>> Darkwood

Finished at Nightmare difficulty on PS4

This is a difficult and unforgiving game. Be patient. Respect the woods.

-- Darkwood

Darkwood is a great survival and horror game with a top-down camera/perspective. The game is about an amnesiac trapped deep within a paranormal forest who must escape its warped ecosystem and inhabitants or else be consumed it. While trying to survive, every day the player has 12 minutes of light to scavenge and explore the forest and 5 minutes of darkness to hunker down in a hideout and survive the deadly creatures and random events which is the primary game loop. What makes this game special is its emphasis on challenge with its finite resources, item scarcity, stiff combat, weapon durability, low health, limited sight and permadeath which all provide a gripping mechanical tension. Compounding the difficulty, the horror taps into the fear of the unknown with its visual line of sight or darkness, tense sound design, procedurally generated maps, nightly threats, ambiguous characters and consequences overall creating a tense and atmospheric horror experience. While it only has two chapters and an epilogue, this can take around 25 hours on fully exploring the world and story including the multiple deaths or runs incurred.

>> Thoughts

Aside from its nicely executed resource survival aspect, the interesting aspect of this game is its horror and challenge stemming from it. Horror is hard to define and quite subjective based on personal and past experiences. Instead, several aspects of the game build an oppressive and terrifying atmosphere that overall create a strong horror gameplay experience.

The first noteworthy thing is the top-down perspective itself which is an unconventional choice for horror. With this perspective, it uses an intriguing lighting system based on the character's directional vision cone which can be obstructed and everything else darkened and masked/disguised until seen directly. While the player can see the whole screen, they can only see what the player character does and the game plays with that fear of the unknown such as hidden enemies, traps or simply unknown creatures moving in the dark. Since the game forces the player to hunker down every night, the player feels helpless against this darkness and must accept that it cannot be conquered.

Since sight is unreliable, directional audio cues can alert the player from nearby enemies or items by their growls or pulse. During the night, this alertness is heightened where other audio cues such as footsteps, opening doors or banging induce paranoia and stress until the harmony of daybreak. The background and ambient music specially after the night builds the slow and creeping fear and the relief appropriately.

Aside from traps, the primary threat of this game are the enemies. The stamina-based combat system of this game is stiff and rigid as the player needs weapons which cost resources to use and repair as well as risky with the high damage from enemies, unrewarding loot drop and specially permadeath. The player must efficiently scavenge materials for weapons and defense as the night enemies will eventually find the player and require combat to maintain a safety zone. Enemies do not get easier and the resources required increase which feed into the game's resource scarcity. Even if a daily trader NPC trades goods, the aggression increases over time and so is the average resources required. By making enemies and combat dangerous and resource intensive, the player is must always be careful and respect the woods.

Lastly without a tutorial, the game wants the player to begin and expect the discomfort and uncertainty of the world. Even the characters including the player's are strange humans physically or mentally affected by the forest which defy reality and sanity. Their stories and requests are vague and hide or lack information which complicates the player's actions and expectations. By the end of the game, the player may have escaped the forest, but not understood it and possibly changed for the worst by it. The game does not happy endings or resolutions and this feeling of ambiguity reaches the player

A minor point, the skills progression provide interesting powers and abilities specially at higher levels but requires a negative trait at each tier level or roughly for every two upgrades which is interesting. While I like the negative traits threaten survival, they are somewhat too strong where it might be better not to level up. Personally in my runs, most active skills can only be activated once a day that I forgot about them as well as the passive one. The skills are not badly designed but rather my play style does not use/encourage skills and perhaps should not have dealt with the side-effects. Looking back, the level progression is surprisingly optional and engaging with it provides an interesting and conscious trade-off while supporting the idea of being mutated by the forest and the challenging nature of the game itself. After finishing the game, I suggest trying out new runs without skills or randomly selecting them to spice them up.

The game overall presents a tense horror gameplay that is well balanced and designed. It could use some personal improvements such as inventory sorting, the ability to skip dream sequences, more nightly events, more skills/traits and so on but it is fine as is. My advice to new players is begin the game at Nightmare difficulty as well so that decisions and mistakes have tangible tension or loss. I am happy to recommend this horror game but remember to respect the forest.