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Darkwood - psychological horror survival


Alan Stock
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Excellent write up - Darkwood is such a hidden gem :)

 

I bounced off it a few times originally - it has quite a steep initial learning curve (and is also absolutely terrifying to begin with!), but its so worth sticking with it. It's a masterclass in getting the player to scare themselves, and while the scares do ease off a bit once you get into the rhythm of the game, it's at that point that you really start appreciating the amazingly creepy world building and storyline. The narrative is fantastic at allowing the player to tackle things in different ways, and you can dramatically change the plot of the game in really interesting ways depending on what you do (it's the sort of game where you'll want to sit on the Wiki page for an evening after you finish it, just to read about all the stuff you missed or could have done differently)

 

@Jamie John - I played on Switch, the interface is definitely a bit clunky but you do get used to it (its more down to the button mappings being a bit odd rather than being inherently hard to use). The performance leaves a bit to be desired unfortunately - there is an issue where it starts off nice and smooth and then starts chugging more and more the longer you play, but if you quit out to the main menu and go back in then it fixes it for a while. Its been out for a while so I doubt it'll get patched - its not game breaking though (the game is fairly slow/methodical so it doesn't actually detract from the experience too much), and I completed it quite happily on Switch, but PC may be the way to go if that's an option. However there is something to be said for playing it in bed in the dark with headphones on :D

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I wrote the original post late at night (appropriately) and I don't think I really emphasised how creepy and atmospheric this game is, I got a bit distracted with explaining how it all works rather than how immersive it is. I urge anyone on the fence to check out a few videos of it in action with the sound on. Despite the perspective it feels very 'grounded' and can be genuinely unsettling. The sound designers deserve an award for sure!

 

I was watching some Youtubers play Darkwood yesterday and the combat definitely looks easier with mouse and keyboard. Because you can easily swing the mouse around to rotate your body, it lets you more deftly sidestep and swipe at enemies in one motion. I imagine aiming is easier too, it's hard enough as it is and you usually only get one chance to throw/shoot before something's on you, so that could be a game changer as well. On console its harder and slower to pull off that precision. I also discovered a dodge button exists which I had totally forgotten about, so that should help with my rather medicore combat skills. As for performance, on Switch its been good so far - there's a long initial load time but after that everything's pretty smooth and it looks great. I do agree with misterSquare, I got it on console because I prefer sitting in front of my big TV or in bed in the dark for these kind of games, I find it more comfortable and more immersive than sitting at a desk.

 

@misterSquare or anyone else who has played the game, what difficulty would you recommend? I'm going to start another Hard playthrough and hoping that with my new knowledge I will get further, but I don't really relish the idea of starting from scratch again if I die on the next run. Is part of the fun figuring out the best survival strategies or do you think it's better to plough on with the story on Normal? Does the lack of a large death penalty on Normal kill the tension for you? I have only got to about night 7 or 8 so far (in the second zone but still Chapter 1), and its usually bad planning and night combat that's got me killed so far. I feel like I could have taken things slower and maybe I pushed too far out, too fast, when I could have tried building up my weaponry a bit more first. Having said that, the nights get increasingly hard so pushing along the story seems like a good idea just to get better gear and items to help survive the night.

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I found Normal more than tense enough, yeah - I don't think I was actually aware that there were other difficulty levels (I probably just skipped over that option in the menu and then forgot about it) and because the game loop is pretty obtuse (in a good way), it took a while before I really understood how it worked and what the consequences were for dying. So yeah, while I was definitely still cowering in a corner praying the bad noises to go away when I first started, it wasn't ever so frustrating that I couldn't see the story through to the end (which I'd definitely recommend doing). In the early game, the loss of resources is still quite hard to recover from so I still ended up restarting a few times.

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Had a big session last night and I'm sad to report that the Switch is really struggling in framerate in some of the new high-density areas. It might be the issue that misterSquare mentioned, but I didn't get around to resetting the game because it autosaves at the start of each day and I kept forgetting to do it. I'll report back if that fixes it. In addition the combat is really hurting me on console because of the difficulty of dodging and precision movement.

 

Dodge is mapped to joystick right click, which as you can imagine is hardly easy to pull off when you're constantly having to move around in combat - and at least on console you can't change the button mappings. Its also easy to accidentally reload your weapons in panicked situations as reload's mapped onto joystick right click. I keep getting killed by enemies and although partly its my fault for getting into fights in the first place, on the other hand I've seen Youtubers have far less problems playing on PC. Of course this can be mitigated with good tactics and strategy - I'm relying on traps and firearms more now, but its still an issue on these harder difficulties. I'd probably suggest that if you have the option of PC over console then PC might be the way to go, at least if you want to play on Hard or Nightmare.

