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

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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34 Comments

  1. Rince says:

    The fun thing about me and The Forest is that I was convinced that you played as a woman.
    My life is a lie.

    It’s kinda sad that even today there isn’t an option to chose at least the gender of the protagonist.

    • Massenstein says:

      Yeah, this bugs me too and occasionally makes turns me off of buying something I was mildly interested of. I think I’ve played enough stubbly dudes for a lifetime and from now on they would need to be remarkably well written for me to want to step into their shoes.

      The Forest might be enticing enough despite this, though.

      • skeletortoise says:

        Devil’s avocado here. I agree with you in the general sense of not heavily scripted and more sandboxy games, but given the game is 1st person, does it really matter? Does the player character speak (genuinely don’t know)? Rince’s lack of awareness of the prescribed gender seems to indicate it’s fairly arbitrary in this case. At a certain point it seems like it’s probably just a waste of resources to prioritize modeling… slightly different hands.

        • Chicago Ted says:

          The only dialogue I’ve noticed is like “I’ve just been hit” grunting and exertion noises.
          I would like some form of character customization, at least for multiplayer. Just so everyone doesn’t have to play one of three random dads each time.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Ericusson says:

    I got reimbursed by Steam as I found the graphics outdated and incredibly ugly once I got close to a beach and got murdered by 1990s polygons.

    That was a month and a half ago, anything changed in between or did I really miss something ?

    • Halk says:

      How did triangles look like in 1990?

      • Ghostwise says:

        Chunky. Hefty. Muscular. Most of them had fierce moustaches, and back then many wore studded black leather and assorted hats.

        It’s not the same nowadays. No, it’s not. Modern triangles look like they’re apologising for being there, that they regret their lack of upward social mobility, that they’re too isosceles, than they’re not equilateral enough.

        This is all bullshit.

    • Paul says:

      Strange, i just played it for an hour and it looks fantastic maxed out.

    • UncleLou says:

      I have to say, graphics are pretty much the last thing I’d expect anyone to complain about in The Forest. Not that I’d necessarily expect them to complain about much else, mind.

      But I am actually a little dumbfounded. Maybe the beach isn’t the game’s strongest sight, but to the point where you refund it? With this threshold, I expect your library consisting exclusively of Crytek games and Battlefield. :)

      • CartonofMilk says:

        defintiely all AAA for sure. Graphics are near the least important thing in a game. I mean sure, i’d prefer if they all looked super modernly gorgeous but since AAA publishers have zero interest in originality and innovative gameplay, i’ll play the shitty looking games.

  3. Kefren says:

    I had a fun evening exploring this about a year ago. Though the repeated posed tennis rackets bodies confused me – were they dead bodies or dummies? Was the plane full of tennis players? I had a fair bit of confusion about crafting (and your comment about having to kill a turtle when there are better things right next to you, is spot on). Once I explored a cave and kept getting lost and killed I decided I’d had enough for a while, though had still mostly enjoyed it.

    I’m a big fan of The Descent by Jeff Long link to goodreads.com (not the same as the film, yet strangely connected to it), and could almost imagine I’d crashed into a community of Hadals.

  4. Whiskey Jak says:

    Can’t shake the feeling of “The Long Dark in summer with cannibals”. Again, a feeling, not a critique. How close am I? I like TLD quite a lot so I could be tempted to try this one.

    • Paul says:

      I would say somewhat close, although this is much more photorealistically looking game, completely different visual style. Both are awesome.

    • UncleLou says:

      This plays drastically differently, not the least due to the crafting/building. You’re more, hm, stationary, building things, and exploring from your camp as a base. It also has an entirely different atmosphere – setting, graphics, enemies, etc.

      I also think this has been around longer, so if anything, TLD is like “The Forest in winter with wolves”. ;)

    • machstem says:

      TLD approached it that you need to be constantly looking for somewhere specific to keep warm, eat, get items.

      TF is a build now, explore soon, stock up and explore further away later. Repeat and build new settlements to find safe harbors during chases.

    • Whiskey Jak says:

      Thanks for all the replies! Sounds great!

  5. p53 says:

    Wait, not even a mention of the main reason why it is worth to go back to The Forest now?
    This game has an actual ENDING to its story since December 2016.

    And what an ending that is! There is no saving during the whole 30min.-1h sequence and you are basically on the edge of your seat for this thing. I’m not going to say more than – come well equipped. Suddenly all this exploring and building I did some year ago in the game became more than a mere survival/defense. It was a preparation.

    A nice example how an early access game developed slowly but steadily is now being finished for the full release. Now the main missing part is some more clues in the world as where to find the critical items and the ending entrance itself.

