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Darkwood review – cabins in the wood

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Darkwood (PS4) - it's a while till you twig what's going on

Darkwood (PS4) – its a while till you twig whats going on

One of the best horror games of the year is a terrifying tale of survival and madness in a world where everything is against you.

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Darkwood is the best game weve never heard of. Apparently it entered early access in 2014, on PC, and was officially released in 2017. But although the name rings a vague bell, we have to admit we had no idea what it was until last week and have certainly never played it before. That is entirely our loss. As we understand from those that did play it at the beginning, its changed an awful lot over the years but has never been better than it is now, with this new console release.

The one unfortunate problem with the console versions is that theyre being released just as summertime gets into gear, when clearly the best way to play it would have been on a cold winters night. Darkwood is a horror game, but one very different to the zombie-fighting norm. It has elements of survival gameplay and normal combat but since the true evils of the forest only come out at night theres also lots of quieter moments where youre exploring and interacting with other people.

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Darkwood is an impressively malleable game in terms of style and pacing and always makes it as difficult as possible to guess whats going to happen next. Not least at the start of the game, where the rug is pulled out from under you at the end of the prologue, in what is a very accurate indication of the terrors to come.

What we can say about the start, without fear of spoilers, is that it begins with a warning of a virulent plague and the woods coming alive and claiming everything around them. You begin in a small, boarded-up cabin, were youve apparently learned how to survive in the short term but lack a plan on how to escape. Exploring outside, where the forest has overtaken the roads and buildings, and corpses, both human and otherwise, litter the ground, its made clear that there is no obvious answer to that problem.

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Darkwood is a very low-tech game, with the top-down, 2D viewpoint offering little in the way of visual spectacle. There are some nice lighting effects, as the first rays of sunshine creep through the windows at the break of dawn, but also some distractingly poor character animation. But, like a low budget horror movie, most of the time thats a benefit to the oppressive air of inevitable doom and uncertainty.

In terms of gameplay, much of your time is split between exploring the game world and fortifying your safe house. A map is auto-generated as you wander around but its not annotated in any way, so you have to work out where you are by orientating yourself via prominent landmarks. You also have to keep a constant lookout for any useful items left hidden or laying around, as you learn to craft torches, bandages, lockpicks, traps, and barricades.

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The games structure is split up into discreet chapters and eventually you begin to think and plan ahead but preparing for the night is always at the back of your head. As well as items and equipment you can also cook up alchemic buffs to prepare for the long night ahead, as well as try and keep a generator topped up with scavenged oil.

Darkwood (PS4) - that's not a good sign

Darkwood (PS4) – thats not a good sign

As apocalyptic as the situation seems its clear from the start that youre not the only survivor in the woods. Unfortunately, most have been driven mad by whats going on and while some are relatively coherent most have given up hope and you take a great risk in trusting any of them. Its relatively rare to have a lot of speaking characters in a horror game, but the ambiguous nature of most of the people you meet adds greatly to the sense of tension and paranoia.

Even surprisingly small decisions or interactions can come back to haunt you later, but whats most fascinating is the nagging feeling that youre better off trying to survive on your own – something the game constantly tempts you into believing but always provides reason to doubt.

Although the gameplay is very different its clear that Dark Souls was a great influence here, especially in terms of the opaque storytelling and the decaying, doomed world you and the other survivors are trapped in. Predictably, that means Darkwood is not an easy game, although there are difficulty settings – so its up to you whether you play with full-on permadeath or not.

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