At first I approached Darkwood (for Nintendo Switch May 16) with low expectations. Both the survival-horror genre and the top-down, twin-stick pixel shooter have been beaten to hell in the last few years. And the screenshots for Darkwood make it look a bit like a mashup of those poor, abused genres. BUT! Darkwood really is different. So different it’s… shall we say, SCARY!? (Maniacal laughter)
I’ve played plenty of twin-stick, top down indie action games, and a lot of them are great. Enter the Gungeon and Hellmut: Badass from Hell were both excellent, with fast action and non-stop insanity. But Darkwood is something completely different. Almost opposite. It reminds me a bit of the original Resident Evil games, where combat is cumbersome on purpose. You’re not supposed to be able to mow down your enemies, you’re supposed to survive. And it’s hard.
Further,I was very relieved that this isn’t a roguelike and doesn’t feature permadeath because I’m tired of both of those gimmicks. And the game world isn’t procedurally generated, either. It’s like somebody actually sat down and thought about and planned out the world, just like the olden days!
So yeah, it’s a well thought-out game world that doesn’t hold your hand, but it also doesn’t beat you down. You’ll die a bit, and respawn with missing items that you can go back and retrieve (a la Diablo). It can be a real drag, but you are still able to continue building on the progress you’ve already made and the world you’ve explored is still there.
The best and most notable thing about this game is the blood-curdling ambience. That’s blood curdling in a good way. The way you want your blood to be curdled?
The look and feel of a horror game is another indie-gaming trope that has been pretty much beaten into the ground. And yet, this game builds a fantastically scary and intense atmosphere without the need for jumpscares or excessive gore. Too many indie games try and fail to build suspense with audio and visual cues, but Darkwood excels at this.
I’ll shut up about how it looks in screenshots, but I can’t stress enough that you’ve got to really play this game to understand what makes it good. Once you fire it up and get a good look at how organic the game world is, how it changes as you walk, the parallax, and the real-time line-of-sight, all work together to make Darkwood a really dreadful place to visit.
The sound is great, too. There were many times I had to turn off the sound and make sure something wasn’t actually behind me. There are many unidentifiable noises, barely audible that just sort of tickle your subconscious, but none of it is cheesy. It all feels right. Or wrong, really. But in all the right ways.
Not an action game. Not really. Like I said, this is more akin to early Resident Evil games where controls are a bit awkward and getting mauled to death by a zombie dog is a real possibility. The protagonist has (at least in the early game) very limited health and becomes exhausted very easily. A few swings of your weapon or a few seconds moving at full speed will cause him to gasp and slow down. Chasing down and finishing off enemies is a real challenge. As you continue the game, you can find and distill the local fungus in order to advance your character, gain new perks, move faster longer, and generally kick more ass. Likewise you can collect crafting materials to upgrade weapons, repair and fortify your house, etc.
You start out (after the intro) with no weapons and almost no resources at all.
You’ve got to venture into the woods (the Darkwoods) and scavenge what you can. A few dogs will chase you and likely scare the crap out of you when they do. It’s not a jump scare, but I still jump when it happens and can feel my adrenaline pumping as I run back to my cabin. The constant tension of the atmosphere gets me so worked up that it’s hard not to panic when enemies emerge from the fog.
Darkwood uses a crafting system like so many other games. You’ve got to salvage things from your surroundings to create weapons and items, door barricades, traps, torches and other survival equipment. You can pimp out your shack to be more fully defended from the dreaded night visitors. But don’t run out of gas for your generator. You really don’t want to pass the night alone in the dark. So yeah. There’s a strong whiff of Minecraft. But even if you don't like Minecraft, consider that Darkwood for Nintendo Switch still stands on its own as a great survival horror.
I never want to give too much away here, so don’t worry. No spoikers. The story is mysterious and interesting. The devs strike a good balance between exposition and gameplay. There are cutscenes which are creepy and well-done but not overdone. They don’t eat up too much time. Then you’re back into the game, exploring the world that was so subtly exposed by said cutscene.
From where I am in this game, I’m not sure the story will ever fully crystallize. It may be a madman’s fever dream. Or maybe it will turn out for the better. Not sure yet, but I can’t wait to get back in and find out more.
Darkwood for Nintendo Switch: Is it worth getting?
This whole review should tell you that, yeah. I think it’s great. Granted, I’m only a few hours in (I wanted to get this published ahead of the release of Darkwood for Nintendo Switch) but I’m a believer in this title. The developers suggest most players will finish the game in 20-30 hours. Sounds like a good deal to me.