    • 2helix4u says:

      Yeah, me and my friends finally got around to playing this and managed to get the climbing axe and rebreather almost by accident during some spelunking then stumbled across the end in a similar manner.

      Holy shit what an intense hour or so, we’d played it every day for like a week and a half so I was a little tired of it but suddenly I was bolt upright in my seat again.

      The very final ending cutscene is a little early feeling still but the rest is excellent.

    • CartonofMilk says:

      personally i find a survival game having an ending to be the least important thing. I never actually left the planets in rimworld for example.

  6. Viral Frog says:

    How is it possible that I completely missed the part where your son is kidnapped by the native cannibals? I seriously do not remember that part at all.

    • machstem says:

      The cut scene wasn’t added in the earlier builds. I thought the same thing (I’ve played since first alphas)

  7. CaptWaffle1 says:

    On my wishlist for a while but I usually just kept skimming by it in favor of other alternatives…..after drilling down into a bit here I think this game could be right up my alley. I’m happy that apparently there is an ending to the game now… I enjoy open-ended experiences but I want there to be an ending of sorts SOMEWHERE… hopefully very far away and hard to get to…. but if there is not any sort of ending, no matter how good the game is, I just have a lot more trouble getting into it. I may never actually SEE the ending, but the very fact that it exists is a big deal for me.

  8. GunnerMcCaffrey says:

    I think my interest has finally been upgraded from “some day” to “some day soon.”

    (Minor gripe though: A climbing axe really is a very distinct tool from an axe for cutting or chopping- just as a tuning fork is not the same as a dinner fork. And, much like a tuning fork, I wouldn’t trust one I made myself, no matter how many trees I punched to do it.)

  9. jmags says:

    This is a nice article, but what I really want is another massive video of John alternating between coos and screams.

  10. misterbung says:

    I went back to The Forest over the Christmas back, having not played since early 2015, only this time I tried out co-op.
    We ended up running through the entire game, collecting all the gear and finishing the story and having a really, really fun time.

    We were able to build a decent base just south of the plane crash and fill it with storage options and a big perimeter wall of sharpened logs. It was very satisfying in co-op because it took far, far less busy time ferrying logs back and forth. We built up a cache of food, skins, bones and gardens and then would go out for spelunking trips to retrieve gear we’d need for end game.

    I was a bit bummed it was over actually, as I was really, really enjoying it as a survival game, especially in coop. Once you’re finished a playthrough you get ‘creative’ mode which removes enemies and stats, and makes building instant (although with no enemies it is BORING.).

    Some update note:
    – the game runs far better now and is much more optimised than it was a year ago
    – still has weird physics bugs (although this can be blamed on the Unity backend, and something I experience regularly using it for other dev work)
    – building/crafting is more fully featured with more weapons, items and recipes, although the article is right in saying there’s little logic in some of the recipes
    – changing from the default Renderer to M131 in Options means you can actually see things at night time but this doesn’t persist between play sessions for some reason
    – the Upgraded Spear is now by far the best weapon, and in co-op you can gang-up on any enemy and stun-lock it
    – placing tree-based buildings is still wonky and borderline useless
    – The story ending was very satisfying in elaborating on the lore, but hollow in the character consequences

    If you can, play it with a friend in co-op as it makes the entire experience far, far richer.

  11. Velleic says:

    I always hear that the world in this is really beautiful, with great weather effects and such.
    But it’s inside a survival horror game, so I probably will never see it.
    I do remember reading that you can type something to activate peaceful mode, though. Any idea if that’s still in there?

    • ZedClampet says:

      Yes, it’s still in there. There are 3 options. Normal means the crazy people are there day and night. I can’t remember what the second option is named, but the crazy people only show up at night. Then there’s Vegan (and I believe that’s the word you type in) where the crazy people aren’t there at all. The second option might well be Vegetarian, but I’m not sure.

  12. neofit says:

    Sound interesting, but the save system (save locations + plus no saving in the grande finale) ruins it for me. With the OPTION to use a proper save-anywhere system it would have been a release-day purchase, but the way it is now it fits the “why should I waste my time losing progress and/or replaying the same things when I have 120+ games in my Steam wishlist?” category.

  13. morganjah says:

    So, one’s son being kidnapped is a low priority for the character in this game?

    • misterbung says:

      Yeah. My friend and I legitamately forgot about it for a few days of play. There’s nothing that really happens to push you forward, and the area you need to access to finish the story requires a LOT of prep.

    • Chiron says:

      It’ll do the boy good and maybe teach him some manners.