The best horror games know how to make you feel empowered in one moment, then completely vulnerable in the next. And there's usually a unifying theme that compels you to keep pushing forward, even when you're terrified beyond reason. Darkwood delivers both to perfection, continuing the tradition of the now-dormant Silent Hill series by putting atmosphere first, and making sudden scares a rarity where most horror games use them liberally. This survival horror game became an instant cult classic when it launched on PC back in 2017, and now it's come to Nintendo Switch, PS4, and Xbox One this week to cast a dark shadow over the coming summer months. If you have a single horror-loving bone in your body, you'd do well to lose yourself in the foreboding forest that is Darkwood.
You awake in Darkwood as the captive of a crazed doctor who's dragged your unconscious body into his home - and things only get freakier from there. Your origins are a mystery, but you suddenly find yourself deep inside a forest so thick that its infinite trees have grown into an impassable barrier, imprisoning all the townsfolk who have started going mad from their disconnect to the rest of the world.
As a top-down game, Darkwood trades the in-your-face terror of something like The Forest for a bird's-eye view of your treacherous surroundings, using line-of-sight lighting to great effect when you're scurrying through claustrophobic passageways and decrepit houses. During the day, you need to scavenge for crafting materials and look for an escape route inside a procedurally generated map with prescribed landmarks. At night, you have to bunker down in your makeshift hideout, dragging furniture in front of doorways and boarding up the windows, in the hopes that you'll survive the onslaught of enemies who seek to snuff you out when the sun is down.
Atmosphere above all else
"We're afraid to play horror games, so we quit our jobs and made one, with no jump scares," reads the title of an informative thread by the team at Acid Wizard Studio. The trio of developers at Acid Wizard would rather make your skin crawl through suspenseful atmosphere and chilling ambiance, instead of a giant monster popping out of nowhere and screaming at you. Even if Darkwood is one of the few horror games that don't rely on jumpscares, its disturbing sights and pulse-quickening sounds can still send shivers down your spine and make you fearful to walk around your own house in the dead of night. The console port made published by Crunching Koalas captures everything that made the PC original great, from the detailed pixel art to the intuitive controls and inventory management.
It's always easiest to understand an unfamiliar game through the traits of known quantities, so I'd liken Darkwood to a mix of Silent Hill, Hotline Miami, and the Metro series. The Silent Hill comparison is the clearest in my mind, what with the exploration of a twisted realm, the purposely sluggish combat, and a world with an aesthetic that mirrors the death and decay at the heart of the main story. Your visible but unobtrusive stamina bar gives a clear cost to any strenuous action. Running when you're not being actively chased is a gamble, lest you get winded just as some unseen danger approaches. Each swing of a melee weapon feels labored and weighty, both from the audio feedback and the hit to your stamina. Where Silent Hill 2 shapes its visuals around the dilapidated browns and hazy greys of rust, fog, and rotting drywall, Darkwood's art captures the essence of gnarled roots, grimy fungus, and viny growths to create the effect that nature is slowly exterminating every trace of humanity.
Hotline Miami is often mentioned whenever a game nails fast-paced, stylish, and excessive violence - like samurai side-scroller Katana Zero - or uses a top-down view to create a merciful bit of distance from horrifying scenes. Darkwood falls squarely in the latter camp; while blood splatters and death by shovel-bludgeoning are commonplace in this forest, I can't think of a single instance of explicit gore or an over-the-top execution. Instead, Darkwood uses the pulled-out perspective to feed into the darker side of your imagination, with lavishly grim pixel art that lets your mind fill in the most gruesome details.
Is there something moving in the shadows? Could that be a dog's carcass affixed to some severed human legs? What's writhing underneath that soiled sheet? Are you being hunted by a human whose body has been mutated into a horrifying monstrosity that would be right at home in John Carpenter's The Thing? The only way to know for sure is to look closer. Funnily enough, the extra information granted by the top-down perspective can often lead to some great, organic moments of sheer terror, like when you stumble onto a bear trap you should've seen up ahead, or let an enemy get too close because your focus was on some distant point of interest. Occasionally, you'll be able to inspect some collectible items up close, which use just enough photorealism to create images that range from disturbing to abstractly nightmare-inducing.
A struggle for survival
Lastly, I see a bit of Metro Exodus and its predecessors (particularly the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series) in Darkwood, with the natural and industrial worlds collapsing into one another. This one may be a bit of a stretch (and a result of my American mindset), but Darkwood seems to capture that same atmosphere of a society in shambles and the survivors who are trying to make it work. Metro and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. have Russian origins while the Acid Wizard team is Polish, but there's definitely overlap in the sense of Eastern European wreckage and refuse of a place like Chernobyl, where only crumbling concrete and dying plant life remain. You'll meet plenty of NPCs in Darkwood, some of whom are clearly not a threat - and yet there's always a sense of distrust and unease when interacting with these damned souls. The consequences of your actions are felt in the fates of these side characters, which typically end in tragedy or mystery.
I'm something of a scaredy-cat when it comes to most horror games, but like classic Silent Hill, Darkwood knows how to pull me in and keep me engaged even when I'm afraid of stepping forward into the unknown. The presentation is incredible: the distant growls and nearby creaks of the sound design, the eerie pixel art and its smooth animations, the urgency of charting a course during the day, the helplessness of hiding for your life at night. Whereas the survival elements of something like Don't Starve aren't enough to keep me occupied, the horror of Darkwood is always pushing me to gather and craft so I can uncover the next disturbing story element. "You are playing a challenging and unforgiving game," reads Darkwood's first tooltip. "You will not be led by the hand. Respect the woods. Be patient. Focus." But above all, just know that Darkwood is one of the greatest survival horror games of this generation, and you should brave its overgrown abyss.
For more scares, check out our list of the best horror games. Or see what's happening this week in games and entertainment with our latest Release Radar: