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3 years on, The Forest is beautiful and terrifying by turns

Crafting and survival that hasn't outstayed its welcome

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The Forest [official site], a pretty-but-harrowing singleplayer survival/crafting game, has been traipsing through the Early Access woods for three years now, and it impressed us even in its earliest days. I’ve yet to have the pleasure of butchering turtles or being savaged by cannibals, but with The Forest back in the charts and well over a year’s worth of development under its belt since the last time we looked at in earnest, I decided that now was the time. Time to live on a steady diet of squirrel kidneys, in a log cabin adorned with severed heads. Beats reality, right?
The Forest kicks off with a plane crash, followed by bloodied weirdos absconding with assorted survivors, including your character’s son. It’s a fairly harrowing cold open, but that aside the game barely mentions the abducted kid element.

As with Fallout 4, while this would seem to a primary motivator for the protagonist, there’s so much playground on your doorstep that getting immediately sidetracked for hours is an inevitability. Indeed, if you so wish it you can yourself become a cannibal, clad in human bones and with a nice line in severed limb-based interior design, in under an hour. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Anyway, whatever path you choose – trying to find the wee lad, simply living off the land and keeping yourself safe from the roaming packs of killers at night or openly embracing psychopathy yourself – your main activity is going to be tree-punching. This is not only a crafting-based survival game, but it is primarily a crafting-based survival game. I’ll wheel back to that stuff shortly though, and first address how early accessy this feels after three years.

Not much, is the answer – it’s stable and broadly slick, and if it weren’t for the ‘alpha’ message on the loading screen, there’s a good chance you’d never guess that it was not technically finished. I’ve run into a couple of very minor issues, such as the occasional harvested resource disappearing, the building placement UI being a bit squiffy in some spots and the graphics sometimes going crackers after an alt-tab, but really it’s nothing that I wouldn’t expect to find in a full-release game of this kind.

It does feel like there could be some holes in terms of the thin story – very little in the way of prompts and certainly zero urgency, plus there’s a half-baked ‘find the corpses of the other passengers’ sub-goal that seems both inconsistent in execution and essentially purposeless.

It is quite likely that most of this by design rather than accident – the heart of The Forest is slowly creating a home and a measure of autonomous subsistence within it, rather than the loftier goal of ‘beating’ it. But, to rewind slightly, if you’ve avoided this because you think it’ll be rickety and full of holes, fear not: The Forest is ready for you now. Whatever comes next will surely be more about adding new elements than mending broken bones.

It’s also a beautiful game, in the main. The titular environment is lush and prettily-lit, with day/night cycles and weather effects transforming it on the fly. It can be a terribly pleasant place to be – and then, a heartbeat later, a terribly unpleasant place to be. While the daytime involves fairly relaxing logging, building, exploration and animal-hunting, nightfall brings naked, screeching killers, while exploration of the fixed but large and packed map will soon leave you down a cave or tunnel system populated by even worse.

It’s an old trick – popularised by Minecraft – but the survival game that is tranquil in daylight and monstrous in darkness remains a fearsomely effective one. It helps that The Forest doesn’t get too out of hand with its key menaces. It does get weirder and wilder to some extent, particularly in the perilous cave systems, but generally sticks close to the ‘you are being hunted by those who would do you harm’ formula.

It’s chillingly gruesome, too. The way the foes dart and screech, their corpse-strewn lairs and the horrendous option to slowly, graphically cleave their bodies into parts – for you to use as warnings, decorations, food or bone-armour.

I’m usually confident that I can explain away any violent sight on my screen should my three-year-old wander past, but The Forest moved me to barricade the door just in case. This isn’t a gripe, more a warning that it doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to shock and horror.

And yet my overall feeling is that I want to stay here for quite some time, slowly setting up my own personal cottage industry of logging, skinning and turtle shell-based waterbutts. It’s pleasant, and though due to strict carry limits it involves quite some grind, it’s not so much that even larger goals seem far out of reach. Protecting it all, both directly myself and with the construction of lethal traps, adds an extra sense of purpose, as does spelunking into the harrowing caves in search of singular loot, such as decent weapons or climbing gear. This is a good playground.

Against that is a few arbitrary design decisions, though I find that these are part and parcel of so many games like this. For instance, I can be rooting around for some sticks with which to build a temporary shelter/savepoint, having just escaped some terrible danger but unlikely to make it back to my main base without dying, but I can’t find any sticks nearby and heading too far out will almost certainly be lethal.

Trees are all around me, but I can only turn these into logs. Turning a branch into a stick is impossible. See also having to find and murder a turtle to use its shell as a rainwater collector, when I’m surrounded by hard plastic suitcases strewn from the plane crash. There was even a saucepan I wasn’t allowed to pick up.

In terms of story progression, I felt it was a little too dependent on finding specific items – which usually involved no small amount of luck or external research – which seemed at odds with the general do-it-yourself philosophy. A climbing axe is a specific item found deep in a dangerous cave, for instance – you can’t climb with the serious-looking axe you start the game with and can upgrade in multiple ways, or any of the tools you make yourself. These frustrations are hurting my inclination to find my missing son – well, that and the sure conviction that someone scoffed the last of his fingers days ago, while I was busy making a waterskin out of deerhide.

Minor gripes, and only a few of them, but they can add up to the occasional needless roadblock, or honking great reminder that This Is Videogame, with all its pre-determined rules.

This stuff aside, given that The Forest is, unbelievably, now something of an old man of survival, it’s holding up very well. It’s a lovely place to be, in a hideous sort of way. And hey, though it’s singleplayer or co-op only, the naked maniac AIs even manage to infuse it with a little of the random acts of dickheadery that characterise stuff like Rust.

The Forest is available on Steam early access now. We played version 0.52.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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