When Darkwood launched on PC in 2017, it was met with critical acclaim. Fans and critics alike praised the game's excellently paced gameplay, engaging level of difficulty, and hauntingly well-designed atmosphere, and Darkwood quickly became an indie horror classic.
Now, the game has made its way to Xbox One, and after playing it extensively for this review, I can definitely say that, for the most part, it lives up to its reputation. The game isn't perfect — in fact, it can feel pretty sluggish sometimes — but overall, Darkwood is a fantastic horror experience that will leave you craving more the second you put the controller down.
The woods aren't safe
Explore by day, hide at night
Darkwood is a tense and challenging horror and survival game with superb atmosphere, excellent visual presentation, and a strong gameplay core, but it's marred by clunky movement and unintuitive combat mechanics.
The cycle is everything
After a short prologue that serves as a basic tutorial, you begin Darkwood in the shoes of an unknown man waking up in a house found in the middle of an ominous, mysterious forest. At first, it's daytime, but eventually, night will fall, and this is when the terrifying monsters that lie in the forest's depths come out to hunt for prey — prey like you. In order to survive, you need to venture out into the forest during the day and collect resources, then return to your shelter before the sun goes down and construct yourself barricades and defensive traps to ward off the vile creatures until morning comes. This constantly shifting pace between day and night forms the core of Darkwood's gameplay.
It sounds simple and easy in theory, but in reality, it's anything but. While the daytime is undoubtedly safer than night, the forest you're exploring is still rife with danger, ranging from packs of wolves to hidden traps laid by other people who came before. What's worse, your map doesn't show you your current location and instead just shows the geography of where you've been, so you'll need to memorize landmarks in order to trace back your steps and find your way back to your base.
If you manage to get that far, the challenge of building an effective defense begins. While barricades and traps will usually get you through the night, sometimes they won't be enough. This is where internal defenses come in; for example, you can use heavy furniture pieces to make it difficult for the monsters to get through doorways, creating "inner walls." Of course, if all else fails, you can fight the foes with a handheld weapon, though this a last resort. If you build and place your blockades smartly, though, this very rarely happens. Both Darkwood's exploring and barricading gameplay experiences are really tough, but they're not unfair, creating an experience that truly feels balanced and fun while also being intense.
Looks and sounds amazing
When it comes to presentation factor, Darkwood knocks it out of the park. The forest's foggy look and strange noises are designed not to scare, but simply to unsettle you and make you nervous as you walk through its depths. It's the kind of horror that burns low and slow, gradually getting under your skin until you start to jump at every little noise you hear. Of course, when night falls, there's definitely a reason to be scared, because the beasts that come out of the trees are terrifying. Performance-wise, Darkwood plays superbly, and I experienced no frame rate drop or screen hitching at all on my Xbox One X.
The one area that Darkwood fails in, however, is with how it feels to control your character. Movement in the game can be really sluggish and slow at times, which makes it hard to get comfortable with the feel of the game. In addition, combat is equally clunky, especially for melee weapons as the animation is slow and the cooldown between attacks is fairly large. Fighting in Darkwood isn't a good idea anyway, so it sucks to have such a poor combat system in place when you are forced to try and directly take care of threats. There's a design convention that states horror games somehow need to have forcibly clunky combat mechanics in order to induce panic, but Darkwood's air a little more on frustrating, rather than nerve-wracking.
Should you buy Darkwood?
While the movement and combat mechanics do hamper a large chunk of the experience, I can't help but feel that the rest of the game's excellence helps even things out. There will come a point where you finally get used to how moving around feels, and once you do, you can become fully immersed in the excellent horror atmosphere that the developers of Darkwood crafted. It may not be the best horror experience out there right now, but for the price, it's a great one, and one that I absolutely recommend checking out.
- Fantastic gameplay core
- Excellent horror atmosphere
- Smooth performance
- Sluggish movement.
- Clunky, slow combat.
The woods aren't safe
Explore by day, hide at night
Darkwood is a tense and challenging horror and survival game with superb atmosphere, great visual presentation, and a strong gameplay core, but it's marred by clunky movement and unintuitive combat mechanics.
Darkwood is out now on Xbox One and PC.
Brendan Lowry is a Windows Central writer and Oakland University graduate with a burning passion for video games, of which he's been an avid fan since childhood. You'll find him doing reviews, editorials, and general coverage on everything Xbox and PC. Follow him on Twitter.
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