Wot I Think: The Forest

I’ve loved The Forest when I’ve played it in the past. I first took a look in 2014, finding it limited but a lot of fun. I then went back in 2015 to discover it was hugely improved and far more involved. I even videoed half an hour of my inept ambling. I have been back since then, but not written any more, but it’s probably close to two years since I really dug into it. Now it’s out in a final version, I’m surprised how little has changed in the last three years, but also pleased to find the same mix of survivor and terror. Not quite so pleased to discover so many of the classic bugs are still there.

The opening sequence is now really fantastic. The core idea – opening on an aeroplane, some kid sat next to you, before suddenly everything starts shaking and you realise you’re crashing – that was always good. But it’s been made hugely more detailed since, and it’s been made far more clear that the kid sat next to you is yours, not only because he’s holding your arm at the start, but more importantly by the way you protect him, holding him into his seat when things start getting bad. (Although not enough to put his seat belt on…) You later wake up on the aeroplane aisle to see a mostly naked man lifting your child up in his arms and walking off the plane. Black out again, and now you’re on your own. There’s an axe, there’s some food, and there’s a forest to start surviving in.

Survival remains ridiculously easy. You are the most gifted of MacGyver types, able to whittle together a small condominium out of logs and string of an afternoon, and still have time to roast up some komodo dragon. It’s completely farcical just how elaborately you can build, and honestly, that’s one of my favourite things about the game. If you’re looking for a survival sim about desperately scraping your way through with scarce resources, then you are more than catered for by the market – The Forest is for something else. And it’s for fear.

Right, here be spoilers for the very early game, which has been on sale and featuring such moments for over three years.

What the game has always done well, and continues to, is to drip-drip-drip in the notion of threat beyond simply needing to stay alive. There’s that rather obvious moment of the dude stealing your son, but after that the first thing you’ll see are some extremely gruesome heads on spikes scattered about the landscape. Explore further and you might see some crude shelters, and any question that you’re alone is gone. But best of all is how you first encounter the humanoid threats: the first time you see them, they’re nervous of you. They scamper around you, tentatively dashing forward, then sprinting back. They seem vulnerable, nervous, and you can allow yourself the moment to wonder if perhaps they could be won over? Before you remember all those heads on spikes.

Except now, in this version, when they came for their attack that night I was able to nonchalantly chop them all with my axe and then get on with my work. Three years ago their arrival, spurred on by that initial meeting, meant the game’s terror – the inevitable failure in combat, and awakening in their gruesome underground tunnels – hit you hard and fast. At first I was pretty disappointed: oh no, had they nerfed it to the point where the best early moment is too easily avoidable? No, now things ramp up in a more interesting manner. This is now a much more delayed experience, and for a long while I was able to hold off their occasional invasions. And then the mutants came…

The Forest still gets all of this very right. Exploring the caves is a properly terrifying thing to do, with gruesome gore and dreadful mutant horrors to fight or avoid, along with the useful finds you’d hope for when taking such risks. It’s somewhat mitigated by the ability to save in any shelter, although there’s still plenty of room to go wrong. I’m writing this exact sentence having just lost a horrendous run of superb progress at the hands of a surprise mob attack when I knew full well I was pushing my luck poking around an enemy encampment for far, far too long. I justified it to myself by saying I was looking for a tent to save in, but really I was greedily looting.

And, like three years ago, I very much enjoy the stark contrast between outlandishly elaborate construction projects, hunting for the vast numbers of beasties to eat, and then going through the fear-factory of one of the game’s caves. And, like three years ago, I’m incredibly disappointed by just how buggy and unfinished so much of it feels.

These are elements that during early access you excuse, because hey, the game’s not finished. But now, in a release build, why on Earth do I have to literally circle my shelter before I can get it to pop up the correct icon to let me sleep? Why can I not see the missing ingredients for a half-built project unless I approach it from only one randomly assigned direction? Why does my axe swish impossibly through enemies and animals at random? Why do objects respawn all over the place And why is assigning items to hotkeys the most convoluted and entirely unexplained system imaginable?