 

On the plus side, I spent a whole real-life evening on the same run, and I still have a few lives yet. I'm around night 15 and deep into the second zone of the forest (what follows is spoiler free). The game continues to be incredibly compelling. There's a lot more lore, characters and backstory here than I expected and its all dark and creepy as hell. But there are also loads of mysteries and I just want to know more, even though I suspect I'll never get real answers (like all the scariest horror). More crafting options means more hard choices about what to spend resources on, including the incredibly expensive guns. A single shot pistol sounds awful but if it takes down an enemy in one hit in the cramped confines of my hideout at night, instead of me having to duke it out in a potentially fatal battle, its well worth the cost! 

 

Exploration has become fraught with danger compared to the first zone. There's a 'look further' mechanic which lets you sweep the cursor ahead to scan under the tree canopies - the payoff being that you can't run or use items when doing so. In zone two, the trees are denser and there's more canopy in general, so instead of charging around like the king of the jungle, a lot of the time you're walking - scanning the surroundings for nasty surprises. Some of the new enemy types are seriously dangerous, and often the only warning you'll get is if you spot them from afar, or you keep your ears open for their subtle telltale sound cues. Even a snapped twig could be a quiet enemy close by, although excellently you can snap twigs underfoot too, which always gets me! The nights continue to get more intense and every so often I experience a new nighttime horror which just helps keep things so on edge. I'm starting to really dread nights and I spend a few hours before nightfall just preparing the hideout and stuffing my inventory with an array of tools and weaponry I might need. Of course that forethought usually goes out the window when the shit hits the fan but it gives me a nice false sense of security...

 

The gameplay loop is in full stride now and its really addictive. Each day I have a main goal or two in mind (go here and do this, explore this part of the map, etc) plus various meta-goals to work towards, like story progression or upgrades. As the nights are getting harder, every day counts and you want to get as much done as possible in those precious daylight hours. Like the best survival games, its a mixture of planning for both the short and long term, with the risk and reward of venturing out into dangerous areas. So far the resource and ecomony balance has been very good, making most of your decisions, even down to crafting individual items impactful. There's also a well-paced and satsifying sense of progression to this game, in exploration, story and your own power level as you unlock better equipment and can afford useful upgrades. I'm looking forward to seeing what the future days bring - probably death as I have two new places to visit that I know are going to be seriously dangerous! Wish me luck!

 

Pro tip - if you leave a bear trap set up inside your front door, try not to forget it when you come charging into the house...

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  • 2 weeks later...

So I finished Darkwood last week and it continued to be excellent. All the stuff I mentioned gets even better as you go on, and even towards the end the game is tense, difficult and dark (in both senses of the word). Its a very bleak but fascinating world with some very memorable and well-written characters/monstrosities. The scare factor does eventually lower, although for me that's partly because i dragged the game way out being a completionist.

 

Every new area brings a sense of dread as you have no idea what's awaiting you.  Even if the pants-wetting can eventually wear off, the survival aspect stays as tense as ever, its still creepy as hell with some great imagery, and the story and questlines keep you invested. There's a lot of lore here to unpack, especially if you go exploring everything, and there's a couple of quest routes to choose from based on your decisions which affect what happens to key characters. Those choices don't change the ending essentially, but it can lead to different rewards and events during the game. The overall story is pretty great, leaving plenty open to interpretation and retaining the underlying weirdness that permeates Darkwood.

 

For anyone thinking about getting this on Switch, I sadly have to advise against it unless you have no other way to play it. The framerate issues on Switch already mentioned in this thread only get worse as the game goes on. It's only occasionally, in particularly dense scenes, but some of the times the framerate chugs to a stutter can be life or death situations.

 

As for difficulty, its a tricky one. I would advise people to play on Normal first. Unfortunately that comes with the caveat that you lose some of the threat as you can't really get a game over. I played on Hard (limited lives), and succeeded on my third attempt. It was incredibly tense, especially when I was in a completely new area I had never visited, but I made it with 2 lives remaining. But sticking to Hard did cost me a lot of time and repetition. In my second run, I was over 10 hours into the game before I lost all my lives (over half way through the game). That's a real gut punch. Although layouts, enemy placements in the wild and loot are semi-randomised, its a slog to start from scratch, especially if you are a completionist like me. The later areas can be very brutal, and sometimes you'll get a really bad night, or get eviscerated by a new enemy, or set yourself on fire with a molotov. It happens, and half the fun of the game is dealing with the unexpected. But when the potential penalty is losing multiple hours of progress, I can't say that outweighs the extra tension you get on Hard. I've watched a few Youtube Lets plays of the game and they played on Normal, and they still found it difficult and scary as hell. And ironically even though Hard should make the game scarier, in fact any stuff you have to replay in a subsequent run is much less scary - because you know what to expect. Up until you reach new content, and then you shit yourself again!

