The Wicked And The Weird: Darkwood Impressions

By Adam Smith on July 25th, 2014 at 7:00 pm.

I’ve been looking forward to Darkwood for a long time. It’s a top-down survival horror game with crafting elements, but early videos contained a hint of surrealism that helped the game to stand out from the crowd. Now that it has launched in Early Access, I’ve spent an hour exploring the early stages. It’s a slow-paced Teleglitch, a survival horror game by way of Ice-Pick Lodge and Stalker. A few interface issues aside, it lives up to expectations in grand style. There are some spoilers for the prologue section below and I reckon it’s worth going in completely cold, but fear not – I’ll provide a second spoiler warning before going into detail.

The lighting is beautiful. I worried that the entire game would look like a bit of mud on my screen, with the occasional splatter of blood to keep me on my toes, but there are plenty of torches and lovely implementation of line of sight. Pushing a wardrobe aside to reveal a secret passage is as creaky and creepy a task as anything a game has tasked me with in recent times.

My slight quibbles about the interface have more to do with what I find intuitive rather than any specific problems. Things work as they should but that isn’t always as I expect them to. Tab opens the inventory, where a separate crafting screen allows the creation of useful objects, and using items is as simple as holding down the right button and clicking the left over a target.

I’d rather be able to use items on my own character from within the inventory. It seems odd to equip bandages and then aim them at my body in order to heal. It’s possible that I’m doing things the hard way but if that’s the case, the easy way isn’t as obvious as it should be. It’s a minor thing but worth pointing out so that all of my giddy excitement at least has some counterbalance.

Important disclaimer – I haven’t played more than the game’s opening and it might all go to shit. That’s why this is relatively slim article. I wanted to tell y’all that the game was available but decided to take a quick look before posting and then I started clapping my hands in a state of anxious glee and decided to write all of these words. I was slightly dubious about the Early Access status of the game, in regards to how sparse content might become as I progress, but the early stages are polished and intriguing.

Intriguing is the right word. We’re entering spoiler territory now, although only for the first few minutes of the game.

Acid Wizard say the inspirations for Darkwood include “the works of David Lynch, Strugacki brothers, StanisÅ‚aw Lem. Games like Fallout, Dark Souls, Project Zomboid, Teleglitch. Slavic folklore. And, well, life.” The diversity is clear and the strange nature of the cocktail created is delicious. Electricity generators speak, asking for ‘booze’ (gasoline) and a plague is causing the world to…consume people?

The talk of plagues and the Slavic-tinged otherworldliness bring Pathologic to mind, although that may be partly because it has been thrust back into my mind forcibly in recent days. Darkwood is made up of shifting perspectives and an uneasy sense of doubt as to what is being seen and experienced.

I killed a dog, to put it out of its misery, even though I had to backtrack to do so. It’s a strange action to use as a hook but it certainly worked for me. Only as the axe encouraged the poor creature’s guts to spill out did I realise I had nothing to gain from giving my former pet the chop. I did it because the world is convincing and I didn’t want to leave suffering animals lying around the place if I didn’t have to.

A few minutes later, I was preparing to drug and torture a wounded man. And then I became that wounded man. And then I beat my former self to death with a plank full of nails. I think. I think that’s what happened. The sequence of events isn’t particularly clear but the shrieks are clear. I can still hear them.

Once the prologue is over (mercifully, it can be skipped so as to avoid repetition), the survival adventure begins. There are characters to meet, trades to be made and horrors to experience. I haven’t wandered into the deep dark of the woods yet, sticking to the relatively safe places and paths slightly trodden. I find the sounds that carry on the winds genuinely alarming and the graphics have enough detail to make me squint at sights I’d rather not see, but are distant and vague enough that my mind fills in the blurs and blanks with terrible things.

Does it matter that the game isn’t finished? It might bother me as I progress but I don’t think it’s the kind of experience that will be spoiled by playing it early. There is a story but there’s also freedom to explore, craft and suffer. What story is already in the game (just the first chapter for now) is made up of vague gestures and I hope it’ll stay that way. I’m certainly glad to be playing already because waiting another year would be painful.

Relief. Darkwood has an astonishing atmosphere. Tension. It’s an unnerving experience. Anguish. Those shrieks. That dog.

Darkwood is available now.

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15 Comments »

  1. jpm224 says:

    Im confused as to what exactly this game is supposed to be? Is it a story-driven rpg type? Or is this more of a survival simulator/sandbox ala don’t starve or sunless sea?

    Either way, I find myself interested after reading this piece.

    • jonahcutter says:

      The original IndieGoGo pitch was for a more sandbox experience. I think through development more of a narrative came out.

      The current build still plays sandboxy. The narrative presents itself, but you’re basically set lose and can explore in whatever direction you wish.

      • frightlever says:

        Wasn’t it originally going to be procedurally generated? There seems to be a little push back from some backers now that there’s a more defined narrative.

        • Joey Fudgepants says:

          Yeah, this is my question, as well. My interest in this game is high if it’s (at least somewhat) procedural… at least procedural enough to allow for interesting replays.

        • ShadowNate says:

          The world’s layout is randomly generated at the beginning of a playthrough. There is a story to drive your actions, that is not randomized, so some elements in the world have fixed general locations.

