Darkwood Early Access Review
Dead before dawn.
GameSpot's early access reviews evaluate unfinished games that are nonetheless available for purchase by the public. While the games in question are not considered finished by their creators, you may still devote money, time, and bandwidth for the privilege of playing them before they are complete. The review below critiques a work in progress, and represents a snapshot of the game at the time of the review's publication.
If there's anything that horror has taught us, it's that being stuck overnight in a cabin in the woods really, really stinks. From Robert Bloch's Lovecraftian "Notebook Found in a Deserted House" right through the Evil Dead franchise and send-ups like Joss Whedon's The Cabin in the Woods, it's always been as clear as Crystal Lake that you're as good as dead if you see the sun going down on your log abode in cottage country. Clearly, then, you shouldn't expect any relaxing moments in Darkwood, an adventure-angled experiment in survival horror currently available via Steam's Early Access program. Developer Acid Wizard Studio has replicated many old clichés to the letter, but the game veers away from predictability with a surreal story and setting, freakshow characters, an in-depth crafting system, and off-the-charts difficulty. Darkwood's best elements occasionally combine to make for compelling and atmospheric adventuring, but the current alpha 1.3 build is aggravating and awkward, with a deluge of iffy game mechanics that serve no purpose but to kill you early and often. Right now, the game's frustrations outweigh its frights.
You play the lone survivor of some kind of apocalypse, stuck in the deep, dark woods within a dilapidated cabin that serves as your hideout. There are no immediate goals other than to survive and search the randomly generated environments for an escape route. Of course, this is easier said than done. Those surrounding environs are loaded with murderous freaks straight out of The Hills Have Eyes, aggressive wolves, and hungry things whose very existence defies the imagination. Foes can be found all over the place at all hours (particularly in the deep woods along the map's edge; beware of the smoke monsters lurking there), but the land becomes particularly perilous after the sun goes down. By nightfall, you must remain holed up in your hideout. Chances are good that you'll be slaughtered if you go on any moonlight nature walks, and a mysterious affliction called The Thirst kills you around midnight if you fail to take a drink from a mystic well located just outside your rural headquarters.
There are few resources to use when battling this evil horde. Little access is provided to any sort of real weaponry; instead, Darkwood offers up bits of junk in its woodpiles and crates that almost always have to be transformed into workable gadgets and weapons. Granted, making you scrounge for supplies underlines the grim nature of the setting, and also serves as the foundation of a substantial crafting system. (As a side note, you can't duke it out with baddies with fists alone, as when you're unarmed, you're helpless.) The value of every scrap is so pronounced here that I was positively thrilled to score garbage like rags (bandages and wicks for Molotov cocktails) and nails (vital for weapons and for boarding up windows in the hideout).
The thrill of discovering mundane but useful objects doesn't overwhelm the pervading irritations, however. You risk life and limb constantly--especially in the early hours, as you start with pretty much nothing--by scouring the map for caches of items that can be crafted into useful gadgets and gear, yet you rarely find anything that on its own is particularly valuable. A stockpile consisting of a bottle of booze, three matches, and some old dog meat is worthy of a parade, and that scarcity turns the game into a tedious grind. I would go out exploring at the start of every day. I would pick up a few things. I would get killed by a wolf or demon due to my pathetic lack of any reasonable means to defend myself. (Weapons wear down quickly with use and need to be repaired, which requires repair kits that are as rare and precious as Faberge Eggs.) I would respawn in my hideout the next morning and proceed to do it all over again. Only after I'd played a few hours and scavenged enough items to sell to the werewolf merchant for an axe--and then lucked into finding a shotgun stuck under a rock thanks to tips found online--did I have any success at surviving through a single day.
Even then, I got killed. A lot. If I wasn't murdered by the wolves or mutants or monsters, I was running into tough-to-spot bear traps under trees or stomping on mushrooms and winding up fatally poisoned. As an extra bit of punishment, weapons always degrade when you're killed--even if you didn't use them in the battle that took you down--and there is never an obvious way to tackle many of the obstacles you encounter. For example, there is an antidote to mushroom poison, but good luck finding the necessary ingredients to make and use it before your health bar slips to zero. The same goes for slapping together bandages to stop bleeding, or whipping up healing concoctions, or finding pills to recover health.