 

Over the course of the game I've changed my mind about the combat. I actually really like it. Its definitely tougher on console but still managable. Combat does feel clunky at first (and it is) but it has a great weight to it, and half of the challenge is being prepared in advance, upgrading your gear and learning enemy behaviours. Getting stingy with stuff like molotovs is a good way to get killed. Remembering to keep stocked up on weaponry, traps and so on goes a long way to keeping yourself alive. The combat's definitely rougher in the first part of the game where there's little room for error and your weaponry is pretty much clubbing things to death with a plank!

 

I only have a few gripes with Darkwood. One, the game has a lot of inventory management. To begin with that's fine but towards the end of the game you are showered with loot, much of which you need. Your inventory, even upgraded, just can't carry that much, which means making multiple trips to and from base with a full backpack. It can get tedious. Eventually you just give up and make a mental note of anything really valuable you can come back to, and ignoring anything low value. On Normal this will be less of an issue but I still saw the Youtubers finding it annoying too. Secondly, there is a special ending, but good luck finding out how to get it. I highly recommend that after finishing the game with the normal ending, before deleting your save from the menu screen, check a walkthrough to get access to the other ending, it's worth it. The final part of the game also feels a little dragged out, but honestly I was enjoying it so much I was just happy to get more, but the pacing is perhaps a little off.

 

 Those minor gripes aside, this is an absolute must-play game if you have any interest in horror or survival games. It's one of the most atmospheric and immersive horror games I've played, and boasts sound design that rivals stuff like Alien Isolation. I urge you to give Darkwood a go!

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  • 1 year later...
On 16/11/2020 at 08:04, Jamie John said:

Sounds great. Definitely going to get it on Steam at some point :)

 

Two years later (almost) I started playing this tonight. Got through the prologue and day one, and I've now met the Wolfman, who's given me an objective of sorts. It's certainly intense, and @Alan Stock was right about the sound design being seriously creepy 😱. And I'm sure I ain't seen nothing yet. I like how it doesn't hold your hand at all, either - I was nearly caught out on my first day as it started to get dark and the only indication it was doing so was because the shadows were getting longer and the light was changing. There's no clock or watch or anything.

 

I'm intrigued to play more. I started off this evening on PC with mouse and keyboard, which was a bit fiddly, so I'll see what it's like on Deck. It's verified for it, apparently.

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Nice. I played on controller and it was mostly ok except for combat being a bit awkward and obviously inventory management being a bit slow. Only problem with steam deck is you might lose a bit of the immersiveness unless you play it real close, other than that its probably a good fit for handheld. I played on a big tv and it was ideal although the resolution does suffer a bit at that size. Enjoy the horrors!

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I'm still playing this, just about.

 

Talk about a lack of spoon-feeding! This game takes the spoon and buries it in an unmarked grave in the deepest part of the woods, surrounded by blood-thirsty creatures you can hardly see, let alone defend yourself against, then the spoon digs itself out, mugs you and tells you to fuck off.

 

I've made it to day 4, at least, and have explored most of 'my' quadrant of the map, trying to pep myself up enough to go and meet the wolfman.

 

I've died a few times (playing on normal), including against some...thing that climbed through one of my windows on the second night and beat me to death. It turns out the 'windows' in your house are actually just holes in the wall, until you barricade them, anyway. 🥲

 

I also lost two in-game days of progress as I started on the PC but then wanted to continue on my Deck, but it turns out that the developer has disabled cloud saves for technical reasons, so that was that and I had to start again. Thankfully, it didn't take too long to get back to where I was, but I didn't realise parts of the map were procedurally generated, so that took me by surprise when I arrogantly made a bee-line for where I'd encountered a wood pile last time and stumble across a pack of dogs.

 

Playing with the Deck controls is ok, but it's clearly a game that was meant to be played on PC: there aren't enough buttons for all of the commands, like pulling up the map, for example. Also, you run by default, which drains stamina very quickly. To walk, you have to push the analog stick slightly, which doesn't feel natural - there's no walk/toggle, like in most other games.

 

Still, I'm enjoying it in a slightly masochistic, scared sort of way. I'll see how far I get with.

 

I nearly got trampled by a big deer earlier. That made me jump, I can tell you.

