"The Forest" is one of the first Early Access games I ever bought, right outside of "Natural Selection 2" and "Minecraft". It was part of that early "Minecraft"/"Day Z" survival game craze, back when Steam Greenlight was a thing. It had every single Cursed Rune trait. However, this one had a lot that appealed to me. It was single-player only, so no nightmare net coding. It was focused on survival and had an actual story. And, to top it all off, the threat wasn't going to be zombies. It wasn't clear what precisely the danger was. Because, while I liked "Minecraft" survival, you didn't have the constant danger experience outside of multiplayer. Sure, someone can stalk you around and plot a breaking, but it's not the same.
In single-player, a simple wall or door kept you safe at night. So "The Forest" was what I was looking for. I bought it for $15, and now, all these years later, it's out of Early Access and done. The story is finished, and they even added multiplayer. So let's see how it went.
The game has a simple but intriguing premise. You're a dad and on a flight with your son Timmy and his unfortunate haircut. You learn why Spirit Airlines gets the rates it does, as the plane crashes into the earth unexpectedly. You survive the crash, but a mysterious red figure takes your son. From here, it's up to you to stay in the mysterious forest you've crashed into and find your son. But it soon becomes clear you're a trespasser. Strange creatures are watching you, and some don't appear to be human. And that's it. How are you so good at survival? How come you're not immediately being rescued? Why did the plane crash at all, and what IS living in the woods? Well, a lot gets answered, but I'll save that for the end. Let's focus on graphics for now. For a small indie developer aiming as high as realism, it's damn good. It's also impressive how many art assets are from the Early Access 2014 version.
Textures were upgraded, the engine was updated, but "The Forest" has always been pretty. The lighting effects are excellent and improved a lot over time, but I think something changed for the worst with the shader for sunlight. It seems more washed out and overblown than I remember. It looks fine when you're actually under the trees (which is where you'll spend most of your time anyway), but I find it weirdly hazy outside of that. It's not terrible or anything, but there might be some original "Forest" players who also remember a gloomier time. It's not a big deal – you can easily tweak down settings like Bloom. Isn't it nice when there are just easy options for all this stuff? I'm not bitter at all. You can play with colour grading if you want the game to be set in Hollywood, Mexico or Hollywood everywhere else in a scary movie.
There's a lot to tweak. The giant cave systems are also filled with detail and horrifying. "The Forest" is one of those games that does darkness correctly. Darkness is DARK. The night isn't just some blue filter, and it is BLACK. They did a great job creating a realistic woodland environment. The map itself is handcrafted, so you never see anything too wonky, and a lot of your items are based on real-world counterparts and brands, like the BIC or CIL lighter. Having all that stuff grounded in normalcy is great for immersion, but it also helps make the unusual that much more uncomfortable.
What "The Forest" really excels at is the sound design. This is some top tier ambience. If you've spent some time in the North American forest, you'll recognize a lot of sounds. The specific bird calls and the way the wind moves through the trees are remarkably accurate, and it's clear that a lot of attention was given to making sure that everything sounded right. But you never forget that THEY're out there too. There's no music sting when they're nearby, no little icon on your HUD – there's nothing. Your only warning at night might be some bushes moving and some twigs snapping. So less is more. "Less" being "sound", and "more" being "paranoid".
There are collectable cassette tapes and, naturally, they all play 80s' montage music. I don't think there'd be anything more appropriate. Yeah, you feel like fighting back! It's kind of shocking for a game like this, but it's a kickass soundtrack. There's also a tremendous non-diegetic soundtrack, but it mainly plays at story moments, so I can't do those here. There's some great guitar and synth work. There was even some music that reminded me of The Animals of all things. You appreciate the music a lot when it comes in since the game is usually devoid of it, but it's a perfectly appropriate grindhouse score.
So it has some strong presentation, especially for such a small team. So, good going so far. Now let's talk about the gameplay. You've got four difficulties to choose between. These can make your enemies or your survival meter harder, but you could also turn the enemies off. There is a creative mode, but you need to beat the story to unlock it. It's a little strange. Your plane will crash in one of a few preordained locations. Like I said before, there's only one map, so no procedural generation jank here. So you start gathering stuff up to survive. Which at first means rifling through suitcases for snack bars and drinks, but things get more complicated.
You could eat berries, but some are poison, so you need to eat the RIGHT berries. You could drink standing water, but that's poison too – it's untreated. So you'll need to make a rain collector or boil it properly – you get what I mean. There are several ways to get meat. You could go the old-fashioned route and hunt it down. But the heart has the problem of spoiling. And meat will go bad here in only a few in-game hours. So you could go for the trapping approach and then save your food for later, or hang your meat to dry in the wind, though this will take a lot longer. You can also forego meat entirely, so you have many options to keep the meters filled.
