Jump scares: I fucking hate them. Not only because I’m probably the most anxious person in existence, but because they’ve become both the standard and the biggest cliché in the horror genre, be it in movies or in video games. Some of the most popular games today, such as the frequently-streamed FIVE NIGHTS AT FREDDY’S, rely almost entirely on jump scares for their success because their product wouldn’t really be anything without the debatably spooky image and startling stinger popping up every once in awhile. That’s not to say that it isn’t something that can work in the right context, as was made exceptionally clear in ALIEN: ISOLATION, but there are so many more factors that can make a game terrifying and tense without relying on said gimmick. Ambiance, oppressive atmosphere, paranoia, helplessness—these too make horror.
Evidently, I’m not the only one who thinks so. Polish developers Acid Wizard Studios spent upwards of four years tinkering around with these elements to create a horror game that was still pants-ruiningly terrifying and anxiety-inducing, yet never once uses the crutch of jumpscares. The result is DARKWOOD, a cruel and unrelenting game that blends survival horror with roguelike and RPG elements, managing to meld with the bleak world it creates to make both a unique and unnerving experience.
The story of DARKWOOD is purposely sparse and cryptic, relying on a DARK SOULS-ian method of piecing together its narrative through items, environment, and filling in some of the blanks with your own imagination. From what little exposition is given to us at the beginning of the game, you play as an unnamed outsider in a dense, sinister, and disease-like Wood, one which continually grows and which supposedly has no escape. Your goal, then, is simple: escape. As you could probably surmise, that is easier said than done.
“Well, that’s enough horror for one day. Back to my hovel I go.”
Gameplay tasks the player with scavenging for resources and supplies, crafting usable items, defending themselves from the local fauna and flora, and exploring the procedurally generated woods during the daylight hours. During the night, however, you hunker down in your hideout, barricading yourself inside as best you can in an attempt to survive the onslaught of ungodly, nightly horrors that appear surrounding, or even inside, your hideout until morning, with each night getting progressively harder the longer you manage to stay alive.
Items, especially when it comes to weapons and sources of light, have a limited amount of usage to them, meaning they can and will be used up or broken, rendering them useless after a certain amount of time. And while the game does offer a means of “leveling up” by boiling down mushrooms and other odd objects to inject into yourself, whatever benefits you accrue are usually met with a hefty cost, like a reduced line of sight, or lowered stamina, or even worse events happening at night. On top of that, if/when you manage to meet your end (assuming you’re not playing the perma-death mode), the items on your body and your progress with said benefits are lost. You don’t get to have some kind of horror-themed power fantasy a la RESIDENT EVIL VII, even when you are towards the end of the game or have banked up a lot of resources; DARKWOOD doesn’t play by those rules. The woods are brutal and unforgiving, and will kick you down into the fungus-ridden ground, stomping on your pathetic face over and over unless you learn to respect it, be cautious, and play smart.
Don’t be like this guy. He sucks.
The atmosphere is, in a word, tense. DARKWOOD grants almost no chance for reprieve, even during the daylight hours spent skulking the ruined and overgrown regions of the forest. The sound design of the game aids tremendously in setting the tone and masterfully creates a constant sense of tension and unnerving, opting for mostly ambient sounds apart from certain cues to really drive in the sense of anxiety and paranoia. The crack of twigs amidst the general silence in the woods, unsure of whether it came from you or something lurking in the shadows; the barking of rabid dogs; the creaking of wood floors; the knocking and opening of doors in your hideout in the pitch-black of the night, even if you stay still. Even as simple as it is, it sets you on edge every moment you spend in DARKWOOD. Music is also used very sparingly throughout the game, typically reserved for instilling a sense of unease in certain locations, when talking with NPCs, or the ushering in of a new day. Both the latter instances work to grant some of the few small senses of comfort, before thrusting you back into the quiet, oppressive world.
Likewise, the art direction and visuals that DARKWOOD goes for are strangely beautiful (in a disgusting, decrepit sort of way…) It seems only fitting that the game features the obvious Slavic folk tale influences, but a fair amount of Lovecraftian horror makes its way into the mix as well, especially when it comes to hallucinations and potential dreams the player can have. Which, at least personally, is something I can especially appreciate given my love of Ol’ H.P.’s works. Though this appreciation was usually whilst cowering in the corner of my hideout with a wooden plank full of nails, of course.
Not from him, though. He’s my friend. Maybe.
For what the game sets out to accomplish, DARKWOOD succeeds in creating a well-crafted experience that delivers exactly what it says on the tin: a brutal and unforgiving survival horror game, sans the jump scares. It’s a game that, even when having at least two different, definite endings, can realistically last as long as you like it to, given you’ve got the willpower and aren’t a panicky mess like yours truly. A lot of care went into DARKWOOD to make it feel as haunting and as challenging as it can be, making it a tense endeavor that, as far as I’m concerned, will be hard to surpass.
Reviewed on PC