One of the good things about this job is the chance to refresh one’s memory. I recall being pretty sweet on Darkwood‘s original release from Acid Wizard. The atmospheric horror managed to deliver a lot with a grimy aesthetic and a survivalist approach. With the Playstation 5, very little has changed beyond 4K visuals and some haptic feedback. Still, a chance for more people to see Darkwood is always worthwhile.
Darkwood‘s bleak and oppressive atmosphere remains as strong as ever. Whilst the overhead perspective and 2D art won’t push the Playstation 5 to its limits, the strong art direction and sound present a world of constant dread. It really is striking as your flashlight peers through dense forest in a world that never really gives itself to sunlight. There’s an ever present gloomy cloak that really helps heighten the senses.
The items you need to interact with are clear enough but each environment looks desecrated, beaten by the elements. In some cases they’re lived in and I found myself dealing with everyone cautiously. The survival aspect of Darkwood is at the forefront of gameplay with crafting being a mechanic I had to regularly engage with. Weapons are hard to come by so I was either trying to manage without or cobbling together a clumsy board with nails in it. Melee combat requires a commitment with one trigger button being used to ready your weapon. The other begins a swing but the speed at which some monsters can approach makes facing them an uphill task.
The world is mostly hostile and, whilst enemies do feel occasionally sparse, one is all it takes to be a formidable threat. Running away with a viable strategy, providing the stamina is there to sprint out of trouble. Complicating matters is the night. Being out past dark feels inherently more dangerous and only your safehouse can really protect our protagonist from harm. Luckily he has a few he can use across the map and they all have the same creature comforts like a bed and an oven.
The oven is used to cook a mushroom-based serum that can deliver some handy perks which will aid survival. The first opportunity to gain one comes at a compromise. A negative perk must be taken with it but the skill tree is so small the positive ones eventually outweigh it. Not that I felt especially powerful after a few levels. Traders will also stop by. Death does diminish your reputation with them but it’s still a good way to trade useful items.
Outside, goals are not always explicit. Your starting place is random but what needs to be done largely stays the same. Escaping the woods and finding the road back home is the one immediate motivation. Getting there feels like a mystery and the occasional visitor only offers suggestions or hints. The idea is to go out and find clues which will ultimately fill out your character’s journal. Picking a direction will at least fill out the map but I found myself spending long stretches without adding a single note to the journal.
Thankfully, the game’s maps aren’t too expansive. Providing you stay out of trouble, it can be traversed on foot quickly. Unfortunately, your position on the map isn’t made clear unless you happen to find one of the game’s many landmark locations. Trying to familiarise myself with the surroundings was occasionally disorienting, at least in the early going.
Death will inevitably place your at your last safehouse. Re-treading old ground might not take long but the repetition can be a problem. Darkwood is a game that emphasises careful play but, at least on normal difficulty, the penalty for death feels like an inconvenience. You’ll leave your old gear but that will stay right where you left it. There’s no risk of losing that hard-earned stash so I’d often run around with haste rather than considerate thought.
It’s incredible to see and hear Darkwood. Even with the simple aesthetic, a lot is conveyed through the game’s art and noise. Wind stirs up the trees, enemies can heard being startled and they all sound gruesomely grotesque. Mushrooms pulse and the floorboards creak under foot. It really opened my ears to the possibility of what was out there. Even in safety, your hideout at night is shrouded in a mysterious moving light show. Even if you don’t chime with the survival elements, the presentation is stellar.
I actually find the haptic feedback enhances the mood further. At low health, the controller will pulse and each night culminates with an increasing rattle that really punctuates the passage of time. The 4K visuals is something I don’t quite see impressing. There’s a very particular style to Darkwood that an increased pixel count doesn’t really impact. I’m also not seeing a noticeable difference in load times. Still, the vibration as one more positive I simply wasn’t expecting. It’s unlikely to have many upgrade but, if you’re fresh to the game, this isn’t a bad place to start.
Three years have passed since I last checked Darkwood out and it surprises me how much it still resonates with me. I don’t tend to engage with survival loops and, whilst the game relies heavily upon it, I stick around for the fear and the mood. The Playstation 5 additions don’t bring a lot to the table but the haptic feedback does seem to garnish the already solid atmosphere.
+ Great sound design that helps sell the desolate world.
+ Exploration remains a challenge.
+ Not as difficult as I originally remember.
- The Playstation 5 improvements can be tough to spot with the naked eye.
- The lack of direction can result in some aimless wandering.