Darkwood is much weirder than I expected. I was drawn to it by the promise of no jump scares – I wondered if a horror game could really resist the urge to suddenly surprise me, and if it couldn’t, how it could scare me. It also happened to be Halloween so I wanted to be scared, and Darkwood had just come to PS5, so the pumpkins were fitting.
But now I feel misled. Not that Darkwood isn’t scary, or that it uses jump scares – it’s surprised me a few times (maybe you can’t get away from this horror thing), but not enough to suggest that it’s leaning towards this as a scare tactic . But to reduce Darkwood to a conversation about horror misses so much of what I think it’s about.
Dark wood is deep – surprisingly. It’s surprising because the retro top-down presentation – it’s kind of like Hotline Miami but without the spooky colors – and the base defense setup makes it feel pretty simple. You’ve played this type of game a million times before. Find wood to barricade windows. Find fuel to power a generator. Craft things. Keep the lights on, keep the enemies away at night.
But it’s what lies beneath, 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 when you explore the cabin you find cages, but you can’t clearly see what’s going on because the lights are dim – the game loves to play with light. It all feels a little wrong and ominous. Then a stranger comes and you catch him.
Then the game turns and suddenly you’re the stranger 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 bleak. And then it’s brutal. And then it’s over. Except it’s actually just getting started.
I don’t mean to sound cryptic the way I’m writing this, it’s just that that’s how Darkwood makes me feel. I do not know what’s happening. I know I’m back in a house like the one I was captured in, but I don’t know why I return here when I die. I also don’t know why there’s a literal werewolf I can talk to, or why a bizarre-looking merchant is in my shelter every morning. Last night, while anxiously waiting for the sunrise, there was a knock on the door and someone left me an invitation to a children’s party. There is so much weirdness going on. It’s a world where questions lead to more questions. All I really know is that I’m trying to get out.
It’s this aspect of the game, packaged in a simple shell, that keeps drawing me back. And while I say “simple look,” there’s an undeniable somber beauty to it, punctuated by moments of strikingly detailed art. Along with menacing thumps of music and sound effects, Darkwood evokes a really good atmosphere. So despite appearances, it’s very much a story game. You can die and come back to life but the game doesn’t restart every time you do. It’s all gradual peeling of the big onion, and I’ve seen some estimate that there’s as many as 50 hours of, um, onions (?) to uncover here.
People know that because Darkwood is not a new game. It came out five years ago on PC and was in early access for a few years before that. The new part is its PS5 arrival, which adds 4K support and DualSense features that actually make a difference. The controller’s speaker and rumble are used to strong effect. Floorboards creak and twigs snap, and there’s a gradual buildup of pulsing as enemies (and dawn) approach. It is very effective.
Being an older game also works in Darkwood’s favor. Not only is there a timelessness to what it does and how it looks that preserves it, but time has also allowed things to mature, to settle, to improve. Most encouraging of all, there are tens of thousands of people saying very positive things about it.
Can Darkwood scare without jump scares, then? It does much more than that.
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