Even on Hard Survival, the "survival" part is pretty straightforward. You may begin to wonder why birds constantly land around you, just entirely still, or why deer will just give up on life and accept death right in front of you or self-immolating themselves in the campfire for political reasons. The animal AI has constant breakdowns. Small prey animals, like rabbits and squirrels, react realistically and get the hell out when they see you coming, but so many animals will just come right to you that it gets ridiculous.
As you'd expect, going vegan will add some challenge to your life. Otherwise, it's painfully easy to get tendies with minimal effort. Then again, sodas are one of the best rehydrators in the game, restores your energy, and booze cures a cold. If you're ever at risk of hypothermia and have booze, DON'T DO THAT. So, if you turn on quiet mode, wanting to roleplay "Hatchet" or "My Side of the Mountain", you might find that lacking.
But, to be fair, having to eat airplane meals is just one struggle of the game. You still need to collect resources and build up because you need to build real estate and club turtles. If you can't make food and drink at home yet, that means going out and possibly dealing with the neighbours. It's a lot more likely they'll find you than you find them. You might make enough noise to attract them or wander onto their hunting grounds. You can hide from them for a few days, but eventually, they find you. It was a tribe of dirty cannibals the whole time. The first ones you encounter will likely be emaciated and deranged – something foul you might only see on National Geographic or a local Con.
Your character is not a trained fighter, so he just swings wildly. You might have also noticed the cannibals aren't just beelining to kill me. After I finish off the first one, the other one runs off into the woods. I never see her again that day. But then comes the night. Not only did she come back, but she also brought more with her. They start surrounding the campsite, calling out to each other. This is the true horror of your enemy. These aren't mindless zombies – this is a conscious enemy, and it acts like it. If you encounter one alone, they might just run away. The dirty feral ones are more likely to be hostile right from the get-go, but they'll still be more curious than out to eat you. They might just watch what you're doing and then try to get into your blind spot creepily. Their AI has tendencies, but it's not entirely reliable, like a lot of other games.
Hiding a body of a feral away from where you were might be a good idea. They're not above eating their dead, but does it help? I don't know. All I know is having corpses around distracts my work. They're unsettling but only the start of your problems. Besides just trying to murder you, they'll rob your food too. In an all-out attack, they even might try to break some buildings. However, these are just the banished outcasts. Encountering a proper tribe is when shit hits the fan because they're smarter. See, if you do kill some ferals, it's not a huge deal. If anything, having a big enough war crime in your yard keeps them from stopping by. With a tribal, killing them means they'll send someone looking. Let their runoff, and they'll be visiting, but they might not be too hostile.
If you haven't been trying to kill them non-stop, you'll have a strange, uneasy relationship. You're both wary of each other. They might just hang out at night, watching you from the bushes and the trees. You go to confront a patrol of them, and they just run away into the hills. They can start making strange effigies in and around your campsite. You never know what to expect. Are they attacking or just measuring? Did I mention this game has VR support? You can enjoy that if you want to. The unpredictability is excellent for the horror aspect. The act of trying to understand all the cannibals helps you succeed.
What locations are essential to them? Does building around or going near them piss them off? What actions can I take that will make them afraid of me? How about chopping up a tribal body and then waving the body parts at another one? Well, that got him far away instantly, but is he going to tell his friends about it? They are a community. I mean, sure, making a giant puppet out of all these parts and lighting it on fire scares them off tonight, but they'll be back with more significant numbers. You need to try and figure out the tribes, how they behave and where they reside. Ideally, you generate enough fear to keep them away from you and let you work in peace. If you go overboard (like, really overboard), well, the natives become restless. Their attacks increase in size and sophistication, and they'll start unleashing more of their horrors from the caves below.
What starts as survival can escalate into full-out jungle warfare. The traps get deadlier, and the stakes get higher. And it stays fun and scary and intriguing because the enemy feels worthy of it.Their animations are fast and fluid, and they do feel intelligent but not predictable. I won't spoil all the things you can see them do, but there's a lot. Now, I wondered: is it possible to make peace with them? Well, if I was an underdeveloped culture and saw a man fall out of the sky and start blowing people up with bombs, I think I'd have no choice but to worship him as a god too. They know if the singing stops, the pulses do too. Ultimately, you're in their woods, so peace is never an actual option.
Hey, they started it! So, the cannibal stuff is neat, and we do need more games where you can take an arm and slap people with it. But some systems are surrounding all that. As I mentioned before, there's the combat. It's simple but satisfying.You can move and hit for light attacks, but you have to remain still for power attacks. Compared to the natives, you are so slow that the power attack is risky but worth it if you manage to pull it off. Add Tony Hawk air time to the mix, and they explode into chunks. It's tough to do but never gets old. The big cheese tactic is stun-locking them with a fast weapon, but there's rarely just one. The nastier basement-dwelling enemies are immune to this anyway.
