Despite appearances, Darkwood wants you to survive as much as it’s determined to kill you, but it wants you to earn every life-fortifying dawn as it emerges from the darkness. Much like the Five Nights at Freddy’s games and, to a less extent, the central crux of Minecraft’s Survival mode, Acid Wizard Studio’s top-down offering is all about fortifying a small hideout against things that go bump in the night, while attempting to avoid getting bumped off yourself by the time morning comes around.
This is very much a horror game, but not one that relies on the often cheap thrills of jump scares. Instead, Darkwood aims for a slow sense of dread that unfurls itself more and more with each passing night. It’s often the things you don’t see to begin with – or the ones that are half-glimpsed, like nightmares lurking at a glance – that are the most frightening; as are the long, dead silences that follow. Because you do eventually come face-to-face with what lurks in the thickets and bracken beyond, you’ll soon start longing for the days of audio-only terror.
What Darkwood does really well is that it emphasises your isolation. You’re a man lost in a set of corrupted woods somewhere in the Eastern Bloc, and it's the densely-crowded of trees that are the game’s most compelling 'character'. Looming from every corner, they’re a timely reminder that the world of Darkwood is indeed full of terrors, and they’re always getting closer. That feeling of utter helplessness and lack of direction extends from character to player. There’s a very brief tutorial designed to guide you on your first ‘quest’ to locate a stolen item, but after that, you’re very much left to work out what to do next and how best to defend yourself. Those first few nights are designed to spook you, but also to galvanise you to prepare sufficiently for the task ahead.
Of course, just because a game is purposefully obtuse doesn’t mean that the effect is always going to play out in its favour. For the first hour or so, that lack of direction and hand-holding really works, but after a while having to work out where you are on a hastily-drawn map based on not-so-easy-to-distinguish landmarks can sometimes make for a needlessly frustrating experience. Darkwood does, however, try to punctuate this sense of unknown exploration with the handful of characters you’ll meet along the way. Each one offers quests that will shape the final outcome of the story, and while you can opt to just treat Darkwood like a traditional survival game, there are some really compelling narrative beats to be earned that help flesh out the nightmarish story unfolding within that titular forest.
Working on a day/night cycle, it soon becomes clear you need to arm yourself and fortify the small house that serves as your base. A trader will visit you every day to help replenish specific items you need for crafting, but most of the things you’ll utilise will be found in cupboards, in abandoned cars and near the remains of some poor soul. The map itself – as well as the flow, timing and intensity of encounters – are all randomly generated elements so no amount of prior map knowledge will give you an advantage on each new run. So when day comes, and the monsters are banished back into the corrupted woods around you, you’ll need to head out and scavenge for parts and resources.
It’s these resources that become a vital part of your nighttime defences. Darkwood’s simple crafting system enables you to upgrade the strength of your hideout, construct new weapons, build traps and even brew potions with temporary effects. Resources are, unsurprisingly, rather limited so each night often boils down to using what you have most effectively – and how often things descend into anarchy once the beasts are unleashed. It’s at night that Darkwood really shows its true nature.
From rabid dogs and mindless savages to things of a decidedly more Eldritch nature, the enemies you encounter know where you are and they come for you without pause or mercy. There’s something intrinsically frightening about barricading windows, setting traps and even pulling furniture in front of a door in order to slow down an enemy’s pursuit of you. More often than not, you’ll take a few out with your traps, but there are always more that get through. Combat is simple but effective, so when you are forced to defend yourself – be it with an axe or a gun – every move as a deliberate weight to it. You only have so much stamina, so you can’t just spam the triggers in the hope of getting a lucky hit.
The Nintendo Switch port of Darkwood has had plenty of patches and support from the developer right up to the point of its release, and these updates have helped improve its overall performance. However, there are still a few technical problems, such as seemingly inexplicable periods of slowdown and the game’s physics often playing by a series of ever-changing rules. When items you’re trying to drag or interact with fail to respond, it can get very frustrating – especially when you’re trying to defend your ramshackle home in the dead of night. These niggles take the shine off what is otherwise a very assured experience, and we hope they can be ironed out over time.
Darkwood is, thankfully, rather unlike any other horror game on Switch. Those with a taste for survival games will appreciate the constant pressure to salvage parts and craft new items while a clock ticks down in the background, while those with a love for all things sinister will really appreciate some of the truly disturbing moments. Despite the occasional technical flaw, the result is a purposefully slow experience that rewards multiple playthroughs with a storyline that branches depending on just how far into madness you’re willing to tread.