Developer Acid Wizard Studios’ wonderfully nightmarish top-down survival horror Darkwood is unfurling its grasping tendrils on Xbox One, PS4, and PC later this month.
For those unfamiliar, Darkwood, which originally released on PC in 2017, is a deeply idiosyncratic, but frightening effective horror experience, combining exploration, combat, scavenging, crafting, and survival into an extremely unusual whole.
Following a breathtaking opening sequence that immediately succeeds in pulling the rug out from under you, Darkwood deploys every tool in its arsenal to confound, confuse, and unnerve. There’s a full map of the forest, for instance, but rarely does it give you any sense of where you are, and the vast majority of your activities are viewed through a limited cone of vision.
You can always see your general surroundings, but key items aren’t visible unless they fall within your line of sight. That includes enemies, meaning you’ll often experience the effects of their presence, doors opening and closing, furniture moving, without ever knowing what’s out there.
Darkwood delights in disorientation, and is often wilfully opaque, which can sometimes be as frustrating as it is terrifying as you wander lost among the horrors. Thankfully, your goal – to escape – is easy to grasp, as are the basic rhythms of exploration and scavenging.
Each morning, you set out across the Darkwood, hunting for supplies, points of interest, perhaps even other inhabitants of forest, steadily peeling back another layer of the mystery on your way toward freedom. What starts out as merely bleak, however, rapidly takes a turn for the suffocating, as Darkwood throws off its veneer of normality in favour of the increasingly surreal.
And then comes night – and the Darkwood’s most awful denizens – where your only possible chance of survival is to barricade yourself into your cabin, keep the generator running and the lights on, and hope that you (and whatever weapon you’ve found) makes it through till morning. It’s a nail-bitingly inevitable, always stressful crescendo moment to the drudgery of each day, but the sense of victory, discovery and forward momentum during sunlight hours – not to mention the fascinating, if evasive plot – keeps you forging onward.
Darkwood certainly isn’t a game for everyone – it’s confusing, exhausting, sometimes clunky, and relentlessly bleak – but it’s fiercely intelligent in its design, and one of the strangest, most unsettling, and satisfying horror games I’ve played in years.
If any of that tickles your fancy, Darkwood arrives on PS4 on 14th May, Switch on 16th May, and Xbox One on 17th May. It should cost between 13 and 15, depending on platform.