Armed with nothing more than an axe, a few cans of soda, and a paltry supply of medicine, I step out into a new world filled with beauty and horror in equal measure. The island I've found myself stranded on holds glistening ponds rife with exotic fish, fields in which rabbits and squirrels frolic together alongside giant lizards. Crocodiles swim in the lakes and deer cavort in the thickets of the woods. In many ways, this island seems a paradise; that is, until the sun sets and human horrors emerge from the earth.
In The Forest, Endnight Games has carefully crafted a vibrant ecosystem in which players become disruptive interlopers and slowly descend, both figuratively and literally, into madness. Players take on the role of Eric Leblanc as he flies on a plane with his son, Timmy, to an unnamed destination. The airplane seems to hit turbulence in the opening scene before crashing violently onto a remote island. As Eric struggles to maintain consciousness, a strange human painted red wades into the wreckage and takes Timmy away. When Eric finally awakens, all he has are the supplies he can scavenge from the plane and its deceased occupants and his will to survive and find Timmy.
The Forest becomes a game about survival and discovery after those initial opening minutes. Finding good places to set up camp, creating defensible positions, and developing sustainable ways of harvesting food and water are the absolute priority. To do all of that, players will need to master the crafting system to create structures, upgrades to their gear, and even entirely new pieces of equipment. It might also require some trial and error, as those opening days can be quite risky for a novice player.
The biggest danger in The Forest comes at night. You see, for as idyllic and peaceful as the island can seem during the day, it's actually home to several groups of cannibals. They aren't automatically hostile at first, but with time their attitude will shift. This shift happens sooner if the player begins attacking them, building large structures, obstructing their patrol paths, or journeying into their underground catacombs.
Once the cannibals become hostile, The Forest slowly ramps up the frequency and strength of their attacks. Players will need to turn to devious traps and fort layouts to keep themselves safe - but always remember that safety is relative in The Forest. As attacks become more potent, players will begin encountering a wider variety of cannibals, like ones that throw Molotov cocktails that can leave a base in flames or bombs that are capable of blowing a hole through your defensive walls.
However, cannibals are not the worst thing that can crawl up into the surface world. Nightmarish conglomerations of limbs and heads occasionally roam the wild and catching their attention can prove to be incredibly deadly for the unprepared player. These behemoths can plow through defenses and traps with ease, leaving your carefully constructed bases in tatters. Even worse, they represent the primary threats once players have explored enough of the overworld and begin spelunking into the dark caverns that delve deep into the earth for treasure and resources.
The possible treasures that await in the depths of The Forest's caves are certainly worth the risk. Improved axes, components to build explosives, hints at the history of the island and the origins of its twisted population, and gear that enables further exploration of caves can only be found by exploring the various nooks and crannies the cannibals have filled with their trophies and victims.
The Forest does something interesting with its pacing and story. It initially hits hard with the horror of cannibalism on full display. Cannibals feast on their downed comrades, their caves and settlements hang bisected bodies and limbs everywhere, and they'll even build horrific displays in the night to mark their territory. However, over time, The Forest pulls a fantastically creepy and insidious slight-of-hand trick: These scenes gradually become mundane, normal - and there's always the option to fall into similar practices. Players can also turn to cannibalism and create effigies to mark their territory, blurring the line between the player and the monsters.
Arming players with the ability to participate in cannibalism poses interesting moral questions: How far are you willing to go to survive? Have you really survived if you have abandoned the things that make you human? These questions tie in nicely with The Forest's climax which asks the player how far they have fallen from where they were when the game began. What sacrifice are you willing to make for something you see as yours?
The Forest can be tackled solo or in a group with up to eight people playing simultaneously. The solo or duo experience seems more suited to players who value the survival horror experience and are looking for a more focused game. Playing with more than one other person lowers the tension while diving into caves or getting into scraps with groups of cannibals. However, it also makes building large settlements a more attainable goal. I'd encourage everyone to try both modes of play to see what suits their personal tastes best.
After four years in Steam's Early Access program, The Forest finally looks great in an optimized state. The lighting effects as the day slowly cycles to night are especially great. Lighting in extreme darkness becomes a major hurdle since, oddly, being in the dark makes it difficult to see. There's no way around this by being crafty with the lighting settings; players simply have to make do with whatever light sources they can find. The all too real danger posed by darkness serves to make plunging into foreboding caves that much more frightening. It also highlights Endnight's impressive use of sound to convey the feel of locations, whether that's the creaking of trees in the woods, the drip of water in damp caves, or the maddened shriek of a blood-crazed creature in the woods calling for reinforcements.
Going into The Forest blind and discovering the scope of its world, crafting system, and secrets was a really enjoyable ride through a new entry in the survival horror genre. It manages to toe the line between enjoyable building sim and the horror of monsters lurking in the dark. The story on its own isn't terribly interesting save for an impressive twist leading up to the end that might have been better served with more integration to the wider game. However, the mechanics and presentation of the game tell a story all their own that makes the core narrative stronger by association. At a mere $20, The Forest is a huge steal. I spent over 60 hours in it until I reached the end of the story, but I plan on diving back in with some friends to see what kinds of crazy contraptions and bases we can build in the dangerous wilds.
The Forest is currently available for PC and is rumored to have a PlayStation 4 port on the way).