Having gained a reputation for being one of the scariest games on Steam since it first hit Early Access, Darkwood has now brought its particular brand of trouser-staining terror to consoles. Adapting the immersive thrills of its desktop form to the more comfortable environment of the living room sofa has done nothing to diminish the game’s effect, with the result being one of the most nerve-jangling and unsettling experiences available to horror fans.
The first thing that strikes you is the oppressive darkness that fills most of the screen. Even during the day, much of the environment is swamped in shadow, with the uneasy fear that the darkness hides perils just waiting to pounce. It’s not a beautiful game, but the style is clear and crisp, with a top down viewpoint that helps define the action. There’s an aesthetic appeal of its own that’s particularly apparent when you begin to encounter the denizens of the darkness.
Darkwood’s backstory is appropriately mysterious. Set in a remote corner of Poland, all you really know as the game begins is that the modern infrastructure has been destroyed and replaced by a sinister forest, cutting the region off from the rest of society. The unfortunate residents are forced to either attempt to escape or hide from the terrors that come in the night. The opening prologue sets the scene wonderfully as you are confronted with horrific dilemmas, such as whether to euthanise your wounded dog or let it suffer, and you’re left with no choice but to explore the darkness.
Venturing into the game proper, you soon get caught up in its central loop. Finding yourself in a dilapidated cabin with broken windows and gaps in the walls, your first task is to locate enough wood and nails to barricade the entrances and give yourself a chance to survive the night. From there on you have to balance the potential rewards of venturing further from your shelter in search of resources with the fatal consequences of not returning by nightfall. It works not too dissimilar from roguelites, in that you lose most of your items when you die and are returned to your shelter, but that difficulty can be increased to limit the number of lives you have or simply have permadeath. I’ve yet to raise the nerve and confidence to give these a proper try, but I’m looking forward to being able to take the terrors on.
Alongside barricading and repairing your house, your scavenging turns up the ingredients for weaponry and recovery items. You can craft many of these on the fly, although doing so in the wild will leave you open to attack. Exploring during daylight hours means that you are safe from the supernatural threats, you will still have to avoid or fight wild dogs, wolves, moose, and violent locals. This alone ensures that you never feel safe whilst exploring, and the incredible audio design and unsettling score keep the tension ratcheted up.
Even the most perilous daytime encounter, however, is nothing compared to the fatal consequences of being out at night. Initially you have to rely on watching the shifting colour of the light to predict when to turn around and head for shelter, but later on you can get a wristwatch to track time. Even this purchase is not without its dilemma, though, as the currency you use could otherwise be employed in buying crafting materials or items.
The trading system involves either finding one of the various NPCs around the procedurally generated environment or making it through a night in your shelter. If you survive then the visiting trader will offer you a reward that you can exchange for items – dying on Normal difficulty means that you must raise all your funds by exchanging loot. Even trading involves difficult decisions as different traders offer different goods and almost everything has a use. You therefore have to decide between spreading your resources thinly across a range of possible approaches or specialising with the risk of being under-equipped for certain dangers. Even on normal difficulty this causes headaches, so on harder difficulty settings this will be a nightmare.
With all of this in mind, Darkwood may sound like many other survival and crafting games, but what really makes it stand out is the overwhelming scariness of it all. The constant sense of dread and unease achieved by the limited visibility and the spooky audio is second to none, and the inevitable crescendo of terror each night never stops being horrifying.
Your shelter gives you some respite, but it doesn’t guarantee your safety and the generator that powers your lights needs regular filling with gasoline. Even with the supernatural protection of your hideaway and the bright lights you cannot stop worrying that it’s just a matter of time before something unholy breaks through your defences. When it does, the screeching, the screaming and white noise of the score combine to leave you struggling to contain your physical reaction and attempt to fight back or escape.
Even when you feel like you’ve worked out the best way to confront the horrors of the Polish woods, new areas offer up increased dangers. Testing your strategies out on the higher difficulties provides extra longevity with repetition prevented by the procedural generation of the maps. There are a few moments when the controls felt clunky on the PS4 pad and the trial and error nature of some of the items found can be frustrating but as it isn’t really a twitch game these are minor issues.