I’m not someone you’d want around in a survival scenario: zombies, tribulation, camping, the park. Frankly, I possess very few skills and many undesirable qualities. If I were placed in an environment containing more than 65% Nature, I would die. I bring middlin’ genetic value to the table, but honestly, you could do better. I have no aptitude in engineering, construction, basic math, unarmed combat, logistics, celestial navigation, tool use, or athletics. I can’t operate a chainsaw, drive a motorcycle, construct an igloo, butcher an animal, or dress a wound. A slurry of cynicism, negative affectivity, and acute anhedonia give rise to a personality best described as “unpleasant.” I’m freakishly resistant to cold, but that power comes at a high price: my cognitive abilities begin to break down above 85°F/29°C, collapsing completely soon after.
You may be curious why I’m telling you all this.
I’m telling you because The Forest is like the anti-Steerpike. It’s almost everything I’ve spent my life struggling to avoid or destroy: nature, hot weather, jungle ecosystems, food that isn’t processed and cello-wrapped, children, camping out, slimy things, scary things, not being able to go home when I want to…this is a long list, so I’ll cut off here. Suffice to say that if I hate, fear, or have pledged to overthrow it, chances are it’s in The Forest. If I had, in real life, even a few of the experiences presented in The Forest, I would instantly die. But thanks to the magic of video games, I can safely handle this Steerpike Kryptonite. Hell, I can enjoy it. And I did.
Enough about me! Into the woods!
The Forest is open-world survival horror from indie newcomers Endnight Software. It’s already functionally solid in mid-alpha, but will live or die long term by the amount of stuff there is to do. That part’s not finished, but Endnight reliably pushes content updates twice a month. If today’s content represents say 25% of the final, The Forest will be out of the park. Even now it’s a safe buy, possibly even a bargain, provided you don’t have illusions about what Steam Early Access is. A commercial-range price tag wouldn’t surprise me once The Forest ships. Frankly it’s worth $50 on production values alone.
Last year a gruesome, terrifying trailer sparked interest. Open world horror, marooned in a tropical hellhole, hunted and alone. As it turns out, The Forest has plenty of scares but is much more survival than horror; the trailer over-emphasized the fear factor (it did not over-emphasize the gore. This game’s a piñata of decapitated people, hacked up people, face cut off and stuck on a stick people, cooked people, eaten people…lavishly squishy and glistening. Fair warning).
You and a little boy I assume is your kid are on a flight somewhere, but airplanes have one purpose in video games: to crash in some remote and inhospitable place.
So you crash and when you wake up, this scary feather-wearing bone nose man who was definitely not on the flight (no one is on the flight, they haven’t added passenger models yet) picks up your unconscious child and goes away. They take all the other passengers too, but you have to imagine that part for now. Ritual sacrifice? Passenger sandwiches? And why’d they leave you behind? (spoiler: it’s passenger sandwiches. As to why they left you, probably because there’d be no game if you were a sandwich).
I’m not sure what percentage of the story has been implemented so far. There are a few scripted sequences, one of which is flat-out terrifying, but in these open-world games progress is up to you, and in The Forest, there’s no progress until you learn how to survive. A preliminary evaluation of the crash site indicated that my liabilities were many, my assets limited to
This was overly pessimistic. Taking stock again revealed
Panicked, I looked a third time, and realized there were
- Iguanas and bunnies.
Really there’s tons of loot at the crash site, but I wasn’t looking through The Forest’s eyes yet. You have to learn to see its world for yourself. The tutorial is a study in minimalism (three steps) yet gives you all the knowledge you need and no sense of missing something. In five minutes flat you know how to gather materials, make a shelter, start a fire, set yourself on fire*, and identify some edible flora. Mild prompts and highlights call attention, while other things are revealed through experimentation and logic. They didn’t want The Forest to be heavy handed, that’s clear, but they didn’t take it too far the other way either. It quietly tells you when you’re hungry, tired, getting sick, actually sick, wet, cold, gently and unobtrusively, a friendly tap on the shoulder, then “sorry to interrupt, but you have a touch of hypothermia.”
(*Not technically part of the tutorial, just something I learned during my fire-building lesson).
You use the tools at hand to make better tools, those to make better still. Rabbits and lizards are more than set decoration, sticks and rocks become necessary staples. A metal camping hatchet conveniently stored in a flight attendant’s abdomen is your constant companion. Trees chop with satisfactory thumpings, crack and fall with slow elegance, and break into logs. Strewn luggage is your last hope for modernity, so pray you find useful stuff because something really dark is going on, starting with what those natives did to the rest of Coach Class.
