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Sons Of The Forest early access review: a gorgeous island filled with cannibals and little else so far

Those are some really smart cannibals though

One of the best things a survival game can do is make you want to share your latest experiences with your family and friends At this, Sons Of The Forest succeeds in grand fashion. Often I found myself pausing the game so I could go find my brother and tell him about the latest Big Thing that had just happened. Some of the time, it's even for the right reasons. Perhaps I'd spotted a group of cannibals adopting some startlingly intelligent behaviour. Or maybe one of my NPC companions had just done something particularly endearing in front of me.

Or, more likely, I'd witnessed another example of the incredible jankiness which, like the island's flesh-nibbling denizens, loves to raid and pillage its way through nearly every aspect of the game. Perhaps I'd just cut down a tree and watched it soar high into the air, glitching all over the place like some demonic new type of tree mutant. Maybe Kelvin had just taken my instruction to gather logs a bit too literally, and deconstructed the entire west side of my house while I wasn't looking.

Sons Of The Forest's great strength is its ability to utterly transport you into its threatening, unsettling, but genuinely beautiful world. It quickly builds up the player's trust until they're ready to wholeheartedly buy into what at times feels like the next generation of open-world survival and crafting games. But then, at least in its current Early Access state, it breaks that trust just as quickly with a melange of unintuitive systems, game-breaking bugs, and a painful lack of content that makes one of the most gorgeous environments in games feel awfully hollow after a while.

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Like The Forest, its 2018 predecessor, Sons Of The Forest wastes no time in dropping the player unceremoniously into its titular forest island, with little more than a few strewn about travel cases for company. I ventured inland almost immediately, knowing from experience with the first game that my best bet was to reach fresh water as soon as possible. The island was immense, the nearest river far away, and so I had a lot of time during my opening trek to marvel at my surroundings.

I'll have to go back into games like theHunter: Call Of The Wild or Red Dead Redemption 2 to see if Sons Of The Forest really does have the best forest in games, but it's certainly in contention for the throne. The island has an incredible sense of scale, and there's barely any hint of design whatsoever. It feels like a real place. As I chopped trees with the help of my trusty companion Kelvin (more on him later), the wind picked up and started to buffet the forest canopy so realistically that it made me stop and stare. The sky would darken at times, and I'd look up to see that the sun had just dipped behind a cloud. Why don't more games do that? I felt like I was there.

A mutant cannibal enemy in Sons Of The Forest crouches down on an iced over lake, watching the player approach with an axe.
All it took was an hour or two of sporadic interactions with the unsettlingly intelligent cannibals for me to start jumping at misshapen tree trunks or the sound of my own character's laboured breathing.

I'd have happily wandered about the forest for hours, taking in all the sights and sounds. But this is Sons Of The Forest. And so the tranquility and beauty is carefully balanced out by an ever-present sense of dread and danger. Engaging with enemies in Sons Of The Forest feels very different from other games, and it's all thanks to the NPCs' impressive AI. When I first encountered mutants in my playthrough, they seemed as scared of me as I was of them. They'd climb trees at my approach, and call to one another. They'd try to provoke me by getting almost close enough to attack, before darting away again. When the violence inevitably began, some mutants grieved over their slain fellows. Others ran away, half-dead, before returning the next day with reinforcements. After over 30 hours of playtime, there's no doubt in my mind that survival games - perhaps all games - should look to Sons Of The Forest as the gold standard for NPC behaviour.

It's not just enemies that have complex behaviours. One of the big differences in Sons Of The Forest from the original is that you're not the only survivor of that starting helicopter crash. Kelvin has quickly become beloved by the SOTF community, and just a few minutes with him makes it clear why. A tragic figure, Kelvin starts the game deaf and brain-damaged from the crash, but very eager to help you however he can. You can write notes for him on your notepad, giving him orders such as gathering food or logs, or hiding in case of nearby enemies.

The player in Sons Of The Forest writes a note to Kelvin on their notepad, asking them to fetch logs.
I've grown very fond of Kelvin's slight lean back and closed-eyed nod whenever he accepts a task. He's far too precious for this world, and anyone who harms him will get an arrow in their back.

Then there's Virginia, a timid six-limbed woman who you might see cantering about nearby early on. The devs at Endnight have described her as more of a stray cat to offset Kelvin's loyal dogliness. Threaten or hurt her and she'll run, but stay calm and allow her to approach, and after a few encounters she'll start to trust you.

After that, like all cats, Virginia starts to prove her worth, leading you to interesting points of interest, or presenting you with offerings of berries or dead squirrels. And dual-wielding shotguns and pistols for the ultimate defence against incoming mutant raids. You know. Ordinary cat stuff.

Virginia, an NPC companion in Sons Of The Forest, sits down next to a river and looks up at the player camera.
Don't let her shyness fool you. Virginia is an expert shot, and can lay waste to mutants that threaten your home. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Endnight Games

It's almost a shame when the fighting begins in earnest, because the combat is not up to scratch. There aren't many weapons to choose from, and strangely, the mutants seem to have far more freedom and flair in combat than the player does. They can dodge, weave, and feint, whereas your melee fighting style can only be described as Drinking-Bird-esque.

We're starting to dip into the bad parts of Sons Of The Forest now. Early Access it may be, and that may excuse the oodles of bugs and jankiness, but it doesn't make them disappear. It certainly doesn't help with the learning process of an already challenging and unintuitive game, with its clunky diegetic inventory system, confusing map, and at times messy building system.

The player in Sons Of The Forest harvests a piece of creepy armor from a dead mutant in a cannibals' camp.
At one point I started looting a cannibal corpse, not realising there were other enemies nearby. But I couldn't cancel the harvesting animation, so my character stood there calmly cutting off strips of flesh while the very same thing was happening to him from behind.

