Darkwood on PS5: it goes much deeper than jump scares

Darkwood is a lot stranger than I expected. I was drawn to it by the promise of no jump scares – I wondered whether a horror game really could 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 arrived on PS5, so the um, pumpkins aligned.

Darkwood
Developer: Acid Wizard Games / Crunching Koalas (PS5)
Publisher: Acid Wizard Games
Platform: Played on PS5
Availability: Released 2017 on PC, and 28th October 2022 on PS5
But now I feel misled. Not because Darkwood isn’t scary, or because it uses jump scares – it has surprised me a few times (maybe there’s no getting away from this in horror), though not enough to suggest it leans on this as a scare tactic. But because reducing Darkwood to a conversation about scares misses so much of what I think it’s about.

Darkwood is deep – surprisingly so. It’s surprising because the top-down, retro presentation – it’s quite like Hotline Miami but without the lurid colours – and the base-defence set-up make it feel quite simple. You’ve played this kind 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’s underneath, and what starts to emerge in time, that makes Darkwood so much more. Take the tutorial, for instance. It’s not what you expect. You’re some bloke trapped in a cabin in the woods, and as 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 playing around with light. It all feels slightly wrong and ominous. Then a stranger arrives and you capture him.

Then, the game flips and suddenly, you’re the stranger and you’re locked up, and you begin to see the man you were before in a whole new light. And you begin to see what those cages were for. And it’s grim. And then it’s brutal. And then it’s over. Except, actually, it’s only just beginning.

I don’t mean to sound cryptic in the way I’m writing this, it’s just that this is 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 returning here whenever I die. Nor do I know why there’s a literal wolfman I can talk to, or why a bizarre-looking trader person is in my shelter every morning. Last night, during a tense wait for sunrise, there was a knock at the door, and someone left a children’s party invite for me. There’s so much bizarre stuff going on. It’s a world where questions lead to more questions. All I really know is that I am trying to get out.

It’s this aspect of the game, packed inside a simple-looking shell, that keeps pulling me back. And though I say “simple-looking”, there is an undeniable bleak beauty to it, punctuated by moments of strikingly detailed art. Coupled with threatening throbs of music and jabs of sound effects, Darkwood conjures quite the atmosphere. So despite appearances, it is very much a story game. You might die and return to life but the game doesn’t restart every time you do. It’s all a gradual peeling back of the big story onion, and I’ve seen some people estimate there’s as many as 50 hours of, um, onion (?) to uncover here.

People know that because Darkwood is not a new game. It came out five years ago on PC and was around 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 do make a difference. The controller’s speakers and rumble are used to strong effect. Floorboards creak and twigs snap, and there’s a gradual build up of pulsing as enemies (and the dawn) approach. It’s very effective.

Being an older game also works in Darkwood’s favour. 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 be improved. Most encouragingly of all, there are tens of thousands of people saying very positive things about it.

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