Seriously, that last one deserves more detail. The game assigns the available hotkeys of 1 through 4 to the first four things you pick up. Which, because of what you can find on the plane, might be some pills, cans of soda, bottles of booze, and maybe a chew bar. Great. You don’t reassign them to what absolutely anybody on the planet would want – the axe, your crafted weapons, maybe a food stuff – in Options > Key Binding. Oh ho no. You don’t do it by opening the inventory, clicking/hovering on an item and pressing the button you want! Ha ha! No, what you have to do, with no instructions anywhere, is open your crafting mat screen, put your backpack (ostensibly holding all your items already) onto it, and then put the item you want to be assigned a hotkey next to it, right click to “combine” the two. This then produces a list of what’s currently assigned to hotkeys, but in a last-ditch effort to ensure it’s as unintuitive as possible, you can’t click on that list to reassign! No, now you must press the number key. And to be clear, there’s nothing – nothing – in the game that even fractionally implies that any of this would be something that could even work, let alone be the only possible method.

It’s a massive pain in the arse, obviously, and a stupid fiddly way to assign keys, but it’s emblematic of a game that still so deeply feels like it’s in the early access it already languished in for over four years. The issue is, it’s just one of so many systems that are completely opaque and utterly uninteresting to discern.

For instance, I want to make arrows. Arrows require sticks (easy!) and feathers. And there are birds everywhere! No problem, right? Except, yes. I tried hitting them with an axe, built a slingshot to fling stones at them, saw them fallen on by corpses, and all I ever got is an insubstantial morsel of meat. Googling this, I of course found furious forum arguments rather than useful information, with years of threads filled with people similarly bemused. It turns out – and this is the sort of thing you could notice first time, or keep missing as I did – that the do drop feathers on death: they drop them upward. They go flying into the air, and you have to run around like a kid chasing after balloons, hammering at E in the hope of plucking one from the sky. Good grief it’s stupid.

So much else about the crafting feels clumsy. Put an item on your crafting mat (a menu screen), and a cog will appear. Hover over the cog with your mouse and potential recipes will pop up, in a dreadful list of words and icons. But say you’re making something enormously complicated, like a Warm Suit. For that you’ll need rabbit fur, deer skin, fish skins, rope and cloth. But put, say, rabbit fur and rope on the mat and it’ll decide you’re ready to make a Small Rock Bag, and refuse to show you the ingredient list any more. Bah. It’s a small detail, sure, but it’s one that’ll definitely piss you off at some point, and one that’s enormously frustrating to still find in a game that’s been in public development for so long.

So I go, back and forth, with The Forest. I really like it, I especially love how ridiculously pretty it is, the astounding level of detail that’s gone into the animal animations, the way the ground becomes slick when it rains, the fact that I can craft a disgusting club made of human body parts, teeth, broken glass and fire. I love chopping down trees, building furniture, the moments of utter wretched horror when you realise you’re walking through a soup of guts. But I am enormously frustrated that it still feels like it needs a dozen more updates and patches before I’d want to see a 1 before a decimal point on a version number.

It’s worth noting you can switch off the baddies, and just play a plain survival mode, but I suspect this would be stupidly easy and quickly dull. It’s also worth noting that I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with the rather old-world depiction of cannibal savages as your enemies, and for all the protestations that “maybe you’re the enemy”, I’m pretty sure I’m not the one who’s making grotesque effigies from human remains and tennis racquets, nor filling caves with the fetid remains of thousands of human corpses. I haven’t finished the optional story yet, and sure, it’ll probably turn out they’re the victims of terrible external experiments and the like, but it’s not ambiguous on what tropes the game draws.

Still, The Forest remains a huge achievement, and a survival horror game that somehow manages to keep those two elements surprisingly separate and yet let each impose upon the other in very interesting ways. I do wish it had been tidied and bug-fixed by now, but I can’t stop wanting to play despite it.

Oh, and why have I not mentioned that missing little boy? Because I forgot about him as quickly as the game does.

