Impressions: Darwin Project marries tongue-in-cheek battle royale antics with an accessible F2P format

The battle royale craze that swept through the gaming industry like a tornado in 2018 and 2019 has settled down now that we’re in a new decade, mostly being propped up by a handful of mainstay titles like PUBG, Apex Legends, and Fortnite. However, there are some developers who feel there’s still potential to be mined from the tense free-for-all battle royale format, one of which is the Montreal, Canada-based outfit Scavengers Studio.

Scavengers’ long-in-gestation battle royale title Darwin Project recently transitioned from a roughly two years-long early access period into a full free-to-play release that’s available now on PS4, Xbox One, and PC. Given its small scale and the independent nature of its developer, it’s unlikely that Darwin Project will ever overshadow its more mainstream kin. However, even if it never becomes anything bigger than a niche title, Darwin Project does so much right and (where appropriate) reinvents the battle royale wheel in such a creative way that any self-proclaimed battle royale fan owes it to themselves to at least check it out.

Back to Basics

Since it is a battle royale game, the heart of Darwin Project’s gameplay naturally consists of tense open-world free-for-all PvP combat. However, unlike virtually every other battle royale game (or at least every other one I’ve played, which is a lot of them), skirmishing with other players isn’t strictly mandatory.

After a brief interactive tutorial which teaches the basics of movement, combat, crafting, and Darwin Project’s unique equipment class system (more on that in a bit), players are further eased into the experience with the option of playing a match entirely against AI bot opponents. Since matches in Darwin Project consist of a maximum of 10 players, bot match support feels like a natural inclusion in retrospect, and it’s certainly an unexpected surprise I was all too happy to embrace.

I was even happier to discover that bot matches grant profile XP, ensuring that there’s a tangible reward attached to taking things slow. Bot matches naturally don’t grant as much XP as standard PvP matches, and they also can’t be used to complete daily challenges or earn achievements/trophies, but whereas most other developers feel that players shouldn’t be rewarded at all for fighting bots, Scavengers Studio is refreshingly forward-thinking.

Along with small per-match player counts and an appropriately small map that’s divided into hex-based zones, many of Darwin Project’s other features also embrace an easy-to-learn mentality. For example, there are no firearms in the game, the only two weapons players have access to are a melee axe and a bow (with arrows which must first be crafted).

Also, unlike in games like Fortnite, players don’t have to constantly stockpile a litany of different resources. The game’s intuitive crafting system subsides on just two gathering materials: wood (harvested from specially-marked trees) and a unique ‘Darwinium’ resource gathered from glowing containers out in the world. Wood is used to craft arrows, traps, and fires, the last of which are used to fend off the cold and keep a player’s warmth levels up (if a player’s character gets too cold they start gradually losing health). Darwinium, meanwhile, is used to craft both passive per-match character upgrades as well as new abilities for the player’s chosen equipment class.

Standing Out

When a new Darwin Project match starts, each player chooses from one of three different equipment classes. These classes each have their own active abilities (with additional abilities unlocked by leveling the class up through repeated use over multiple matches), allowing players to dictate their preferred exploration and combat tactics.

During my time playing Darwin Project, I gravitated towards the Grapple Gauntlet class. Using the gauntlet’s base grappling hook power, I could yank myself up to distant vantage points like Batman in Rocksteady’s Arkham games, or latch onto an enemy to quickly close the distance between us. By investing my Darwinium, I could also unlock a powerful personal shield and even a small energy dome in which I could trap an opponent and engage them in a 1v1 duel to the death.

The game’s other two equipment classes are equally unique and, like the Grapple Gauntlet, can cater to a number of different playstyles. In addition to the gauntlet there’s also the Jet Wings that allow players to float, dash forward, and even dive-bomb enemies. Then there’s the helpful Headhunter Drone companion that can track distant enemies, grant temporary invisibility, or mark all nearby enemies in a radius.

Speaking of tracking enemies, all players can track their fellow competitors by finding and interacting with clues those other players leave behind. A player leaves a clue whenever they perform a certain action (chopping down a tree, crafting an upgrade, opening a loot chest, etc.), adding a slight risk/reward dynamic to pretty much every decision they make. Smart players can use these clues to keep tabs on their rivals or, if they’re feeling bold, even stage ambushes using traps or their bow.

Darwin Project’s most unique feature, though, is undoubtedly its Director mode. Once a player reaches profile rank 5, they can opt in to play as the Director during a live match. Rather than competing on the ground, the Director surveys the action from on high and can influence the match using a number of different Director powers. For example, they can gift a boon of resources to a player they like, mark a disfavored player with a bounty, manually shut down map hexes, or even call in a nuke to bomb a certain hex.

Some Director powers are also clearly designed for the benefit of viewers who may be viewing the match via a livestream or as an in-game spectator. One Director power, aptly named ‘Beach Party,’ temporarily strips all remaining players down into bathing suites. Another power allows viewers to decide which player deserves a critical boon like a heal or a cache of Darwinium.

Even if it’s not being augmented by live viewers, the Director mode helps to add a bit of chaos to every Darwin Project match. This along with the game’s simple yet appealing F2P economy gives the game a ton of replay value despite its smaller and less complex setup.

A Friendly Economy

As of this writing, Darwin Project doesn’t have much in the way of progression and unlockable rewards, but what’s there is more than enough to justify long-term investment (be it in time, money, or both). If they so choose, players can purchase Darwin Project’s premium currency, Ramen, and use it to purchase cosmetic customization items for their avatar. Small amounts of Ramen can also be earned by completing daily challenges, and every time a player ranks up their profile they earn a “fan gift” which grants a random cosmetic item unlock.

There’s nothing in the way of a battle pass, and Darwin Project’s current in-game shop offerings are quite paltry, but that will likely change over time. Scavengers Studio has experimented with battle passes before (a battle pass was implemented as part of an in-game Halloween event that was held back in 2018), and even if it’s a while before the first such pass arrives there’s plenty of cosmetics to unlock and/or purchase in the meantime.

Darwin Project is admittedly not the most expansive or feature-rich battle royale game, but what it lacks in features or production value it makes up for with a strong and accessible core that’s been refined over the course of two years. Unique features like the three equipment classes and Director mode synergize wonderfully with the game’s tense combat, easy-to-grasp survival and crafting mechanics, and one of the most player-friendly economies I’ve ever seen in a F2P game. Best of all, giving Darwin Project a try costs nothing on your end other than the time needed to download it.

Most gaming fans may regard the battle royale genre as yesterday’s fad, but Darwin Project proves that, with time, care, and just a dash of tongue-in-cheek humor, the genre still has plenty of surprises up its sleeve.