Ultra-Indie Spotlight Sunday: Darkwood
Darkwood lives up to its name. The game takes place in a very dark wood. You awaken (after the prologue) in a house without memory, finding yourself in an exceedingly dangerous overgrown grove, where the people are going mad and the trees slowly devour all. There’s no help coming. You’re on your own. Get out and scavenge for supplies, and get back before dark. All you can do after that is hope that you’ve got enough gas in your generator’s tank to keep your lights on throughout the night and that nothing gets through your boarded-up windows.
I recently read Annihilation, one of the latest additions to the Roadside Picnic genre. As with the other books and movies, this game features a weird Zone where simply being inside of it begins to warp your mind and body into something horrific. The Zone is not necessarily an evil place; rather, it’s like a weather phenomenon, a force of nature that cannot be altered, simply managed. That’s what Darkwood reminds me of most.
I bought Darkwood on sale just a few days ago, and haven’t been able to play through the whole thing. But from what I understand, this is indeed a Zone, one that splat right on top of a well-populated region in Poland. Unlike Annihilation or S.T.A.L.K.E.R., however, you aren’t coming in as a well-armed and properly equipped scientist/mercenary, who were able to choose their loadout a la Escape from Tarkov. Rather, you’re just a schlubby little guy in a trench coat with nothing in your pockets but lint. You have nothing but your own guile and whatever junk you can scavenge to keep the horrors at bay.
Non-Wanky Game Recap:
Darkwood is a top-down survival game. Your character must struggle to survive the night in an extremely dark wood. The game revolves around a day-night cycle. You can run around during the day and scrounge up whatever you can in order to make it back home and survive the night, which generally involves sitting in the corner of your safehouse, surrounded by bear traps, hoping nothing comes a-knockin’.
Even during the ostensibly safer day, Darkwood remains extremely dark. The player can see the landscape from above, but as for specific enemies, you’re limited to a cone of vision. You’ve got exceedingly little stamina, painfully slow attack speed, and in the beginning, almost no equipment. Even the character upgrades are not that valuable, as they come with tremendous caveats (ie you’ll get to heal by standing near a light once a day, at the cost of demon mind-ghosts hunting you down when you’re in the dark. The game is unforgiving.
Darkwood feels like a top-down S.T.A.L.K.E.R., but instead of having the highest tech Soviet firearms, you have the highest tech Polish wood-plank-full-of-nails. The first thing Darkwood tells you is that the game is supremely unforgiving, and you know what? They’re not kidding. Hardly anything is done with ease, even navigating using the map is an ordeal since you don’t have a convenient marker showing where you are. It creates a real feeling of being lost and alone. The rabid dogs and exploding poison mushrooms and deranged antler people don’t help.
The caveat of an unforgiving game is that it’s not as approachable for a timid little guy like me. Darkwood gets a lot of its terror from the fact that you don’t really know what’s going on. The downside of that is that it leaves a lot of room for guessing, often to your own detriment. Do I really need this tire? Or is it more important to hold on to this inedible meat? Does one bullet for a gun I don’t have really need to take up an inventory space? Should I leave the generator on all night, using a ton of gas? This is good for players who want to dedicate themselves to figuring out everything. For others, this means playing again and again, sometimes without making enough progress.
How To Fix It:
This is merely some nitpicking, not a real problem with the game. While I don’t think there should necessarily be an easy mode in Darkwood, I do think there is some room for leniency. Having a better sense of direction as to what objectives I need to focus on would be nice. Ultimately, however, I don’t think this is necessary. There are plenty of Darkwood guides that are spoiler-free, and a lot of players are here for an unforgiving challenge.
Survival mechanics are tough to get right. You want the player to feel like they need to get out and find things to survive, but not to the point where it interrupts the flow of the game itself. I think what I love most about Darkwood is that, even though the survival is intense, none of it felt superfluous. There was no need to worry about food and water and sleep. Just health in by bar and gas in my generator and wood planks on my windows. If you are looking for an extremely hardcore survival horror game, Darkwood is probably the one for you.