums that you use to level up and obtain skills. The twist is that night in Darkwood is a death sentence. In the beginning hours you’ll need to keep an eye on the general color and light levels to avoid getting caught out in the dark.
The character will give you a heads up about not being out at night, but until you’re able to obtain a wristwatch, you won’t know exactly when night is coming. When it does arrive, you’ll need to retreat to your base and make sure your generator is filled with gasoline. Turning it on will illuminate your house with lamps, but that doesn’t mean your safe.
The option to barricade windows and slide heavy objects in front of gaps in the walls is absolutely necessary as all manner of things will try to get inside as time goes on. Some nights are quiet, leaving you only with the hum of your generator as you watch the eerie smoke effects swirl in the darkness outside the walls of your house.
Other nights are different. One night I huddled next to a lamp while a mysterious visitor pounded non-stop on the front door. A different night had one of the lamps go out unexpectedly, resulting in a frantic sprint to the other room while spirits of a sort assaulted me from the shadows.
While some may not like the need to return and hide in your base each night, I loved the loop as it always ensured tension and horror regardless of how the day went. If I have any complaints about Darkwood, it would be in regards to the combat.
Utilizing your workbench, table saw, and inventory all work perfectly fine. I actually loved that you have to put down your backpack when you check your inventory, thus removing any awareness about something that could be sneaking up on you. It makes something as simple as checking for items a risky task.
When it comes time to fight, you’ll aim with the right stick and use the triggers. R1 gives you a quick attack, but true damage in melee comes from winding up your swing with L2 and hitting with R2. It’s a lot to manage while enemies are assaulting you, and the controls feel slow and clunky, which doesn’t help matters.
On one hand, I liked the weighty feeling of the animation, but it does put you at a distinct disadvantage in combat (unless you manage to get a gun, which works better). The only other thing that I noticed was the size of text in the menus and during dialogue.
The game was recently patched with a UI scale sliders in the main menu, but even with this, on a 65-inch TV I had to sit pretty close to read anything. It’s honestly not an uncommon issue for me, but those who struggle with small text should be aware that Darkwood is going to require a closer sitting range.
A Masterclass in Tension and Atmosphere
Darkwood’s style is easily the game’s best strength. The rough, hand-drawn art style gives off a rugged vibe, and the designs are suitably grotesque and shocking to behold. Seriously, I haven’t seen creature design like this in a long time.
Combine this with audio that perfectly meshes sound effects with an oppressive soundtrack, and you have a horror game that nails its atmosphere just as well, if not better, than its contemporaries and those in closer perspectives.
Don’t let the top down perspective fool you, Darkwood is a truly terrifying horror experience that, like it promises, does not hold your hand. Venture into these woods, fellow gamer, but be warned, what lies between the trees may be more than you bargained for.
Final Score: 8.5/10
A copy of Darkwood was provided to PS4 Experts for review purposes
Article by - Bradley Ramsey
Insert date - 5/29/19