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