          The backers were informed of decisions to make changes to the original ideas/concepts with quite a few updates during the development up until the early access phase. The reactions then and now from what I can tell were/are very positive (as a backer I am very pleased with how they handled and progressed with the development). I think all of these updates are also public in the acidwizardstudio web site. Take particulat note of the April”s update titled “Changes”.

          The result in the Early Access still is really close (for me it is exactly /or better even/ than what I expected ) to what was originally presented.

    • Nenjin says:

      I’ve puzzled over this question as I’ve played the game this weekend. What is it? Survival Horror? Action Adventure? An RPG? A Sandbox?

      And here’s what I’ve come to: without permadeath enabled, the game is closer to an Adventure/Sandbox with horror elements, than it is a survival sandbox.

      Here’s my reasoning: the day/night cycle, the way the world is random but scattered with familiar and even static locations, the way puzzles and quests work….it reminds me very much of games like Quest for Glory (also takes places in a giant forest, also has a night cycle which is dark and full of terrors.) Only it’s about 5x as lethal. It’s got a bit of everything, even some very light character building/RPG elements.

      Death is very difficult to avoid in Darkwood because of what happens at night, and resources are incredibly scarce/fast burning. Everything is consumable/decays with use. You never have enough of what you need, and that’s what gives the game its survival edge. But at its core, it’s about exploration and getting through the story at your own pace, and the sandbox design of the forest broadens what might otherwise be a linear game. You could fool around for days on end just trying to not die in your house, but unlike most survival games, there’s a lot more to do than not die and get supplies together for the next day.

      Of course, it’s Alpha 1.1, so when more content is in, it will seem less linear and there will be more to do in the sandbox. This is one of those games I’d like to play Permadeath on, but it’s simply putting the screws to players too hard right now/stuff isn’t balanced for it quite yet/there’s not enough supporting content in to make it not a huge pain in the ass.

      Playing non-permadeath for me greatly changes the game’s vibe. It’s still scary. It’s still visually darker than any game I’ve played in the last three years. It’s still tough as balls and you die all the time. And there are still penalties, really painful ones, for dying with permadeath off. But kinda how you’d walk into a troll’s cave in an adventure game the first time and get your face smashed in, reload your save, come back and do something different, Darkwood feels a lot the same.

      And special word for the graphics. For what it is, Darkwoods is gorgeous and all the post-processing effects and other effects are just layered so well over everything, I keep coming back to the game simply for how it looks and sounds. This is one of those games to play in the dark(wood) with your 5.1 sound system cranked up.

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    Big Murray says:

    Early Access. Why does it have to be Early Access.

    • Octuplex says:

      Surprisingly, nothing in the game seems even slightly rough. everything is smooth and I haven’t encountered any glitches. everything looks fantastic and it might as well be a finished game from what I’ve played. I haven’t beaten it, though, so maybe it goes to hell later, but I was very pleased with what I saw.

      EDIT: reading some other comments, it seems like I just didn’t encounter any glitches while playing the game, doesn’t mean they aren’t there. take that as you will.

  3. jonahcutter says:

    This game is great already.

    Yes it’s doing the survival horror thing, but it genuinely has it’s own atmosphere and tone. Otherworldly, surreal, nightmarish and highly malevolent. It is genuinely creepy. (To make an other-games comparison: it stakes out a unique spot in a triangle between STALKER, Don’t Starve and Hotline Miami.

    The movement feels great. You have weight and momentum as you move and fight, making for intense encounters.

    There’s physics with objects and powerful use of light and darkness.

    It’s punishing. It’s weird. And there’s permadeath if you want it.

    There’s been a ton of survival games recently. But Darkwood, the aforementioned and bar-setting Don’t Starve, The Forest and the soon-to-be-beta The Long Dark have crafted really unique settings. With Project Zomboid as the best of the zombie-survival wing, there’s a great crop of excellent games to play in the genre.

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    onesandzeroes says:

    Only gave it a quick run-through yesterday, but I was hooked right from the opening cinematic. A really creepy blend of surreal imagery that established the tone of the game straight away.

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    PoulWrist says:

    I backed this, but will wait till it’s out to play it.

  6. statistx says:

    You can use bandages from within your inventory. It is explained later on throughout the introduction as an on screen text. You basically hold right click, like with the additional interaction commands (doors, boxes and such) and then choose “use”.

    The athmosphere is creepy, which is an acomplishment if you consider it’s top down 2D and it is story driven with survival. Also found some places that look like side quest material but I can’t say yet if the placement of the landmarks are randomized or not.

    Also everyone being on the edge if to buy or not: It IS early access.
    My game yesterday ran pretty fine, until it decided that only movement works from now on, which means I had to quit the game since I couldn’t interact with the world and my inventory anymore.

  7. altum videtur says:

    *SPOILORS*
    Of the first 3 minutes of the game.
    The very first guy you start off as? Balding one that stands up from their desk?
    He’s a carbon copy of Strelok from Shadow of Chernobyl (the first STALKER game).
    Him carrying off the other guy and his overriding obsession with leaving the forest also fit much the same reference.
    It’s probably irrelevant and just a funny little reference. Still.

  8. Waltorious says:

    Somehow I doubt that the headline is referring to Buck 65, but that’s what came to mind immediately for me:

  9. Maxis says: