Exploration, discovery, and cannibalism in a story-rich survival horror sandbox.
I’ve been dumped in the middle of a foreboding, eerily quiet wilderness – like you typically are in open-world first-person survival games. As I make my way to the nearest coast, I’m startled out of my foraging by a bestial grunt and prepare to defend myself. But the hunched and disheveled creature pursuing me stops several yards short of tearing my face off… and waits to see what I do. This was the moment I realize The Forest is going to spend the next 30ish hours cleverly and terrifyingly subverting my expectations.
The wooded, alpine peninsula that becomes your home is almost idyllic in its quiet splendor, made up of delightfully verdant woodlands and sparkling ponds. But it’s also inhabited by several tribes of feral, macabre cannibals who mark their territory with grotesque effigies of human skin and bone from their victims. From the moment I first came across one, the peaceful, easy feeling turned into a constant paranoia. Everything was always just a bit too quiet, and even twigs snapping from my own footsteps or a rabbit darting out of a bush could make me jump.
Unlike so many video game enemies, the cannibals aren’t suicidally aggressive, and that’s what makes them so unsettling. The Forest’s greatest triumph is the convincing self-preservation of the AI that governs their behavior. Sometimes they run away. Sometimes they’re content to follow you at a safe distance to figure out where your base is so they can report back to their friends. Sometimes they’ll charge you to test your mettle, but stop short if you don’t back down.
The feeling that I was sharing these woods with intelligent enemies sent actual shivers up my spine.
There are fascinating and observable differences in behavior between the different tribes, between individuals in the same tribe, and even contextual attitudes based on how much they have you outnumbered, what time of day it is, and how much you’ve changed the environment with the simple but functional base-building system. The feeling that I was sharing these woods with intelligent enemies with the capacity for rationality and complex decision-making sent actual shivers up my spine. It’s a fear above and beyond being chased by something that just wants to kill you as fast as possible. While honing my skills as a wilderness survivalist, spelunker, and axe warrior, I also felt like a little bit of an anthropologist – a novel and intriguing experience I’d never really come across in a game like this before.
Below the surface, things can get a bit more frustrating. A big one is that for some reason The Forest doesn’t have any gamma adjustment settings, and the dim default left many story-critical caves outright too dark to play through without darkening the room around me. Your only renewable light source is one of those little gas station lighters which barely lets you see as far out as your own outstretched hand, and that led to a lot of me getting lost. Using darkness to create tension can be great, but this is overdoing it.
When I wasn’t frustrated by the excessive gloom, I could definitely see what the designers were trying to do. The lighter, for instance, is set up to go out after random periods of time. Each time you click to attempt to re-ignite it, there’s something like a hidden coin flip to determine if it comes back on. This led to some wonderfully heart-pounding situations in which I was plunged into total darkness, knowing there were cannibals stalking me, and my lighter clicked five, six, seven, or maybe even eight times before the flame returned and allowed me to get my bearings. The cave cannibals seem scripted to flank, disorient, and spook you with their erratic movements rather than going straight for the kill, which is further proof that the team behind The Forest has a strong understanding of how to inspire horror.
The story you discover down in those depths is worth the trek.
The story you discover down in those depths is worth the trek. It’s a multi-layered and creepy slow burn, doled out through abandoned camcorder tapes, disturbing discoveries, and clues left behind by your son who was kidnapped just after the plane crash that stranded you. The mysteries go deep and take you to some very unexpected environments that excitingly contrast the arboreal overworld and natural cave systems. The relatively small size of the map compared to other survival games is also a boon, making it more likely you’ll find at least some of the story areas without having to dive into a wiki. Make no mistake, though – you will more likely than not need to rely at least partly on community info to reach the end.
On top of your food and water gauges, a sanity score tracks how far you’re willing to go to survive, up to and including going native and cannibalizing the cannibals. The final moments of the story tie up the question of how much of your humanity you’re willing to lose to survive with an interesting moral choice. However, I do wish sanity had more noticeable impact on how you play – other than unlocking the ability to build effigies out of body parts to mark your territory when it gets below a certain point, the difference between 100 percent sane and zero felt pretty negligible.
The inhabitants of the island become more persistent and aggressive as time goes on.
The eight-player peer-to-peer co-op mode offers a distinctly different and enjoyable way to play. Having friends takes the tension down several notches and makes some of the story stuff almost trivial, but also enables building imposing and expansive bases that would be prohibitively time-consuming alone. Since the inhabitants of the island become more persistent and aggressive as time goes on, especially if you plop a fortress in the middle of their hunting grounds, it becomes something of a horde mode that I had a really good time with.
Unfortunately, these peer-to-peer sessions are temporary, and as far as I can tell, the dedicated server option (which can allow more than eight players and a persistent world) is largely nonfunctional at the moment. The screen to join a dedicated server is missing a scrollbar, which is bizarre, and all of the servers I came across were password locked with zero players. It’s possible this is a feature that’s not yet fully implemented, but that begs the question of why it’s even available from the multiplayer menu in the public client.
Performance was also quite respectable across the board. A lot of open-world survival games tend to be resource hogs, but The Forest runs slick and smooth on my Core i7-4770K and GeForce GTX 1070 on max settings, no matter how much is going on at any given time. That’s impressive, given the sheer density of flora, ground cover, and other small details texturing the map. I encountered some minor intermittent bugs, such as the transition animations between areas of a cave that need to be loaded separately spitting me back out the way I came – but nothing that greatly hindered my ability to progress.