So instead of fighting, I spent a lot of my free time building - the other major innovation of Sons Of The Forest. Using my guide book's pictorial walkthroughs, I quickly learned how to split logs in half with my axe and lay them flat for floors and roofs, or to plant logs into the ground, whittle the tops into spikes, and form a palisade for added protection from mutant raids. It takes quite a bit of getting used to, and sometimes it's quite janky, only allowing you to place down certain bits and bobs if you're looking at exactly the right part of your build. But it's an impressive and tactile system which gives you a lot of freedom to build how you want, while also going leaps and bounds further in terms of immersion than most games.

As time went on, I started to explore further from my base, and came across plenty of caves. The cave systems in Sons Of The Forest are often very long, cleverly designed, and claustrophobic excursions into the scariest environments the game has to offer. Slimy blind Cave Cannibals are unsettling, but the real dangers are the Fingers - so named for their rows of finger-like feelers running up and down the front of their body like a giant gaping maw in lieu of a face.

There are other monstrosities as well, from horrible mutant babies that catapult themselves at your face, to sewn together mutants which clamber along the ceiling or backflip their way towards you like giant human slinkies. To quote Liam... I don't much care for them.

The player navigates a dark cave in Sons Of The Forest with their flashlight.
I felt true relief whenever I finally got back out into the sun after a long and frightful spelunking adventure. Now that's atmosphere done right.

Much later, I went on a far longer journey to the East section of the island, to get a better idea of the scale of the landmass that was my new home. And boy, did it give me a sense of scale, but not in the dimension I was expecting. I should have guessed from the towering mountain that dominates the centre of the island, but the verticality in the environment is - there's no other way to describe it - lifelike. It's quite dizzying at times. And it felt quite amazing when I started to use the Rope Gun I'd found to create ziplines across giant chasms and up sheer cliffs. At one point I looked down towards the coast after a long trek, and I saw, far, far below me, a giant cliff from which I'd previously stood and marvelled at how high up I'd been.

What's sad is that when I finally got home after more or less circumnavigating the mountain and covering every part of the island, I had very little to show for my travels. That's when I started to get a handle on how little there is to do, and how much I'd started to resent the style of progression in Sons Of The Forest. At times it felt like drawing a big, uninspiring game of join the dots across the map. I'd love to have been given the freedom to choose the order I visited the various points of interest on my GPS. But often I'd enter a cave and find I needed an item from a different part of the island to traverse it, or I'd reach a point of interest and see that I'd need a shovel to get it, which in turn requires me to get several more items before I can obtain that item, and so on. The linearity of the progression feels completely at odds with the freedom promised by such a wide open, wonderfully realised environment.

Gorgeous the game may be, but when you look closer there simply isn't enough content in Sons Of The Forest to keep me playing. Not yet, anyway. All the good stuff is located in the starting quadrant of the island, and as you explore further, you see that there's just nothing of interest out there except more mutants. When I first started, I'd have to take a deep breath and mentally prepare myself every time I stepped into a new cave system. But later on that feeling quickly disappeared, to be replaced by disappointment at seeing most of the other caves on the map leading to just a single room with nothing inside except a couple of loot boxes. The further I got from spawn, the more rushed everything felt.

The player in Sons Of The Forest checks their GPS while running through the forest.
Your GPS map gives you lots of blinking green dots and purple markers promising important tools and items, but I'd much rather have found them naturally.

The same is true of the story - if you can even call it that at this point. After the opening helicopter cutscene, which makes it clear that you're meant to be searching for a missing billionaire and his family, the only story morsels you're given are occasional printed emails in caves and underground complexes which offer the tiniest tidbits of lore. When I reached the "ending", it felt incredibly jarring - as if I'd just watched the first scene of a film, and then skipped ahead to the last. As it currently stands, there's nothing in the game that carries the player through the story, so you're far better off forgetting the story entirely and focusing on building and fighting.

After seeing pretty much everything the game had to offer in my solo playthrough, I hopped into a multiplayer game with Liam, and I quickly saw that multiplayer is the best way to experience Sons Of The Forest. You can get a lot more done, cutting down on the grindier aspects like chopping and hauling logs for building. And I think it's a lot easier to ignore the lack of content when you're with friends, because it's easier to find and stick to new goals like building up a base of operations, and defending yourself from cannibal attacks. But even in multiplayer, sooner or later you'll fall into the trap. You'll start asking yourself, "okay, what does the game want me to do next?", and then you get sucked into that same uninspired join-the-dots meandering across the map, collecting odd bits of items and gear until suddenly you've got nothing else to do except finish the game.

The player in Sons Of The Forest aims their shotgun at a large mutant next to their riverside house.
It was a lot of fun laughing at Liam's first impressions of each new type of mutant, and sharing our real-time interactions with the AI while we were out doing separate jobs.

I know I'm being quite harsh on the lack of content in what is at the end of the day an Early Access title. Maybe I'd feel a little different if the Early Access had been announced differently. If the release had been phrased as more of a "hey, look at this amazing foundation we have - one day this will become a fantastic game", then I'd be all for it. But instead, we got more of an "oh by the way, it's Early Access" announcement 3 weeks before release, which I reckon fooled me into expecting a far more polished experience than we ended up getting.

Still, despite the bugs and glitches, the baffling mechanics, and the ultimate hollowness of the island, there's a lot to like about Sons Of The Forest. Not just like, but love. The AI is the best I've seen in this kind of game, and adds so much to the already sublimely creepy atmosphere. The forest itself is gorgeous, sometimes jaw-droppingly so. In a way this game is to the wilderness what Cyberpunk 2077 was to the metropolis. I guess sometimes jankiness and imperfection is the price you have to pay to do things that other games haven't done before.

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