The Forest is out now on Windows for £15.49/$20/€16.79 via Steam

33 Comments

  1. Someoldguy says:

    That start just screams “Fallout 4” at me.

    • shrieki says:

      for me those cannibals are scary as hell.
      the forest itself is amazing and intimidating- and it has been awesome since early access.
      maybe not much has changed because it was good from start.- but imho it has been fine-tuned in a very good way!

    • shrieki says:

      nothing fallout4-ish about the forest apart from a missing son.

    • Servicemaster says:

      That’s so funny you say that because I reloaded up The Forest at an attempt to finally get to the top of that mountain but instead I kept goofing around in the never-ending caves until I got so annoyed with the progression or lack thereof that I uninstalled it and am now having a blast with my Tank Girl roleplay in Fallout 4.

      I’m up to 30 mods and I got 11 Strength. Just found 4 fusion cores so the wasteland is about to get plowed ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)

  2. gabrielonuris says:

    So can I assume it isn’t as great as Subnautica?

    • ogopogo says:

      Subnautica is probably the best (singleplayer) attempt at the survival genre to date, so you’re setting the bar pretty high there. Nah, single player Forest isn’t quite that good. It’s still a damn fine game at a very reasonable price, though.

      Just for calibration, the best first-person SP survival games I’m aware of right now: Subnautica, Long Dark (sandbox), The Forest, 7 Days, the various Minecrafts… with the last three getting a real boost from adding a person or two.

  3. ByrdWhyrm says:

    I did not find the inventory interface or bugs as irritating as you did. I thought that the mutants were not fun to fight (they take way too much damage to kill), but otherwise I had a lot of fun with this. Also, the main story is definitely worth following. It gets very Resident Evil, and the ending landed pretty well for me. If you like Survival Horror games, this is easily worth $20.

  4. necurbanapauperem says:

    I’ve been back a half dozen times and frankly never noticed the hotkey issue. The feathers flying about I thought amusing. I did mind the lack of icons for resting however. On balance the crafting recipes disappearing was annoying but given how fast you can knock everything up, I was able to suspend my disbelief. “Where do I have to stick this… stick.. to make a log sled again? Oh yes”. It slowed it down, but almost sensibly? Almost.
    Also I know this has been said in previous pieces but such satisfying tree-felling. I had fun just deforesting with no plans to use the logs. Eat some progress cannibal scum. Try sneaking through my home made wasteland!

  5. Chem says:

    My biggest complaint is they moved effigies to when your sanity drops. I preferred it being the plane crashes and your character immediately decides horrific war crimes are the only sane answer.

    Oh well, at least I still have my skull club.

  6. MrEvilGuy says:

    I haven’t played it in a couple of years, but from what I’ve heard this is the only good survival game that has both a) co-op PvE and b) AI enemies that are a significant threat to your base.
    In contrast, for instance, Rust doesn’t have AI, and Ark bases aren’t threatened by dinosaurs.

    • cpt_freakout says:

      My brother gifted this to me on release, but I have a couple friends who I regularly game with, so when I saw that his had co-op I convinced them we should give it a shot. It’s been a total blast! I haven’t even touched the single-player (just to let the game know I can play multiplayer, because it doesn’t let you play multi if you haven’t started an SP game). Some of the horror is palliated when you’re dicking around with your pals, but the cave exploration is downright fantastic. We’ve gotten lost a bunch of times while discussing what route we followed and arguing over which way was the correct one – in the meantime, you’re hearing some damn mutant roar further below, building up the stress. It’s a really great experience. So if you have a friend or friends who are willing to play this with you, I thoroughly recommend it!

    • Angstsmurf says:

      What about Don’t Starve Together?

  7. miguelyoung says:

    you can build a BIRD HOUSE and it gathers feathers for your archery needs

  8. Blacksilver65 says:

    Worth noting they just put out an update with VR support for Vive and Oculus.

    • MrEvilGuy says:

      !!!

