The Forest drops you out of the sky and onto an island, where it wonders out-loud if you could live that Robinson Crusoe life. Then things get weird.
For a long time survival horror was a term used to define any scary game. Somehow, the struggle to survive — which is present in any game with combat — was tied to the designation of horror games. Then Minecraft came out.
Survival was suddenly a genre in and of itself, and the creeping sort of horror that sets in when a person realises they’re out of options meant that in a way, the games that share its genre are survival horror too.
So we had horror games where you need to survive, and survival games where horror set in. The Forest is different — it’s deliberately both at the same time. And thanks to a concerted effort to favour neither survival nor horror over one another, it succeeds in being a perpetually tense experience.
The Forest Starts at Zero
Like so many survival games — and there are many — The Forest starts you off with nothing. You’re in half a plane, you’re hungry, covered in blood, and you’re pretty certain some weird stuff is going down.
You get an axe early on — helpfully left behind in a corpse — and from there your journey is whatever you make of it. Pressing the B button opens your journal, the gateway to the game’s building mechanic. You can craft fires, build shelter — do anything you need to live in your new world. You can even build… chandeliers from bones.
There’s something very interesting about the way The Forest uses resources. On hard — and we recommend you play on hard — survival is tuned to make you always feel on the brink of despair. You’ve always got just enough food, just enough drinking water, just enough of anything you need to get by.
You eventually stabilise at a point where you’re comfortable — or uncomfortable but alive, anyway. So far, so survival game right? This is where The Forest diverges from others in the genre. Like Subnautica, The Forest has a fixed map area that it wants you to explore. And like Subnautica, The Forest has a riveting story you can easily miss if you’re not paying enough attention, or unable to piece it together. There’s a lot going on in this world, and it’s up to you to find it (or not).
It’s a bold approach to storytelling, and an even bolder approach to progression. You only really ‘grow’ as a character in The Forest by moving forward through the story, so missing things is not only unfortunate, it’s risky.
That’s the main difference to Subnautica, where the story leads you to itemised progression. These items let you dive deeper, which leads you to more story, which would have you go deeper still. Major hurdles were resources and blueprints — without one or the other, you’d quickly get stuck.
In The Forest, exploration itself is the key. You will find the items you need flat-out — not the parts you need to build the parts you need to eventually get further. Because 95% of the exploration takes place inside cave systems, you’ll find the requisite pieces — climbing tools, generally — as you descend.
That’s not to say it’s linear in its progression — it’s extremely freeform. This is a cleverly crafted island with well-thought-out progression points. Coming to a roadblock in The Forest generally just means you need to explore somewhere else — and there’s plenty to explore.
The Forest is Deep
Above ground is a massive island, but below the tunnels and caves span nearly the entire game space. There’s a bit of artificiality about the size, because The Forest uses light (or the lack of it) to shrink your world to whatever is about three metres around you.
At night and in the caves, it’s pitch black. Your eyes adjust after a time, but never enough to really see what’s happening everywhere. It’s a hyper-realised idea of darkness, and it’s used to create a real sense of claustrophobia in The Forest. It’s tough though, because there are times when we feel it’s too oppressive.
There are nasty things on the island of The Forest. While it’s semi-realistic, it feels bad to be running through the woods at full speed away from them, barely able to see anything in front of you only to fall down a pit to your death. Especially when the nasty things don’t seem to share your troubles.
Still, that’s the nature of survival games — and of horror games. You’re not supposed to overextend. If you do, you have to own the consequences. And the tension created by low-light conditions during our 35-hour The Forest review is something we would never trade away.
One thing The Forest does poorly that can’t be hand-waved away is the shortcut system. It allows you to access four items without having to shuffle about in the inventory, but it’s such an unnecessary system.
The reasoning is that you can’t have quick access to everything, and so you can grab four things from your backpack quickly, but in practice it’s a needlessly annoying conceit. It’s not like your character doesn’t have pockets, or the backpack couldn’t be slightly more functional.
Games are more fun when you’re not pointlessly searching an inventory screen. There are more types of axe than there are inventory slots available — that’s nuts.
That’s probably our only real gripe in reviewing The Forest. If you decide to do your first run on Standard it’s not that big an issue, as the game world pauses when you use the inventory. Then again, if you’re in multiplayer it doesn’t — and multiplayer is the way to experience The Forest.
Friends Add to the Fun
All games are better in co-op. It’s a cold hard fact. It’s a trick some games use to hide their lack of substance even — it’s tough to realise you’re actually doing tedious busywork when you’re having fun with friends.
But The Forest is a great game made genuinely better in co-op. It’s full of little things that make the experience better. When you crouch, your name no longer appears on the map — combine that with the pitch black of the cave system, and spelunking with buddies is a never-ending escalation of jump scares until someone falls down a cliff.
You can trap one another by building a wall in the right place, or you can trick them into eating rancid meat. You can light them on fire with molotov cocktails, or take them out to an island on your boat and then abandon them. But you can also share food and weapons with them, and collaborate on building grand structures together. You explore together and unravel the mysteries of The Forest together, and you all progress together.
The Forest is better in co-op because the hurt you can cause them is funny but ultimately inconsequential, and your collective progression is intertwined — you don’t move the story forward without them, generally.
Is The Forest Good?
The Forest seems to get most of its press for being an Early Access success story, but we think that’s incredibly reductive. The Forest was Early Access, and it is a success story, but it’s more than that.
It’s a brilliant game that blends survival and horror into one terrifying, tense experience. The story it weaves is well-written, the gameplay — particularly the progression — is perfectly refined, and there are few games as hilariously engaging in their co-op.
With the support of its community, this four-person project was made into one of the better survival games (and one of the better horror games) this year.