Aside from the sheer frustration factor, dying so much also caused me to all but abandon some key elements of Darkwood. Going back to my cabin at night, for instance, soon came to seem like a waste of time. It was easier to keep going and die--as I would inevitably anyhow--and respawn with a full health bar the next morning than it was to trudge back to my place every time the sun went down. With that said, these all-nighters offered up the most frightening moments in the game. All I could do was curl into a ball and wait for dawn hoping that nothing would break in and eat me, all the while listening intently to every little creak of the floorboards and the regular scurrying of monsters right outside. When my luck finally did run out and a creature suddenly began to smash down a door to get at me, I jumped right out of my chair.
Frequent death also makes another key game system almost pointless. Those poisonous mushrooms noted above can be harvested and then cooked back at the cabin to make an injectable serum. Shoot up enough of this stuff and you level up with various skills, including being able to see better in the shadowy woods, and being able to tote more stuff. But you lose all of these acquired skills every time you're killed, along with all of your uncooked mushrooms. As I could rarely stay alive long enough to get lasting benefit from these magic shrooms, I soon gave up on the whole idea.
The camera angle also causes some interference, locking your viewing perspective into a top-down one that removes you from the action. Being forced to take in everything from directly above negates the in-your-face atmosphere vital to creating scares. While the feel of the game is reminscent of horror board games like Arkham Horror, which use detailed top-down artwork to give scenery an ill-omened air, the camera here is too distant and the surroundings too indistinct. As a result, enemies and items are tough to discern. Only immersive sound effects like crashing thunder and ominous twig-snapping impart the right brand of midnight-movie ambience.
Occasional plot points float to the surface, but they amount to little more than gibberish at this stage.
Camera-specific frustrations are further exacerbated by having to get remarkably close to objects to determine if you can search them. This can also cause you to get poisoned, as you often need to practically walk on top of mushrooms to harvest them. There are no difficulty settings to ease the pain, although there is a perma-death option that is all but impossible to find enjoyment in. Saves are all automated, so you can't cheat on the crazy difficulty by manually saving your progress before attempting an expedition into the deep woods. Furthermore, buttons aren't as responsive as they should be. You need to right-click on some inventory items to select them and then left-click to actually use them, but too often this function fails to work right away. I was killed a number of times while the game refused to let me use poison antidotes and bandages. Something as basic as using items from an inventory should not require trial-and-error experimentation.
Darkwood's story is as offputting as its adventuring; I couldn't make sense of any of it, beyond understanding only that I was a guy trapped in a horrific wilderness with all manner of monsters prepared to rip me to shreds if I was ever dumb enough to step outside after twilight. Nothing connects A to B--certainly not the opening cinematics that refer to what may or may not be a plague (although I must give kudos to the genuinely discomfiting accompanying worm-infected eyeball imagery.)
Chances are good that you'll be slaughtered if you go on any moonlight nature walks.
Events grow progressively weirder as you stumble forward. One moment I was taking quests from a werewolf trader; the next, I was hanging out with a Baba Yaga-like old woman with a chicken fetish and the bubble-headed monster child playing the violin on her lawn. Occasional plot points float to the surface, but they amount to little more than gibberish at this stage. The burned scraps of paper, old photographs, and other seemingly random detritus gathered and logged into a journal may well form a story in the future, but for now, all of these elements only add to the confusion.
Venturing into the creepy wilderness of Darkwood is as questionable a call right now as heading off to the country for a weekend getaway with Evil Dead's Ash Williams. Even though the game has an eerie atmosphere, along with some legitimate scares and an intricate crafting system emphasizing the grim nature of this post-apocalyptic world, a host of issues--the fragmentary surreal plot, off-kilter mechanics, and extreme difficulty in particular--mean that this current alpha build isn't really ready for play yet. You should allow Darkwood a few more updates before you get out your credit card, or you might find yourself realizing just how much it really does stink to get stuck in a cabin in the woods.
The Alpha 1.3 build includes the first chapter of the full game. Expect a good seven or more hours of gameplay, more if you get killed a lot and explore every inch of the map.
What's To Come?
Acid Wizard Studio is promising to expand the story, further refine game mechanics, and possibly even make major changes to the design based on player feedback.
What Does it Cost?
$14.99, available via Steam Early Access.
When Will it Be Finished?
Mid-2015. Look for a final release around July of next year.
What's the Verdict?
Darkwood is spooky, but it's also kind of kooky and ooky. The bizarre setting and extreme difficulty make for an experience that is more frustrating than frightening right now, though its sheer weirdness makes the game occasionally compelling despite its flaws.
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