Passenger bacon is not the most horrifying thing in or beneath The Forest, which isn’t shy with disturbing visuals and graphic violence. Dix saw me playing on Steam and tried to advocate for the native side of things. “How do you know they’re evil?” he said. “They beat me up and put me in a cave.” “Maybe they’re sheltering you.” “I just found a big pile of torsos.” “So they’re organized.” “Lady hanging from the cave ceiling.” “Upside down?” “Yes.” “New age health thing, island gravity boots.” “Skinned.” “The lady is skinned?” “She is.” “Maybe she wanted to cool off.”
The crafting element is divided into large-ish permanent craftables and little inventory ones. For the big stuff you place blueprints on the ground and then drag the necessary materials over. Spread out your inventory to review little items and combine them. It’s more real-world than Minecraft’s system and also far less complex, but you do invent some strange recipes, leading to stranger revelations. I had the following mental conversation with myself at one point:
We’re moving back to the crash. This beach is a cannibal clown car. So! Can you disassemble your stuf…no. Okay so new camp. Rebuilding the effigies is the problem. We have…two…heads… yeah, two…which is four short. Top priority: more heads. We need more heads.
The Forest is the only game in which you will track how many human heads you’re carrying. Turns out there’s no such thing as “too many heads.” Heads are handy! Hands are handy too. Legs, feet. Limbs in general have a surprising range of utility.
Non-appendage-related activities include searching for your fellow passengers, searching for your kid, exploring, and building elaborate traps, shelters, and survival equipment. It’s all quite satisfying, and I at least found myself more willing to pick up and move than I am in Minecraft, which really isn’t that similar to The Forest, beyond certain shared mechanics like crafting and procedurally generated worlds. A similar comparison could be made between Minecraft and Facepunch Studios’ Rust – or Rust and The Forest – it makes sense in certain contexts, but don’t read too much into it.
What really matters is that at this point you shouldn’t judge it on content at all. I was running low on new experiences at about the five hour mark. To really succeed, The Forest is going to need a lot more meat. A five hour game is okay, but a five-hour freeform procedural sandbox? Everything hinges on feature quantity. Failure there is failure period. But if Endnight interprets “version 0.04” the same way everyone else does, there’s a lot more we haven’t seen. Expect some major content injections moving forward.
It resembles IonFX’s underrated Miasmata insofar as both are tropical survival adventures with few enemies, much player death, and open worlds. Pioneering the scavenge/starve/start over concept was 1994’s Robinson’s Requiem, a game of fantastic ideas and great potential, all of which came to nothing because of sloppy execution. Both The Forest and Miasmata seem inspired by Robinson’s Requiem, and neither make its mistakes. All three share a common thread: the environment is the principal antagonist, and you meet your doom by failing to respect this patiently cruel and omnipresent enemy that’s capricious, tireless, silent, and equipped with a vast arsenal. It cannot be harmed, never wearies, has no morale to lose, and never stops. No matter how good you get, you’re always at its mercy. It’s just waiting for you to make a mistake – all its victims do – and that’s the end. You have died of dysentery.
It’s hard to focus fear on the environment, but the natives are terrifying. The way they run and climb, their sharpened teeth and plastery body paint, the way they turn up in groups and mill around. confusing their numbers and attacking when you think they’ve gone away. The way they disappear until you look up, or behind, and then there they are clinging to a tree, staring down at you. I don’t recall them ever making a sound, while the piano that heralds their arrival becomes synonymous with terror. Daylight or darkness, they are a chilling presence long after they’ve stopped being a threat. The Forest needs to do more with them, add a sense of being hunted to the eerie being watched they already do. It also needs more environmental hazards – more wildlife and dozens more ways to die. The Forest is permadeath; I rarely made it past noon on the second day the first ten tries. Then something clicked and in an instant what had been terror became routine. Day 2 and Day 200 should both feel like they could be your last.
The Forest is beautiful. Maybe not heart-stoppingly so, but close, and extra points for good performance and a fair selection of graphics tweaks. Endnight is a four-person studio; they’re quick to credit extensive contract support, but still. Some basic functionality like keymapping remains absent, likely due to where it is in development, but overall even at 0.04 The Forest seems like a finished game. Its polish and stability would destroy some shipped $60 games – X Rebirth is still a colossal mess eight months after it shipped. Imagine what its 0.04 looked like.
Survival-focused games walk a fine line. It’s easy to overdo or underdo, make something too realistic or too abstract. Striking a balance is hard, and many have failed. The Forest at this stage seems to be experimenting with those lines, adjusting based on Early Access feedback. As it stands, nothing is quite where it needs to be.
