STAFF REVIEW of Darkwood (Xbox One)

Wednesday, July 10, 2019.
by Josh Morgan

Darkwood Box art Ever have that feeling when you were a kid going up the basement steps that something was following you? You just shut off the light and you couldn’t get up the steps fast enough because something was hot on your heels ready to grab your legs. Well, that is a constant feeling in Darkwood, a top down survival horror game developed by the Polish crew of 3 at Acid Wizard Studios. The tag line for the studio on their website is “We make trippy games” and my time with Darkwood has proven this motto to be true.

“All roads lead deeper into the woods.”

I don’t want to spoil the story so I will talk mostly about the first set of woods you encounter in Darkwood. First you’ll play through a brief prologue showing the madness that consumes you in these woods, and that the decisions that you make can affect others. For example, when leaving your house you come across your dog laying on the ground whimpering. You are presented with a choice to leave it, or put it out of its misery. Me being an animal lover, I felt sorry for the pup, so I ended its suffering. If you chose to leave it however, then when you come back to the house the dog has gone mad and will try to attack you. After the prologue you take control of an unnamed character and set out on a trek to escape the woods. Travelers, traders and madmen tell you over and over that there is no escape, that “all roads lead deeper into the woods”. It’s a recurring theme throughout the game. You may progress into the next area, but you are told over and over that there is truly no way out.

As you set off away from your camp to explore, you will come across various locations scattered across your starter area, Dry Meadow. As you visit these locations they will be sketched into your journal on a crude map. This map doesn’t show your current location like typical modern games, but is only there to serve as a reference point to where key points are located. This adds a lot of tension to the game. If it had a true map that showed your current location and orientation it would be very easy to find your way to these key locations. I think that would take away from the chaos and panic that hits you when you realize you are far from your camp and night time is approaching. At night, your field of view shrinks around you, more deadly creatures spawn and a mysterious red cloud follows you around, draining your health. You need to be in your camp at night to be safe, and if you find yourself on the other side of the woods as night falls, it will mean certain death.

During your travels you will be followed by wild dogs that attack if you get too close, and some wild elk that will mess you up if you go near them. This is only in the starter area and only during the day. More threats are out there at night and in the later areas. Dead bodies, houses and random crates are waiting around for you to loot, clearing them out of any materials you can fit in your backpack. Cloth, wire, batteries, wood, nails and gasoline cans are must grabs. You can use those items to craft your survival tools to make it another day, or sell them to vendors for other needed items. As the sky gets darker and darker, you’ll start getting hints that you should be making your way back to the safety of your camp. Here is where you will need to put those newly acquired supplies to good use.

Barricade windows, set bear traps and make some bandages, because when the sun goes down all the crazies come out. Topping off the generator should be your number one priority because you will need to run it all night to keep the lights on inside the house. Please, please, if you remember one thing from this, you need to remember to shut off the generator in the morning. I wasted so much gas because I left it running all day because I was too eager to get out exploring and trading with the NPCs. Light keeps MOST of the night creatures at bay. If you happen to make it through the first night you’ve done well.

This is where you’ll meet a key NPC that will be an invaluable asset to survive. Every morning, you will have a visitor in your camp waiting for you to emerge from your barricaded room. He’s a trader that you can sell unwanted items, shiny rocks or gems in exchange for reputation that you can spend on items that you actually need. He sells building supplies and healing items while the Wolfman, another NPC that you meet, tends to sell more weapon related items. Each vendor has his own reputation currency, so make sure you are selling the right items to the right NPC for maximum profits. After your first day or so you will begin a quest line with Wolfman that will progress the story and take you to new locations.

“Respect the woods. Be Patient. Focus.”

