Darkwood Early Access Preview: Forest of Nightmares

My first night in Darkwood is punctuated by growls and screams of creatures I can’t identify.

They sound vicious, and when the barks of wild dogs mingle with them, there’s a brief yelp, and silence.

I stand in a solitary room — the only one I could adequately protect — in which a lamp glows, and I wait with the meager protection offered by a board with a few nails hammered into it, my only weapon. Should anything break through the barricaded windows, it’ll find little resistance in the rest of the house before getting to me; I ran out of planks and nails before I could board up the doors to this room.

The lamp flickers and I hear the rumbles of that thing I couldn’t identify, louder, and there’s banging as it hammers at a barricade. I can’t be sure which one — it could be another room of the house, or it could be the window a few feet away.

Another loud growl and a sharp metallic snap. Before sunset, I set a bear trap near a hole in one wall near the back of the house, a hole I tried to cover by pushing furniture in front of it. The bear trap was meant to keep away anything that might venture too near to the makeshift wall. Now, there’s nothing keeping anything that’s still outside from coming in, if it’s smart enough to try.

The lamp flickers and dies as the generator goes out. There’s nothing but silence, and darkness.

Somehow, blessedly, nothing comes in.

When day breaks, I go outside to inspect the damage. The woods are quiet around me, but there are red swathes of blood spread around the perimeter of the house. I find a dead wild dog on one side, and near the sprung and useless bear trap, the corpse of something twisted. I still can’t identify it.

It’s another day in Darkwood, and that means it’s time to venture out from my small, dilapidated cabin and into the forest beyond, to figure out what the hell is going on and gather resources necessary to survival. I’m seeking someone known only as the “Chicken Woman,” who supposedly lives not far to the southwest of my shelter, and who I’m told can identify a small dog tag I found when I awoke in dark, supernatural woods.

First, though, I check the generator — and find it surrounded by writhing black things, some kind of ground cover that oozes as if alive. It hurts if I touch it; guess that means I’ll be sitting in the dark each night.

The forest isn’t much less dangerous during the day than at night, especially for someone so badly equipped. Still, with no other leads, exploring is about the only thing I know to do. I consult my mostly empty map, which shows a few landmarks I discovered earlier, and start walking southwest in hopes that I’ll run into my destination.

I’m quickly lost as the woods close in around me, growing darker in places, silent and foreboding except for the occasional low animal sound. I shy from the sounds, because I’ve learned most everything will kill me.

Then, standing in the path is a creature resembling some kind of fawn-looking goat man. It brandishes a long, sharp stick, stabbing and waving it at me. I wind up my plank and swing away for its head in desperation, but my reach is too short, my weapon too weak. I turn to run but it’s too late, and I die. Again.

Luckily, I had the foresight to switch off permadeath.

If there’s something that makes Darkwood stand out from other survival titles with which it might share similarities, it’s the game’s oppressive atmosphere. Any venture taken from your hideout is a dangerous one, but you can’t stay long. Everything is dangerous and deadly, and more than that, you never seem well-equipped to deal with it.

Like any procedurally generated, death-heavy title, time is the key. Learning where to find things, what items you need, and how to protect yourself is information earned in digital blood. Better weapons can be purchased from the creepy weapons dealer (who seems to have a wolf head?) if you’ve got enough stuff to unload. Judiciously and carefully scavenging the woods can yield the things you need, if you pay attention enough to avoid the darker, rougher areas. And of course, after a bit, you start to get good at running for your damn life.

Darkwood has only just entered Early Access on Steam, and developer Acid Wizard Studio suggest it’ll be there for at least a year. There’s a lot about the game that I don’t know, even as I try to truck through the forest and discover what’s going on. But even this early look suggests the game has some good ideas — the top-down perspective offers some interesting, spooky limitations to the ability of players to see, move, fight and react, all of which can heighten its oppressive atmosphere. And of course, the ever-present need to venture into the woods and make your way back home within a single day means there’s an ever-present worry roiling under the surface of exploration. You know you need gear or you might not survive, but you never know if you’ll have the time to get it.

It’s atmosphere in which Darkwood excels. Its oppressiveness is constant and palpable, and even when you feel well-armed and well-prepared, you’re still incredibly vulnerable. Paired with Darkwood’s surrealist, psychological horror ideas and its top-down, sense-limiting perspective, the result is a game that feels constantly dangerous. It’ll be interesting to see Darkwood’s narrative side continue to develop to see if it can keep pace with that feeling.

Darkwood is currently available on Steam as an Early Access title, with a price tag of $14.99.

Disclosure: Phil Hornshaw backed Darkwood’s Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign at the $10 level, which was enough to secure a digital copy of the game.

Phil Hornshaw is senior editor at GameFront. Read more of his work here, and follow him and GameFront on Twitter: @philhornshaw and @gamefrontcom.

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