THE FOREST [the game] Early Access Review

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[PC GAME—NO RELATION TO RECENT FILM OF THE SAME NAME]

! ! ! THIS GAME IS VERY VIOLENT—SOME SCREENSHOTS MAY DISTURB ! ! !

Just had to check Wikipedia to help me remember when I had first started this journey through… THE FOREST… (sorry) and it was upon release of the early access alpha version—that it’s technically still in, but beta and release must be coming soon if it can be judged by features, content, and playability—in May of 2014. From the beginning, I knew there was something special about this game. Until recently, though, it was not possible to finish the game’s story, and it had slowly been unlocked and built upon with well-guarded secrecy.

You start the game as a man on a plane sitting with his sleeping son in the next seat. After picking up a survival guide book from his small plastic dinner ‘table’—a detail added more recently and a nice touch, since you’ll use this book throughout to build structures, fires, etc. from—the plane hits heavy turbulence and proceeds to break apart as it crash lands on a forested peninsula. While you come-to writhing on the cabin floor, a half-naked man covered in red paint and looking like some sort of tribal native picks up your unconscious son and leaves the back half of the plane while you lose consciousness again.

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So, it’s simple—you want your son back. Except that it’s not.

Your first act after looting the plane for food, sodas, and liquor—it’s a survival, building, and horror game, so you know you’re gonna be consuming sustenance—is to pull a small survival ax out of the chest of a dead flight attendant at the end of the destroyed aisle that opens into the lush forest like a surreal gaping maw.

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This works as acquisition of a welcome tool, a very ominous moment, and a symbolic birth of sorts into your new life—survivor, hunter, killer, and—if anything goes your way—hero.

What follows is an open world experience unlike any other I’ve played. On the peninsula surface you explore; hunt for food; learn recipes for armor, weapons, quivers, pouches; and build shelter and… defenses. You are hunter and hunted here. There are tribes of murderous cannibals living on this island, and they roam around on patrols. There are different tribes, each with their own look, postures, and tactics.

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They also leave different kinds of markers around…

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Let’s just say, you don’t want to get captured.

They travel in groups of at least three most of the time, and in the wrong situation, they will get the best of you. That’s how you learn about the other major element of the game…

The first time you’re ‘killed’ in the game, your screen will go dark. You’ll come-to being dragged by cannibals through the grass before passing out again. Then, you’ll awaken once again in darkness—upside-down, hanging by rope from a cave ceiling. You are strung up with split and otherwise mutilated and/or eviscerated human bodies. It can be safely assumed you’ll be like them soon [I TOLD YOU NOT TO GET CAPTURED…]. You look around—there’s your ax! You cut yourself down and find yourself in deep darkness with only a lighter to guide you. This is an interconnected network of cave systems that run under the whole peninsula.

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You’ve got something… Uh, let me look for some band-aids…

The surface can be terrifying, especially at night, but the caves are where the horror really comes together. Think… The Descent meets loose suggestions of those first few seasons of LOST—when you thought anything could happen—with some malformed, weird surprises stalking about. I normally wouldn’t mention that last bit, but this game is way weirder than it first seems, and some friends I recommended it to might not have ever seen its most warped, menacing inhabitants. The caves are where the best items are, and also where the story actually ‘progresses.’

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Inviting…

If the (first and) last AG reviewed SOMA was a masterwork of explorable but mostly linear progression, THE FOREST is all open world, until you figure out how to access the later story parts.

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Nothing to see here…

The caves are also where you will probably first be struck by one thing this game does better than most that have tried—light versus dark. Or maybe a better way to put it would be… fire versus no fire. They have finely tuned the darkness and how it is penetrated. There is a flashlight that has erratic beam strength and I only used it to get a more distant view through the dark. But the lighter can be used to light up wraps you place around axes and sticks, fires you’ve built, or—my personal fay-voh-ritt—the tips of special arrows. Those arrows remain in my play-style the best source of light that can also do damage at the drop of a hat. What keeps this use of darkness oppressive and claustrophobic is that no light sources are perfect. Wrapped weapons—unless soaked with alcohol—will go out in a few swipes. Then you have to re-wrap for light or swing in the dark. Even the arrows have to be lit every time, leaving you at the mercy of the RNG-affected Bic-style lighter working mechanic.

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Yeeeeaaah… Not ominous at all. Cheery, even.

The use of this inky, deep darkness succeeded in evoking an almost primal level of fear in me at times. That’s pretty impressive, considering I played the game from the comfort of not-actually-being-murdered-by-cannibals-and-whatever-else-in-digital-darkness.

Also, this subterranean darkness can lead to some truly beautiful moments.

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This is a game of many strengths. The cannibals—and their friends—are skilled opponents, and very frightening even in daylight, due to incredible sound work and the cannibals’ behavior programming. The fights are desperate even as you improve and ‘level’ your weapons—by attaching human teeth gathered from fights for damage, and bird feathers for speed—and really visceral—literally, once completed. Let’s just say you can use the cannibals’ body parts for a few things, and more than you might think…

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Building is also very well done. I’ve made many different structures. Right now a friend I are attempting to make something of a tree-house/Ewok-Village kind of setup with the tree platforms and houses available.

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Also, upon completion of the story I discovered Creative Mode. You don’t need to maintain sustenance, can’t be hurt, and the ghostly blueprints you place while building can be filled by holding the E button, as opposed to the hours and hours of chopping down trees and gathering that would take in the normal game modes.

And as for said completion of story, after two and a half years of playing this off and on—at one point finding the barrier of the next story progression placeholder after a hard-fought descent and taking a break other than trying major patches—I wasn’t sure I would be satisfied on a story level, or could be. For my money, this game was worth the price of admission (a very modest 14.99 USD) within weeks of purchase, just from the varied open world gameplay and terrifying caves. But to be a whole piece, it needed to have something to finish, considering how it started if nothing else.

I won’t say anything other than I personally was not disappointed. Very pleasantly surprised, actually. It is not at all what I expected… but they really committed to it and I loved the follow-through.

Okay, so… It’s probably pretty obvious I adore this game. So, do I have any complaints?

I want multi-level tree-house building! Swimming cannibals! More buildable boat styles and wind for sailing! Hang gliders! T-Shirt and potato guns!

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And bring back my flying sharks!

But seriously, no. I have no real complaints. Anything I would mention could be in by release, and even patched in after. This game isn’t even released yet and I’ve put just under 230 hours into it. That took a while, but lots of that was done in focused chunks.

If you love horror games and at least like or can tolerate survival systems, recipes, and building—lots of which can be ignored, but it’s so much fun—this is a grisly, thrilling playground. That’s probably the best line to follow by adding in one thing I’ve hinted around—co-op! Up to I believe eight people can play on co-op servers that one of them hosts, doing everything described above—and more.

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Happy hunting!

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[all screenshots from my personal steam account, other than game logo image]

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