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I think one of the things that make Darkwood stand out amongst other horror games is how oppressive it is. Off the top of my head its only really Silent Hill games and maybe Alien Isolation that have this unrelenting feeling of such a hostile place where there's rarely any breathing room. In most survival games with home bases, the base is your safe space to relax and organise between outings, but in Darkwood its often just another place to cower in a corner. Usually its the early morning that offers any kind of reprieve in this game where finally nothing is out to get you and you have a bit of safe time before the day ahead. It's a hard balance to strike without exhausting your players (which Alien Isolation did), but for me in Darkwood its the well designed survival and upgrade mechanics that are enough incentive to drive forward, a feeling that you're slowly making progress towards better things. That and wanting to explore the landmarks and complete side quests.

 

Fortunately on Normal providing you don't have the permadeath type modes on, at least you aren't punished too harshly for mistakes made or poor long term planning. Playing with permadeath on (I played the one where you get 3 lives with the ability to find more), makes it even more oppressive and stressful. Not something I'd necessarily recommend as its incredibly punishing, but it is one of those few games where permadeath really adds to the atmosphere of dread. Just like the good old days playing Resi 1 for the first time and running out of typewriter ink!

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I've been fixed to this all evening. I'm up to day sixteen now and have set myself up in the second hideout as well as discovering more or less everything in the second area (The Silent Woods). The gradual exploration/loot/survival loop is very addictive; it's very tempting to just keep playing for one more day and to push further and further from your base to see what monstrosities you can find.

 

Question for @Alan Stock, and anyone else who's completed it:

 

Spoiler

Do you get anything good for roasting the giant mutant pig-spider thing in the barn, or is killing it with fire an optional thing, seeing as it's such an abomination? I was expecting a big reward after I cleared out the entire farm, found some repair cables and then hot-wired the pig, but all I found in its lair was a mushroom patch...

 

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21 minutes ago, Davros sock drawer said:

This sounds right up my street. I’m recovering from surgery for the next couple of weeks so I need a new game.

 

On PC is it more of a controller game or mouse and keyboard?

 

It's definitely been designed with mouse and keyboard in mind, I'd say, but you get used to it quickly on a controller. Expect some friction, however; the fiddliness is part of the experience, and frantically rooting through your bag for something while trying not to panic is all good fun.

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No, I finished it all on Hard with one of the permadeath modes on Switch.

 

@Jamie John re: your spoiler question

Spoiler

I'm pretty sure you can get a quest from wolfman to take out the pig, it probably works retroactively too. There might be another pig quest from the village too. I think you can find wolfman in area 2 hanging around iirc without having to trek back to area 1.

 

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My enthusiasm for this has abated slightly over the last few sessions. I'm kind of ready for it to be over now, but it's actually a deceptively big game; I must have been playing for getting on 20 hours, but, from having a quick look at a guide, I'm only about half-way through. 

 

I'm now up to the third area and the difficulty has stepped up considerably. The entire zone is rife with those bloody

Spoiler

red chomper fuckers and massive wolf dog things

and the poison mushroom traps are everywhere as well. I'm doing well if I don't die during the daytime, let alone at night!

 

Should I soldier on, @Alan Stock? I've got as far as 

Spoiler

going to the doctor's house and getting the code for the train carriage.

 

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It's certainly a nasty difficulty spike heading to that zone especially if you aren't sufficently tooled up, you really need armour and either guns or a good hand weapon to take on those monstrosities, and the nights get rough as well. My first successful long run ended through the horrible nights there. The next area is less dense with things to do but I didn't find it as hard once I'd geared up enough for area 3. As for whether to stick with it, I was very thorough so I spent quite a while in the last area, but if you just do the story related stuff its not as bad. I agree the game does drag on for too long, it should really have culminated in area 3. If you manage to get a foothold I'd probably stick with it as its satsfying to meet the challenge and see the various plotlines resolve, but if you keep finding it fatiguing I would probably cut your losses, you can always keep the save and return to it at a later date. Its definitely wearying to play in long sessions and the overall formula of explore/scavenge/fortify doesn't change. 

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25 minutes ago, Alan Stock said:

It's certainly a nasty difficulty spike heading to that zone especially if you aren't sufficently tooled up, you really need armour and either guns or a good hand weapon to take on those monstrosities, and the nights get rough as well. My first successful long run ended through the horrible nights there. The next area is less dense with things to do but I didn't find it as hard once I'd geared up enough for area 3. As for whether to stick with it, I was very thorough so I spent quite a while in the last area, but if you just do the story related stuff its not as bad. I agree the game does drag on for too long, it should really have culminated in area 3. If you manage to get a foothold I'd probably stick with it as its satsfying to meet the challenge and see the various plotlines resolve, but if you keep finding it fatiguing I would probably cut your losses, you can always keep the save and return to it at a later date. Its definitely wearying to play in long sessions and the overall formula of explore/scavenge/fortify doesn't change. 