Having to eat every five minutes is annoying, but food’s so easy to get the whole exercise is pointless. Fatigue is somewhat influenced by activity and drains naturally throughout the day, but isn’t smart or dynamic. Chop wood for hours today and you should still be sore tomorrow; Fish all day and you’d be fine the next. As it is you sleep and recover. On the plane you find a pedometer so you know how many steps you’ve taken, which is utterly useless; why you get this instead of, oh, A CLOCK I couldn’t say. You can build assorted fires, all of which go out too quickly and none of which can be stoked with logs or sticks. For some pointless reason you can add leaves or paper money to a fire for a half-second flare-up, the sole purpose of which appears to be igniting your trousers. Some fires are able to ignite your trousers but don’t give off any warmth, so you can freeze to death and burn to death, simultaneously, right next to them.
Certain elements – the elements – will be harder to perfect and are currently farthest from that state. Five straight days of rain turned me into a shivering, blue-tinged man-cicle, wolfing energy bars and unable to stray more than two feet from a campfire that insisted on going out every six seconds. Natives in loincloths capered about, unaware of a pelting storm that was cold only for me. They should have at least put on their new passenger-skin jackets, but honestly. It’s a tropical island, and freezing to death on one makes about as much sense as guns that degrade after an hour of use. Think. Don’t just do it because you want to or can.
But anyone who judges The Forest on its current state is being unfair. Therein lies the fatal flaw of Early Access. Masses buy on whim, ignoring disclaimers, then angrily calling shenanigans when their alpha software behaves like an alpha. Early Access shows vegetarians how sausage is made by feeding them raw hog dongs with fennel. The Forest was so much more polished than most Early Access work it dodged some backlash. Not having a Kickstarter also helped. At worst, Kickstart-to-Early-Access has a stink of a hustle, at best the stink is incompetence. The Forest smells of neither. It’s not nearly done, but given what I’ve seen I have every confidence in its developers.
Early Access raises the specter of a Mount & Blade effect too. Endnight is on the clock now, whether it thinks so or not. Consumers see a release, not a provisional what have you, and that means the tail’s begun. Very rarely do sales spike again once an Early Access game finalizes and moves to the Steam Marketplace. That’s a big reason why so few have made that transition, and why many never will. If Endnight doesn’t hustle, The Forest will never have a chance to be itself. It will have been played, enjoyed, and forgotten before it was ever out of the womb, which would be fair to no one.
But if you know about Early Access, if you know what you’re paying for and what you’re getting, is The Forest something you should buy? Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. It’s worth it today, and for the near future, Even if the completed game isn’t content-dense enough, it’s still a good buy right now. New content, craftables, story, features, and functionality will be added to The Forest for the foreseeable future. No matter where it ends up, it’s got a long journey, so for now it will only improve. Endnight has been so reliable with its bi-monthly content push the game title screen has a to-the-second countdown, and each is a pretty big injection.
Horror lovers may be disappointed that it’s not an Amnesia-level terror show, but it’s plenty scary. Craftophiles may deem the crafting system a little simplistic, but it works perfectly in the game’s context. The best audience for The Forest is people who like exploring, building, and dictating their own terms for survival in the world, but prefer a little more structure than pure sandboxes provide. It doesn’t need to be a complete arc, just complete enough to keep players rooted rather than asking what to do next.
It’s doubtful The Forest will have, or aspires to, a Minecraft level of sandboxery, either in terms of scope or audience sustainment. That’s ok; it doesn’t have to. Endnight, evidently aware of gamers’ broad tastes, has already included cannibal-free Peaceful mode for those who just want to explore and build. Other game types – maybe even co-op – will follow. As for me, I’m entirely satisfied with what I’ve seen, so I intend to ignore it until release. Endnight deserves my full attention devoted to their full vision, something I now say with certainty having had the chance to sample a bite or two (mostly the bites were taken out of me by cannibals, but still).
I was talking to Gregg and Harbour Master recently, saying I was out of control and only they could stop me, that I’ve gone down the rabbit hole of Steam Early Access. But they’re irritatingly kind people, which serves largely to highlight my own personality shortcomings and renders them unhelpful in this sort of crisis. “Since I’ve known you, you’ve never been shy about buying games,” said Gregg. “Don’t beat yourself up over it! I’m more surprised you’ve plucked up the courage to play The Forest.” He’s right, horror games are not my bag. I get nervous and can’t stop looking behind me.
I’m not sure where I plucked up the courage to play it either, but pluck I did, and it was well worth the pluckery. I have Darkwood too. Just wait, soon I’ll be immune to fear!
Gently suggest that Steerpike focus on the games more and not talk about himself as much in these because nobody cares via firstname.lastname@example.org.