Now that you have made it through the night and understand the basic principles of the game let’s talk a bit about the actual gameplay. As stated above, this is a top down view of the woods you are exploring. Your character control and field of view are two separate sticks, allowing you to run in one direction while facing another. This is very helpful when running from wild dogs or some of the bigger and nastier creatures you’ll encounter at night and later in the game. During the day you are able to see the trees and other objects in the woods around you, but your top down view is limited to seeing only the enemies and pathways in your field of vision. In other words, you actually have to be facing something in order to see it on your screen. This mechanic really intensifies the “thing chasing you up the stairs” feeling that I described earlier. It’s a mechanic that works really well at night, and lulls you into a false state of security during the day. But, the truth is, both can be extremely dangerous. You’ll have a hotbar on the upper left of the screen that can hold up to 3 items, and it can be upgraded to hold more. You can move items from your backpack to the hotbar for quick use, and I’d recommend equipping a weapon, some bandages and a light source in your first 3 slots. Those will serve you well in the early forest.

Your backpack and workbench at the house are also upgradeable, offering more storage slots and higher rated items to craft. While most crafting is done at the workbench, there is some crafting you can do in the field, such as bandages, lock picks and some weapons; a wood board and some nails makes a decent emergency weapon. As you upgrade your workbench further you can upgrade these lower end weapons into more efficient ones. Crafting on the fly takes a bit of time and strategy, and since it’s not instant, you are better off crafting all of your emergency items around the safety of your house before you set off exploring. If you are hunched over your bag crafting a set of bandages, a nearby dog WILL take this as an open invitation to attack you.

Healing works the same way, you have to pick your spots to heal so you can fill up your bar. If you’re interrupted mid-heal, the bandage you are using is wasted and the healing will stop. Combat is just as deliberate as the movement and crafting. Running, climbing over objects and weapon swings are tied to a stamina meter that drains while performing these actions. If you don’t monitor this meter while in combat or while running from a tougher enemy you will start to huff and puff as you are beaten to death. Only swing if you know you can make contact, and only run if you know what direction you want to go. As you progress, better weapons will become available to purchase or by finding the parts and pieces in the woods. You can then take those pieces and assemble them at the workbench at your camp.

“Better forget about the road home, Meat.”

The bumps, creaks, and footsteps will scare you as you throughout the game, but it’s the moments of silence that really start to creep you out. Because you KNOW that something was just right there... or was it? I played through this game with headphones and I can’t tell you how many times the hair on the back of my neck perked up as the sound of snapping twigs or footsteps filled my ears indicating that something was very close. Howling winds, dogs barking in the distance and just when the sounds get close enough that it feels like something is going to pop up on your screen... it doesn’t. Your heart is racing, you’re looking in every direction to catch a glimpse of something in the shadows to focus your field of vision on, but the house and woods around you have gone silent. Has morning come? Are you safe? Then the dresser you had propping the door closed starts to move and the door swings open. At this point it’s too late and you hope that the bear traps you laid down at least slows down whatever is coming in.

There are no cut scenes or voice acting in Darkwood. Just a barely animated image of the character you are talking to. Wolfman for instance is, well, a wolf-man trader that offers advice, will purchase and sell items and will present you with a pretty big quest line that has a few branching paths that you can choose from. His character model has great detail, even down to the bullet hole in his jacket. Was it from when someone shot him, or was it from when he shot the previous owner? This old school approach to storytelling really reminded me of some of the classic PC adventure games I’ve played in the past, like Lands of Lore and Kings Quest, where they don’t hold your hand on what to do next, but there are tips and tricks hidden in some of the dialog that can point you in the right direction.

Darkwood is a purposefully deliberate survival game that forces you to explore, but at the same time punishes you for spending too much time and effort searching one area. You don’t want to spend too many resources building up your camps, but you need to gather enough to be able to survive your stay there. It’s a delicate balance that is really well executed but not overly explained. The survival mechanics can be learned very quickly, and once you are two or three game days in you will start to find a groove. Just remember to turn the generator off in the morning.

Overall: 9.0 / 10
Gameplay: 9.0 / 10
Visuals: 9.0 / 10
Sound: 9.0 / 10


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