I'm a sucker for invention when it comes to story in video games, and Beacon Pines drew me in with what looked like a choice-driven adventure. As you explore the down-on-its-luck farming town of the title, you discover 'charms'. Each charm is a word which can be deployed at set points to branch the story in new, severe ways. More importantly, you can flip back and forth between these pivotal moments at any time, allowing you to deploy new words in earlier chapters to see what happens.
Except, Beacon Pines is far less choice-driven than I expected. Instead, it's something far rarer and more ambitious in video games: it is a good story, well written, with strong characters you grow to care for.
You control Luka, a twelve-year-old who possesses several main character tragedies. His Dad died six years ago in mysterious circumstances, his Mum has recently gone missing, and he now lives with his inattentive Gran. You'll advance the story by steering Luka around town and talking to the other residents of Beacon Pines, most of which haven't been faring much better than you since an event called "the Foul Harvest" caused the fertiliser company that employed half the town to go bankrupt. Now a new company called Perennial Harvest has moved to town, run by the grinning, too-slick William Kerr.
That ought to sound like a familiar bundle of tropes, and sure enough Beacon Pines hits the beats you're expecting. There's a new kid in town called Beck who joins your gang and jealousy ensues, there are town bullies to be tussled with and, sure enough, not all is what it seems within the bucolic farming community. Playing Beacon Pines made me think about Spielberg, ET, The Goonies; you may well think of Stranger Things.
Familiarity like this often bores me (I ditched Stranger Things during season two), but Beacon Pines delivers in two key ways. First of all - and this might sound like faint praise - but despite its reliance on tropes, its writing still has integrity. Characters make jokes when appropriate, but those jokes are never winking, referential or glib. Even when the game lets you twist the narrative in wild new directions, character arcs remain believable and Luka, Rolo and the cast's emotions and conflicts are thoroughly down-to-earth. They felt real and it ultimately made it easy to care about them.
Those branches go to far stranger places than I expected - and frequently end with tragedy.
The second is that, if Beacon Pines does surprise, it's with the extremes to which it takes the story. To be clear, its plot beats are never graphic or grotesque. This is a game that looks like a Disney XD show and which stars anthropomorphic animal children, and although an early scene will have you sharing a dumpster with a bagged-up corpse, I'd describe it as cosy horror. It's in many ways the perfect game to play as the nights draw in and Halloween approaches. (Additional tip: it would make a great Steam Deck game - although on the other hand, it's also available via Game Pass.)
Yet the ability to redo your choices and switch narrative paths means that those branches are allowed to go to far stranger places than I expected - and, without spoiling anything, to frequently end with tragedy. When you reach these sometimes literal deadends, the sentient book that's narrating the story pipes up and invites you to climb onto a different branch, meaning nothing is really lost, but it makes your decisions juicier to know that their effects can be so sweeping.
It is you, the player, who is shifting between these timelines and not Luka. This means you know things your protagonist does not. I'd have loved to see this wrung for more tension, forcing you to steer Luka toward dangers in one timeline despite what you've learned from another, but there's little opportunity for that kind of interplay. Think of the narrative as a tree with branches - which is how the game visually depicts it within the pages of the in-game book - but it's a tree where the branches are all really far apart. This means you're always on a wild ride, and always discovering new, interesting facets of the cast and the central mysteries, but what you learn in one doesn't necessarily inform anything about what you as the player choose to do in another.
I'm using words like "choose" because, in these pivotal moments, you do literally select which word to drop into the story next, but it's debatable how much agency you really have. There aren't that many charms to find and each can only be used in one place in the story, for starters. Those words also offer no indication of what impact they might make on the story. In one instance, you choose whether rain should get worse or stop. In another, you choose whether Beck should tickle your bullies or simply act "strange". These decisions are a butterfly flap that produce completely unknowable consequences.
Even calling the outcomes of your actions "consequences" is a stretch, given you can re-do every decision and will play every branch to its conclusion by necessity in the five or so hours Beacon Pines takes to complete. It's hard to say which of the various timelines you experience is Luka's canonical story, but as a player, your canonical story is one which involves trying every available choice and ultimately ending up at the same conclusion no matter what.
Honestly, there was a moment about three hours into Beacon Pines when I realised: oh shit, they've tricked me into playing a visual novel. I'm not mad. I've spent a lot of this review trying to tease apart Beacon Pines' structure and the ways in which its linearity surprised me, but I meant what I said up top. Beacon Pines may well be a trope-filled choose-your-own-adventure that keeps its fingers stuck between the pages for you, but it's a testament to how well it delivers on its story, art and music that I enjoyed every minute of it anyway - and that I miss its characters now that it's over.