Darkwood on PS5: it goes much deeper than jump scares

Darkwood on PS5: it goes much deeper than jump scares

Darkwood is much weirder than I expected. I was drawn in by the promise of being non-scary – I wondered if a horror game could really resist the urge to suddenly surprise me, and if not, how could it scare. It also happened to be Halloween, so I wanted to be scared, and Darkwood had just arrived on PS5, so the pumpkins were aligned.

Darkwood Developer: Acid Wizard Games / Crunching Koalas (PS5) Publisher: Acid Wizard Games Platform: Played on PS5 Availability: Released in 2017 on PC and October 28, 2022 on PS5

But now I feel misled. Not because Darkwood isn’t scary, or because he uses scary jumps – that surprised me a few times (maybe there’s no getting away from that in the horror), but not enough to suggest he relied on it as a scare tactic. But because reducing Darkwood to a conversation about fears misses so much of what I think it’s about.

Darkwood is deep – surprisingly. It’s surprising because the retro top-down layout – it’s kind of like Hotline Miami but without the garish colors – and base defense setup make it pretty straightforward. You’ve played this kind of game a million times before. Find some wood to barricade the windows. Find fuel to power a generator. Craft things. Keep lights on, keep enemies away at night.

Darkwood makes a lot more sense in motion – screenshots can’t quite do it justice.

But it’s what’s underneath, and what begins to emerge over time, that makes Darkwood so much more. Take the tutorial, for example. It’s not what you expect. You’re a guy trapped in a cabin in the woods, and while exploring the cabin you find some cages, but you can’t clearly see what’s going on because the lights are dim – the game loves playing with light. Everything seems slightly fake and disturbing. Then a stranger comes and you capture him.

Then the game switches and all of a sudden you’re the alien and you’re locked in, and you start to see the man you were before in a whole new light. And you start to see what those cages were for. And it’s sinister. And then it’s brutal. And then it’s over. Except that in fact, it’s only just begun.

I don’t mean to sound cryptic in the way I write this, it’s just that that’s how Darkwood makes me feel. I don’t know what’s going on. I know I’m back in a house like the one I was captured in, but I don’t know why I keep coming back here every time I die. I also don’t know why there’s a wolfman I can talk to, or why a weird-looking trader is in my shelter every morning. Last night, during a tense wait for sunrise, someone knocked on the door and someone left me an invitation to a children’s party. There are so many weird things happening. It’s a world where questions lead to more questions. All I know is that I’m trying to get out of it.

That’s what Darkwood looks like, a lot. A cone of light shines from your character illuminating your field of vision. See what I mean about the simple look? And yet, there is goosebumps, isn’t there? Maybe it’s the trees, maybe it’s the darkness. Either way, it’s disturbing.

A top down image of a character using a sawmill outside of a house.  The house is just a vague outline of walls, and most of the entire image is dark except for a small ray of light coming from the character.  I wouldn't like to live here.

A bright, sunny afternoon in a house in a cursed forest.  It's a top-down image with a cone of light - your field of vision - beaming across a field with trees.  Except the trees look like spiders.  It's not a welcoming scene.

Ah, there is no place like home! Here I am at work on my sawmill looking across the meadow and wondering what today might bring me. Death, probably. But I will come back to life in this house, for some reason.

It’s this aspect of the game, wrapped inside a simple-looking shell, that keeps pulling me back. And even though I say “simple”, there’s an undeniable dark beauty, punctuated with moments of remarkably detailed art. Coupled with menacing music beats and sound effects thumps, Darkwood conjures up the whole atmosphere. Thus, despite appearances, it is indeed a story game. You can die and come back to life, but the game does not restart each time you do. It’s all a gradual onion peeling of the big story, and I’ve seen some people estimate that there’s up to 50 hours of, uh, onion(?) to discover here.

People know this because Darkwood is not a new game. It was released five years ago on PC and was in early access a few years before. New is its arrival on PS5, which adds 4K support and DualSense features that really make a difference. The speakers and controller rumble are used to powerful effect. Floors creak and twigs snap, and there’s a gradual buildup of throb as enemies (and dawn) approach. It’s very effective.

Being an older game also works in Darkwood’s favor. Not only is there a timelessness in what he does and what he looks like that preserves him, but time has also allowed things to mature, stabilize, improve. Even more encouraging, tens of thousands of people are saying very positive things about it.

Does Darkwood manage to scare without scaring, then? It does much more than that.

Article source https://www.eurogamer.net/darkwood-on-ps5-it-goes-much-deeper-than-jump-scares


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