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, Stanisław 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.