 

I've made it to chapter 2 and the next area now,

Spoiler

The Swamp,

so I'll stick with it for a while. Despite my complaints, I still played it for 2 hours straight this evening, so it must be doing something right.

 

I think I've made my peace with just not surviving through the nights, however, especially when enemies 

Spoiler

seem to just be able to erupt straight up through the sodding floor now, completely negating any of my barricades or traps. It's not worth the bullets or weapon damage to try to take them out; you're better off just dying, especially as the only penalty for doing so seems to be not having quite as much reputation to spend at the trader the following morning. By this point, however, I feel like I've got more or less all of the 'big' purchases I need and have maxed out the hotbar and inventory slots, so it doesn't really matter. It's more everyday things like scrap metal, rags and wire that I find I'm always in need of.

 

I would say that the difficulty discourages you from exploring, though, which is a shame. Or it does for me, anyway. The previous area I was in I didn't bother to explore fully because I didn't feel like there was much point, and I was dying so frequently anyway - I just wanted to get through it, and now it seems I can't go back regardless.

 

I've not played many survival games, but this reminds me of Subnautica, which, I also felt had outstayed its welcome by its final third. The actual survival mechanics in that game started to become irritating more than panic-inducing, and it's the same here. I want to see it through to the end, but having to get back to base every evening and then going through the morning routine of resetting traps, rebuilding barricades, refuelling the generator, buying the same few things from the merchant each time, is getting a bit old.

 

I'll see how easily it is to mainline to the end.

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Re: where you are

Spoiler

The swamp's the last major area in the game. By that point I was pretty much holed up in one room at night. Molotovs are pretty good against floor things if I recall correctly, as are shotguns, the hard bit is not burning yourself alive! Also exploding barrels are fun but come with the same caveats. The absolute worst is the death bird things that come at night. Terrifying and almost certain death if you get trapped in a room with them! 

 

I think a big part of the problem is the game allows you to push forward to new safe houses and harder areas without you necessarily being strong or tooled up enough. Having said that the enemies do get a lot harder and running or sneaking past is sometimes the best option. 

 

I agree about the busy work. It's something many survival games struggle with in the long run. Of course that's part of the survival experience, and automating everything in survival games makes it too easy or reveals the lack of other stuff in the game (early versions of Raft were bad for this). It's usually exploration or quests that drive me beyond surviving once you get past this point, or improving your base. In some games you wish you could have a button to do chores that expends X time. I think the only survival game that kept surviving fresh was the Long Dark because of the unpredictable weather and wildlife and the need to push onwards when supplies get low. 

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After twenty hours, I'm not quite going to be able to see this through to the end, unfortunately.

It's a shame, because I'm very close, but ultimately the final section of the game has become too tedious. Having to run back to the hideout every night before dark severely limits your ability to explore, and at this point, when I've got every item I could ever need and have sold so much crap to the merchant that I'm over £4,000 in credit, with nothing meaningful to buy, it's simply become a massive inconvenience to have my exploration time curtailed by the day/night cycle. I literally just plonk the game down for five minutes each time it gets to night and go on my phone; getting killed is actually a good thing because it means the next morning comes along more quickly and I can get back to what I was doing. Having to traverse the swamp to return to where I was, however, is just too much of a pain in the arse, especially when your stamina drains so quickly and you so often get merked by something that pops up out the ground behind you, stun-locking you before you can even equip your gun, let alone aim it.

I think there's the makings of a really good game here, but the devs have allowed it to run on for far too long and the flaws in the design become much more apparent the longer you play. Anything over 15 hours is always going to be a hard sell for a horror game - there's only so much the player can take before they get burnt out or bored, and sadly that's what's happened here.

I agree with @Alan Stock that they should definitely have called time on it by the end of the third area in chapter one. Chapter two just seems wholly superfluous. If I'd have stopped playing at the end of the first chapter, five or so hours ago, there's really not a great deal I would have missed out on.

 

@Davros sock drawer, if you do pick it up then I'd be interested to hear if you've got the patience to get to the end.

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Fair do's. On Hard permadeath it was more engaging for me in the last area than you because I only had a few lives to play with, so it always remained tense. But that didn't eliminate the other problems you mentioned aside from cash which was always a bit of a struggle because I'd have to spend money on traps and ammo. I'd recommend watching some YouTube vids to see the last few bits and see the endings just for some closure.

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