The Forest Review – The Forest for the Trees (PS4)
Endlight Games has done something I didn’t think was possible. In a genre so heavily bloated, it’s rare to find unique and affecting survival experiences in 2018. The Forest doesn’t mind appearing as more of the same at first. Once you invest some time in it and explore its systems, The Forest transforms into something hideous and fascinating.
It starts in mundane fashion. A short cutscene of the commercial plane you and your son are on going down catalyzes your being on a mysterious island. Drawing an axe from the corpse of a stewardess and hopping out of the wreckage becomes a sort of Groundhog Day event. You’ll see it so many times, and go through the full spectrum of emotions about it. You feel bad for her at first, and remorseful about finding use out of the object that slew her. Then you start to feel resentful. Failure keeps bringing you to her. Then you don’t feel much at all. She’s just the first step on a long road.
A road that will feel like its leading to nowhere at first. The game doesn’t do much to guide you along the main threads of its story. Besides establishing shelter and some rudimentary defense of some sort, your only plan is to find your son. There is absolutely no establishing narrative techniques that would make finding the boy an actual motivation for you. It’s just a nebulous task among other, more pragmatic tasks. The Forest relies heavily on the idea that you’ll just want to go find him because he’s your kid and it told you to. When left to my own devices, I chose chopping trees, building fires, and hunting game over looking for Timmy almost every time.
When you find locations of interest, your To-Do list updates with a prompt to explore them. Things you’ll find in these places, like maps or photos or drawings, replace any sort of straight-forward story arcs. It’s interesting to walk through the remains of old campsites and try to put together what happened to the people in them. But outside of finding some more exotic supplies, it’s not super rewarding.
It doesn’t take much time into your first outing before you realize you’re neither alone nor safe. The presence of the enemy is evident in the totems and signography they leave to mark their territory. It only takes a handful of heads on pikes or mutilated bodies of tourists before it’s pretty clear that you are next. The first time I recognized myself as prey was when I scouted a lake for some drinkable water. Across the shimmery surface, on an opposite bank, a hunched and twisted figure warbled menacingly. It was hopping from tree to tree like some mutant Tarzan, each bound to get closer to me. As I turned to run, I met his friends. They had their way with me.
The first “death” is free, though. I woke up in a cave, strung up like beef. I cut myself down, but finally got a glimpse at what this game might be looking to get out of you. Scattered bodies, some with valuable items like a map and compass, are littered on the rocky floor. There’s a rope leading to the surface, and a narrow passage that takes you deeper. Now the loop is clear: you build and survive up there to prepare to come down here, and deal with whatever cold, small, dark spaces are good at hiding from curious campers.
The process of preparing can be as mind-numbing as any gather-and-build process from survival games. You run around and pick up everything you can hold, and use them to make weapons, armor, or structures that will help you out live your hunters.
The tension of knowing that, at any point, you could be accosted by gnarly tribesman does add an element of suspense to the proceedings. This is mostly achieved by the absolutely excellent sound design. Even though the tribesmen make all manner of unholy sounds, The Forest does a great job of making you paranoid about everything. Wind blowing through trees feels like an omen. You wish birds would chirp quieter, so they don’t lure the bad guys to you. Every rustle of grass is potentially a problem. Hours of play, and an intuitive crafting and upgrade system, help equip you mentally and physically for the encroaching menace. By my third day of survival, I’d stopped being the prey, and started becoming the hunter.
Sticking it to these tribesman is as rewarding as it is frustrating. The more you kill, the more will come for you the next time. Eventually, you start to notice that, even though they are all grungy cannibals, they aren’t all on the same team. Encounters can eventually devolve into three way melees in broad daylight. These are funny happenings, but rarely do they encapsulate the sort of existential dread of tiptoeing around at night while these things are close and may or may not be stalking you.
No matter which tribe they are from, the enemies seem to have a pretty significant range of tactics when dealing with you. They don’t always just charge you. Some like to test your boundaries, and see how close they can get to you before you react. On occasion, they seemed to be setting me up for rudimentary ambushes, hoping I’d get bold and chase a fleeing cannibal into a group of its peers hiding in trees.
These tribesman can be territorial. They don’t always chase you past the boundaries of their own hunting grounds. Also, they respond differently to the sorts of weaponry your wielding, or barriers and traps you’ve set up. They respond to intimidation tactics of your own with trepidation. These creatures feel sharp, predatory, and analytical in a way that many monster designs just never get completely right, and The Forest should really be commended for that.
Also, the sort of diversity of creatures you’ll see as the game goes on is quite surprising. There are plenty of different iterations of “human killing machine” that you’ll run up against. But as you start thinning out the early threats and making your mark on the island, it starts to fight back. Creatures that you would only find by descending into those spooky aforementioned caves start getting brazen. These things are truly grotesque and imaginative, reaching Silent Hill or Bloodborne levels of distorted.
The combat is often the biggest barrier to successfully driving them off, though. No matter what weapon you use, it always feels clunky. Maybe the enemies move too fast, or you swing too slow, but it never feels like you’re close enough to hit a creature without also getting hit. These beasts are durable as hell, so it never feels safe to just square up and scrap. Ranged options like a bow or a slingshot lack any UI for aiming. This makes hitting a target with them a mixture of luck and practice. I found shooting tribesmen with a bow easier than trying to hit something like a bird, though. Even up close, it’s difficult to determine where an arrow will actually end up.
The Forest reminds me of the line of thinking used to defend early stealth games like Tenchu. Tenchu‘s melee combat was poorly designed, and you never wanted to use it. It helped enforce the lethality of stealth killing and the strength of not being seen. The Forest’s shoddy melee makes well-placed traps seem like godsends. Building hunting platforms in the trees to give yourself distance feels like a forgone conclusion. Weapons that don’t require accuracy, like bombs and molotovs, are ambrosia. But it also creates a reliance on an overly passive playstyle that stunts the power up-and-explore directive hanging over this game. Timmy is still out there, after all.
Outside of just pure combat, some runs can often crumble under glitches. I’ve been attacked through walls multiple times by cannibals who just leapt through my partially built log cabin as if the 60 logs of lumber between us didn’t exist. This happens more when a structure isn’t completely built, but it feels wildly unfair to not be able to make use of a wall’s cover just because it’s missing a log.
There’s also plenty of vaguery in the game’s systems that is hit or miss. Some of it is good, and plays to The Forest’s interest in making you learn by trial and error. You have to learn which berries are edible or which bodies of water are drinkable the hard way. Some of it seems like an oversight or just unnecessary. Your handbook gives you blueprints to build structures of different tiers, but it doesn’t describe the differences between them. Not in any meaningful way, that is. Should I want to build a Log Cabin over just a Small Cabin when they observably do the same things? I’m sure there’s a reason, but I haven’t found it yet.
There’s a sanity meter that I found completely inert, gameplay wise. The more you lose sanity, the more brutal and intense your countermeasures and survival tactics can be. This can include using corpses as weapons or even food, but outside of that utility it didn’t present a sort of deterioration of reality that other games that do this sort of thing have. It’s the same game, but more gross.
The survival genre is so crowded that there’s little ground left to break, but The Forest has done it. Leveraging complex enemy AI and subverting expectations of the sort of terrible things waiting for you in the wild, Endlight Games creates a new sort of thriller. With some more polish, and a better emphasis on making all of the systems more coherent and intuitive, The Forest could truly be a very huge deal. That said, there’s a reason it’s sold 5 million copies. It’s laser focus on executing specific ideas well pays off. It’s worth trying to work around its shortcomings for at least a few playthroughs.
The Forest review code provided by publisher. Version 1.05 reviewed on a PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.