Endnight Games' new early access release succeeds, but not in the ways it intended to. Bailey James reviews The Forest.
July 30, 2014
Endnight Games’ new release The Forest succeeds, but not in the ways it intended to. Conceived and advertised as an open-world survival horror, this title is sparse on the scares but rich in exploration and setting. I played the alpha launch available for Early Access on Steam, and though The Forest is still rife with bugs and uncompleted features, it isn’t hard to imagine how the game will function when it’s done.
The plot couldn’t be simpler; the unnamed protagonist (whose burly forearms suggest he’s male) is a passenger on a plane that crashes in a scene that feels ripped straight from a beta version of Bioshock. He appears to be the lone survivor, but the fate of his young son is left unknown after a loincloth-clad figure kidnaps the boy and disappears into the woods. Now our hero must fight off the roving bands of cannibals and fight to survive in the harsh elements if he ever wants to see his son again. This is all the story we’re given, and it isn’t afforded much attention; the game never tries to push you toward a particular course of action or create any urgency about the rescue of the child or any other passengers that may have survived the disaster.
From the start, the game’s creators have made it clear in interviews that the story is not crucial to the experience. Though the game is said to have an ending (which I never found and may not be built in at this stage of the alpha), the game makers are on record as saying that they don’t intend for most people who play The Forest to unlock it. There’s no explanation of the presence of the cannibals, or the genesis of the plane crash, or how the protagonist is able to build a log cabin that would have made Abraham Lincoln proud using only an axe and tree trunks. In short, if you need your games to be heavy on the narrative, this isn’t the title for you.
The gameplay is straightforward and will be familiar to anyone who’s played survival games like Rust, Don’t Starve, or Minecraft before. Armed at first with only an axe, lighter, and survival guide, you must ward off the forces of hunger, exhaustion, infection, and cold in addition to the more imminent threat that the hostile natives pose. Actions like building campfires and hunting for food are straightforward and make use of the lush and spontaneous environment. Every tree can be razed for sticks and leaves, meaning that there’s no shortage of materials to construct shelters, protections, and traps against the bloodthirsty enemy. Rabbits, lizards, and fish are plentiful and fun to pursue with an axe or spear, and birds alight across your path and wing toward distant trees in a move clearly designed to startle complacent players.
Unfortunately, not all of the controls are quite as smooth as they need to be, especially in combat situations. The axe, though effective against stationary trees and lumbering lizards, is imprecise when tasked with dispatching half a dozen attacking cannibals, and I was rarely able to survive attacks of two or more enemies without resorting to fleeing.
Perhaps one of the game’s greatest oversells was on its enemies’ artificial intelligence. Trailers promised collaborative and unusual enemy behaviors, but I experienced little of this in my dealings with the cannibals. Different types of enemies exhibited variations; for example, a cannibal wearing a fan of human arms that looked like a peacock’s tail fled in fright instead of attacking with its fellows whenever I attempted to engage it in combat, but by and large most of the enemy behavior consisted of group bum rushes. The essential gameplay mechanics are in place but need work to function smoothly and effectively.
Though the horror elements of the game are well-advertised, they represent only a small portion of the actual gameplay, which involves far more foraging, constructing, and sightseeing than bludgeoning. Though cannibals can—and do—attack at any moment of the day or night, the aforementioned sloppy controls mean that your best chance of survival is to flee the attackers by wading into the water or sprinting through the woods rather than attempt to engage a horde in hand-to-hand combat. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing and suggests a greater emphasis on the survival element of the game, especially the trap-building features, but it can be frustrating early on before the player has had a chance to fortify a home base and is attacked in the woods while trying to harvest materials to build a shelter.
Hardcore action fans will probably be disappointed with the lack of weapon possibilities and the inefficacy many of these tools have against their targets. While it’s possible to wield sticks and rocks from the environment in addition to a couple of found weapons like a different axe and a flare gun, none of these are true game-changers and all possess their own difficulties. This wouldn’t be such a problem if not for the fact that a good portion of the game occurs in the underground caves where the cannibals live and to which they will drag you if you’re killed outside, leaving one last opportunity for escape. In such close, dark quarters, being able to attack effectively is crucial, and the ineffectual controls spell out almost certain doom if you find yourself below ground unexpectedly.
But there is one area in which The Forest truly shines, and that’s in its atmosphere and exploration capabilities. The game world, a Canadian forest with a network of dreary caves, is lovingly crafted, with lots of thoughtful set pieces like twisting oaks, craggy islets, and abandoned cannibal camps to vary the wooded landscape. One of the game’s richest pleasures is in unraveling the island piece by piece, unexpectedly stumbling upon a scattering of jewelbright suitcases on a sun-streaked beach or a tumble of slick airline blankets tossed to the ground on the plane tail. It’s pure visual porn set to an understated soundtrack of bird calls and rustlings that makes The Forest, at its best, more reminiscent of the ponderous Dear Esther than other titles of the survival-horror ilk. Some of my best moments in the game happened after a glitch caused all the animals and rabbits in the game to disappear, leaving me free to enjoy the gullies and ridges uninterrupted.
Though The Forest still has several kinks to work out, it has the potential to bring something unexpected to the horror genre. By combining an idyllic setting with unsettling and hostile enemies, Endnight Games could successfully fuse survival, exploration, and scares. It’s just got to get rid of the raining suitcases glitch first.