Darkwood blends survival horror and roguelike elements seamlessly and still somehow avoids the major pitfalls of either genre.
The top-down horror game Darkwood was released a bit unconventionally with a free torrent download side-by-side with an ordinary game store release. The developers’ reasons for this? To give everyone a chance to play regardless of their financial situation, and to strike back against the shady game key reselling websites that threaten the livelihood of game developers. This says nothing about the game itself, but it speaks volumes about the trust placed in the product.
What we have here are roguelike mechanics such as randomly generated environments and (optional) permadeath, wrapped in chilling survival horror. The game is very narrative-driven with a strong sense of mystery, which is something I wouldn’t have expected from a roguelike. Many of its intricate crafting, trading, and inventory management aspects are an antithesis to many modern horror games that opt for more minimalist gameplay, and Darkwood pulls this off masterfully. On top of that, the focus here is strictly atmospheric instead of cheap jumpscares.
The story is set in a grim Polish forest where things have gone very wrong among its twisted residents – inhumane creatures roam the woods and no one seems to be able to get out. You control an amnesiac stranger with only vague memories of their past in the forest and a slim hope of a secret route out of the place. This general description, however, doesn’t do the setting or the atmosphere justice in the slightest. I recommend experiencing it for yourself.
Darkwood really does not hold your hand. You are taught only the most rudimentary mechanics and left to discover the rest. The basic gameplay loop consists of looting and exploring during the day and holing up indoors at night. And what’s there to do at night, then? Being afraid, that’s what. You must barricade the exits and wait, holding on for dear life while having no idea of what will follow. Nocturnal events are generated randomly, so the nights are unpredictable and always potentially dangerous. The lack of guidance is both for better and for worse: for example, it isn’t clear when exactly nightfall hits, so running to safety is hard to time efficiently.
Darkwood also features an optional level-up system of sorts, but every upgrade is balanced with a serious drawback. The game is consistently physics-based as well: you can experiment with dragging various objects around and even body-block a door if needed.
Another aspect the game nails is the sound design. The protagonist only sees entities that are within their narrow field of view, and the rest of is up to your ears to detect through the eerie ambience. This might be the most effective tool the game uses to create an atmosphere that is not hindered by the top-down perspective at all.
Overall, Darkwood is one of the most unique horror games I have played and now also among my current favorites.
Publisher: Acid Wizard Studio
Developer: Acid Wizard Studio
Platforms: Microsoft Windows, macOS, SteamOS, Ubuntu, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Release Date: 2017 (early access release in 2014)
Genres: Survival horror, roguelike
PEGI Rating: 18+