Minor spoilers follow:
Developer Endnight describes The Forest as a “terrifying first person survival horror simulator” and it is certainly all of those things. In development for four years, The Forest originally started life when open world survival was next big thing. Now that everyone has moved on to the battle royale genre, many of these survival games are finally hitting version 1.0. Those with patience, and a love for the genre may find this to be a pretty exciting time, as games like The Forest and Subnautica are taking the open world survival genre and successfully adding a compelling story to discover along with the challenge of day to day survival. The Forest fully embraces its horror nature, and also like Subnautica, can be pretty scary.
I vividly remember my first experience with the The Forest: I thought it was visually impressive at the time, and the premise was extremely exciting. You are flying in a commercial jet with your son, only to crash land in a forest. You wake up as a survivor only to see a creepy, primitive looking person taking your son away. Not only did I have to survive, I needed to get answers and to find my son. And there is, of course, the immediate danger of another visit from creepy tribal guy. Later, I found myself hanging and bound in their cave and discovered that creepy tribal guy belongs to a group of cannibal mutants pulled straight from the 2005 film The Descent. I somehow freed myself and fought my way out of the cave, killing cannibal creatures indiscriminately with my axe until I emerged, covered in blood, knowing I had something special on my hands. I put it down to wait for its “official release,” and four years later, I’m not disappointed with the results.
Like recently released survival game Subnautica, The Forest has a story with a beginning and end, featuring narrative bread crumbs that help to move the plot along. Unfortunately, The Forest is not as well paced as Subnautica, and its breadcrumbs, by the game’s design, are harder to find. There are no waypoints on your HUD in The Forest holding your hand to the next major plot point, so you may find yourself searching repeatedly for the way to proceed. The answers that you find in The Forest are actually pretty compelling, I think, and worth the long searches through dark caves—though don’t feel too guilty if you resort to a guide, for time and sanity’s sake.
The Forest, at its core, is an open world survival game. That means worrying about things like hunger and thirst, as well as building shelter to save your progress and for safety. In survival games, making a safe place to rest is a matter of luxury, and a source of fun. Don’t get me wrong: building in The Forest can be fun, but most of the time I didn’t build for fun, but out of necessity. While nighttime can be dangerous, hunting parties, monstrosities and other horrible things prowl the daytime as well. Since you will be beset upon day and night, the best defense is a sturdy wall, but you have a bunch of options at your disposal. You can build shelters big and small (which also serves as a place to save your game) as well as custom buildings, and tree houses that would suit a Wookiee. Amusingly, you can also build rafts to paddle around the peninsula on which you’re stranded, as well as a house boat—a floating home away from home.
The way surviving works in The Forest relies heavily on shameless video game logic—with improbably fast building and an inventory that is impossibly large. While building a structure requires nothing more than placing its blueprint and adding materials to it, gathering those materials can take a really long time. Building in The Forest can be fun, but it can also be exceedingly tedious. Chopping down trees with most of the in-game axes can take a little bit of effort. Crafted items are also often more powerful than some of their commercially manufactured counterparts, you may discover. How a skull on a stick is a better weapon than forged steel is beyond me, but skulls on sticks are pretty fuckin’ metal, so I’ll let that slide.
Hunting is simple. Often chasing down deer and clobbering them on the head suffices. Some animals (and creatures) are skinnable, and yield crafting supplies or, in some cases, you can wear their skin directly for a bit of armor. Crafting tools and other items isn’t the most intuitive at first, and can be a bit unwieldy. But once I got used to the system, I was able to use it with ease.
Inventory management is interesting, as what you carry isn’t determined on the max load you can carry, but how many of any single item you can. You can only ever carry five sticks dynamite, for instance, and that’s completely independent of how much of whatever else you’re carrying.
Exploring the island is a treat, and can be simultaneously awesome and terrifying. Horror movie tropes abound as you come across camp sites whose inhabitants have come to grisly ends, and you stumble across the splayed and mutilated corpses of the other passengers and other unfortunate people that came before you. Not only are the scenes, settings and clues horrifying for their own reasons, the cannibal mutants themselves are both simultaneously horrible and amusing to fight.
It’s strange to admit, but there’s something satisfying with the extremely gory, visceral combat: to fight these barely human, horror-movie cannibal creatures was quite cathartic for me—almost therapeutic. Instead of feeling bad for killing them, I reveled in hacking away at these laughing, screeching, barely human abominations as they climbed trees to leap over my walls or surrounded me as I was out hunting. It was like “Facing my Fears of Mutant Cannibals: The Game.” (I mean, who doesn’t have a healthy fear of being cannibalized?) You can eat them for sustenance, hack off their limbs to create effigies, or use their bones to make all sorts of tools, armor and other stuff. “Throw another body on the fire” and “bones for the bone basket” became oft repeated phrases between my partner and I, which brings me to one of The Forests’ most compelling features: multiplayer.
The Forest has extremely fun, yet extremely buggy co-op. You can play with up to eight players on a server, paying as much or as little attention to other players as you’d like. Most of my experience was playing cooperatively with my fiancée, and sometimes managing to survive together presented its own challenges. Whether an item will be persistent, existent, shared (or not) within a play session is sometimes baffling to me. Items will inexplicably respawn, despawn, or just not work correctly while in multiplayer. But as buggy as the experience seemed to be, it was never broken, and often hassle-free. It was definitely my preferred experience with The Forest, and I’m curious how a small group working together would fare. Alas, I didn’t have a chance to try that for this review.
The Forest is a sometimes horrifying, sometimes tedious, but mostly fun survival game held together by a compelling story. Its sometimes buggy nature and janky systems didn’t dampen my time with it, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to those who either aren’t sick of the open world survival genre, or just want a different spin on it.
The Forest is available now on Steam.