    • N7NobodyCats says:

      unfortunately, after the vr update, theyve all but stopped helping the keyboard/mouse players or fixing their problems, ive only been seeing fixes and updates for the VR side, and instead just fucked over the keyboard/mouse user side.

  9. caff says:

    Firstly – yay, John is back.

    I agree with a lot of this. I felt the crude early early access was more fun, because it was less finicky. It had no depth, sure, but I didn’t care because I was sticking heads on poles. In the finished game, I didn’t even bother getting past the first 30 minutes because I hated the crafting mat. What you’ve described in terms of having to form an ambiguous safe space sounds even worse.

    • N7NobodyCats says:

      tbh, the crude early access was a whole lot better, mightve been some small bugs, but at least thats all it was, just a few small bugs, but after its release, its like they opened a giant container that had a bunch of bugs, and just let them lose into the game. ive got pitch black water, drying racks campfires beds and water collectors that are invisible and otherwise unusable, broken campfires that have some weird invisible ropes tying it to my raft so when i paddle away i have campfire remains being dragged behind me, fishing? still cant do that becuz of the pitch black water. i want to make a stick bag, well maybe they fixed it idk, but at one point when i tried making it, it made a quiver instead, then a rock bag, thennnn it made the stick bag, it forced me to make 2 things i didnt want before letting me make the one i wanted. im dissappointed in the devs for releasing the game and not testing it first, for at least 2 weeks to find and squash some bugs.

  10. Premium User Badge

    Lo says:

    Bounced off the first trailer as soon as it got to the “savages” part, but I can’t pass up a WIT with J.W. wit! :D

  11. ladypyramidhead says:

    I don’t agree with most of this article, as the author doesn’t seem to understand the premise of the game and doesn’t use the observational skills and deductive reasoning required to piece the game’s story together.

    The Forest is Survival Horror, but like many of the genre, is a mystery at its core, therefore a huge portion of the game (the entire optional story) remains unobserved. An example of this is not knowing the “little boy’s” name as you literally cannot start the game without seeing it, and to go a little further in the game you can see why the player character is so great at building.

    The Forest isn’t a perfect game by any means (bugs, glitches, the pain in the ass shortcut keys, etc), but I feel like it’s unfair to review or speculate about a game you haven’t played much of.

    “It’s also worth noting that I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with the rather old-world depiction of cannibal savages as your enemies.”

    This is an extremely fair observation, but only coming from someone who hasn’t played more than an hour of the game.

    I could say so much more, but I really don’t want to spoil the story for anyone because it’s actually really good.

  12. bill says:

    I think I’d get frustrated with this game as my “dad” instincts would kick in with that opening cutscene and I’d be all “screw this crafting! I need to rush off and find my kid!” and I suspect the game wouldn’t support that in any satisfying way…

  13. racccoon says:

    I packed it away in steam grey lists in 2014, that’s the ones uninstalled, 95% of the games I bought on steam are in the grey lists.
    So today 2018, 4 years in a coffin of death I can dig this game up from its grave and see just how it plays.
    Thanks for the re-reminder on this game.

    • racccoon says:

      Just looked at steam its actually listed under folder titled of “Piece Of Crap” I hope it can be placed into a better folder like “Ok” or “Very Cool” otherwise it could end up lowering itself into “OMGWTFISTHISSHIT!” folder, lets hope not! I mean it can’t downgrade can it after all these years.

  14. WoodGuyThreepBrush says:

    I find the lack of direction or handholding at the start to be massively off putting. I have better things to do with my time than frustratingly wondering about trying to figure out the games mechanics and the point of the whole thing.

    • unstoppablem says:

      My group had the same problem on our first normal playthrough. It took us forever to navigate through the map while trying to learn the game mechanics. Once we found the map/compass, and explore most parts of the island, it was a blast on hard survival difficulty.

  15. wummes says:

    “I’m incredibly disappointed by just how buggy and unfinished so much of it feels”

    You lack integrity.

  16. quandt says:

    To reassign other objects to the hotkeys 1 to 4, you have to combine your backpack with the object you want to assign.

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