EarlyAccess - A Look at Darkwood
Darkwood crawled its way into Steam Early Access only a few days ago, after a successful crowdsourcing campaign. It is a top-down horror game, set in a dark, scary, insane forest. It blends RPG elements together in a randomly generated open-world experience that lets you explore the forest the way you want.
GraphicsThe first and most obvious thing is the top-down view. This in itself can cap the scariness for some people. It is understandable, since it might not be that scary to see a monster from a bird's-eye view, than to see it in 3D right in front of you. However, Darkwood is hardly about jumpscares. It emphasizes aesthetic and immersion. The forest looks really dark and weird. It has its own style and it works well. Nothing is out-of-place, or just not up to quality. Everything is on par when it comes to graphics. It is all just a question of taste.
Line-of-sight puts another layer of darkness on Darkwood. They went for the cone style of approach, with all other parts blurred out. This makes the game feel like it is always night-time. Once you are used to it, it is actually very easy to differentiate, but it does take a bit to get used to how dark the game feels.
The sound effects that are in the game are good. There are not that many yet, what is there works well. All the screams and groans are in place. It is especially scary to hear the sound of furniture screeching on the floor as monsters are lurking in your house at night. Luckily, most of the enemies give themselves away with sounds, so you at least have some time to notice them before they relentlessly start to hunt you down.
The gameplay is fairly open. You can freely move around on the map and do quests as you wish. Every decision is permanent in the game, and has an effect on the endgame. There are plans for many endings. During the daytime, there are not that many enemies around, so you have time to explore. There are many things to be found on the map, which is randomly generated every play.
It is very satisfying to explore the world of Darkwood, as death can be just around the corner. The further you get from the safe house, the less safe you actually feel. It is an atmosphere that only a handful of games could capture. The whole feeling of the forest and the free exploration gives me just a bit of Stalkerish feel when playing.
It is a difficult game. Enemies hit hard and die hard. Most of the early weapons suck, and handguns are very rare. There are no quest markers, not even a quest log. All you have is a journal you can read. The map is only useful when you know where you are, because there is no indication of your own position. Only landmarks are marked on your map, so it is easy to get lost. Even quest directions are only given by cardinal directions (so if you are not familiar with them it is time to learn). The lack of hand-holding is really satisfying.
The weird inhabitants of Darkwood are one of the strongest points of the game. The art style of the character drawings looks amazing. Every single one of them is unique, and I am pretty sure that none of them are sane. It would be nice to have more conversations with them, and maybe voice acting, but we shouldn't ask too much from a small indie studio.
Early Access Experience
The early access version contains the first chapter of the game. The devs predicted two to four hours of playing time. It seems they counted those hours with someone who knows the game inside-out and can run trough the chapter. The first playthrough is guaranteed to be longer. Depending on the player, I would say it is more like five to ten hours the first time. It is possible to run through the game, but that requires more knowledge than first-time players have.
Darkwood is one of those early access titles that is already in a very playable form. It has a clear mission, and the developers know what they are doing. If you like survival horror games and the idea of early access, then I can recommend it. This game has a great potential. It already has a lot of content and gameplay value (maybe even more than some of the finished games in the same price-range). I think the finished game would be at least a 7 rated game, but I honestly think it will more likely be a 9 or 8. We will have to wait and see.