But melee is only one option. There are all kinds of deadly manufactured weapons to find around the peninsula, but some robust crafting mechanics also backs it up. There's a lot to experiment with. You can make a weapon entirely from scratch or upgrade some existing ones. Why stop at a machete when you can cover it in teeth? Modifications like that are permanent, but there are also temporary upgrades. Arrows and weapons can be lit on fire. The poison berries from earlier aren't useless – you can coat them on your weapons.
There are lots of useful new things to discover, but also clowny shit too. A big rock is suitable for finishing off an enemy, but you can also make an upgraded rock. Then you can set it on fire. Just not to hurt yourself.It's an excellent way to make more satisfying discoveries. If you want to fight less, there's also a stealth system. It's your standard crab-walk sneak. You can increase it by covering yourself in mud or making special stealth armor. And getting it high enough means you might be able to bail out of some dangerous situations. Once again, simple but adds some depth. Speaking of that: you do have some background stats. These can affect your melee damage, your movements speed and overall stamina. So eating big to get big then exercising is viable.These are all great additions. Many games just have hunger, thirst and a building system, and then they're done. But there's even more. Understandably, the horrors of the forest are a lot to take in, so you have to deal with sanity. The more depraved actions you take (like murder or participating in cannibalism yourself), the lower it goes.You restore it by listening to tapes, relaxing, and generally being a good human being again. The bushes in the game already look like human silhouettes. Then your sanity gets lower. You start seeing movement where there is none, hear audio hallucinations, the forest begins playing tricks on. Or you can be infected, but there is no way of telling because it's just a background stat thing, and you'd have to look in the book. Wait a minute. Here, I couldn't wash off the blood that causes the infection. I had to re-load a save to fix it.
I can't pick up this clue in a cave, and it's not just me. Enemies sometimes pop through gates or hit things behind walls. The more footage I look at, the more bugs I see. When you have features that go nowhere, combined with many bugs, it seems that the game is blatantly unfinished. Every game can have some bugs, so I usually don't mention them if they're minor. But this time around, "The Forest" has won me over by the sheer volume of them. Even when tiny, something goes wrong incredibly often. While they were clearly done with the content and just left it as is, there is a severe lack of polish.
I'm genuinely surprised that this is the number of bugs they were okay with. This kind of jank also extends into how features are organized. Let's look at the building system. You've got a book that has tabs. Simple enough. Let's say that you want to build a wall. This page has a custom fence. You go a few more – basic wall. Then you keep going a bunch more defensive wall. Strange, but okay.
How about building a door? It's right there, right? Yeah, but did you know you can make a door with a lock? You don't press something putting a door down – you put down a custom wall and then cycle through it until you get a door with a lock. That's not well explained. You can craft a repair tool. You just bang on your stuff, and it fixes it up for free. Except, one time, I thought it bugged out and stopped working. It turns out, and sometimes, it needs logs to repair certain buildings.
The game encourages you to explore down to the bottom of a massive sinkhole. The intended way is cave-exploring through the huge network of them. Getting to the bottom requires two items. First, a climbing axe, because "The Descent" is an excellent movie. Then a rebreather, for all your terrifying underwater cave exploring needs. Here's the thing: there are only one of each of these items, each in their cave.
When you get to the bottom, you need a third item. It's not used for movement, like these two items. So you can go through hell, get to the very bottom and realize you needed a third item, and then have to go all the way back up or load a save. I was a completionist and explored every single cave before going all the way down. Not everybody is going to do that. The trek experience through the earth can be completely destroyed by someone getting there and realizing they're gated off. They either go back up or go on the wiki and figure out how to spawn the item they need. I kind of wish I looked at the wiki. I tried to make a fire on the cliff, and it vanished, but I still needed the materials.
You might try to eat normally, but eventually, someone takes the plunge into people jerky. It is a dark, dark path, and there is no coming back from it. However, survivability isn't just up from resources – what would kill you in single-player, you can now recover from. There is less tension, like any co-op game, but it's not entirely gone.
So that leaves the story, which is almost entirely told through in-game clues. Besides wondering where Timmy is, the primary compulsion is "What's going on here?" The deeper you go, the more previous explorers you find. Who are the cannibals and mutants? Are they descendent of Christian settlers gone quaker crazy? Did they come from ancient Chinese explorers? Did their ancestors make the big metal doors? Without spoilers, the story reminds me of "Prometheus", not just because of big blue people.
Of course, we're safe just completely ignoring the story. It's a nice bonus to have. "The Forest" is a game I'd call "on the verge of greatness, but not quite there". If some features and the interface were polished up and a bunch of bugs were smashed, I think it could be. Sadly, development in full swing on a sequel, so I don't think that's happening. Still, it's only $20 at the total price, and I've gotten my money's worth out of it.