It may look like a cutesy platformer, but this acclaimed indie adventure is a much darker tale than it first seems…
There’s a certain kind of gamer for whom ‘realism’ is the most important factor when determining their interest in a new video game. But unless they’re talking about driving simulators what they usually mean is a violent game, ideally set in the current day, that features absolutely nothing that could be regarded as cute or cuddly. The term ‘mature’ is often bandied about in the same manner, even though mature and realistic are usually the last things you’d want from an entertaining video game. But thanks to its cute and cuddly facade Night In the Woods makes it work.
Night In The Woods was first released in February last year, but at the time we were never able to get hold of a review copy until it was too late. We’ve still never managed to speak to either the publisher or developer, but knowing this Switch release was coming up we realised it would be our last chance to review what is one of the most impressive video games of 2017.
Night In The Woods is an easy game to get the wrong idea about, but if you can imagine a sort of social realist version of Animal Crossing then you’re not far off. Although it has the trappings of a 2D platformer that’s really not what the game is about. Instead, it’s a heartfelt exploration of depression and existential angst in a small town, working class community. And if that sounds a little too realistic, then we should also point out that it’s extremely funny and stars a catgirl called Mae.
The fact that everyone is an animal of some sort is entirely irrelevant to Night In the Woods’ plot and purpose. It’s just a way of ensuring the game’s heavy themes don’t weigh it down, and in that sense it works very well; with art design that on the face of it seems carefree and happy but which hints at darker undercurrents of emotion.
The game’s story concerns Mae’s inglorious return to her hometown, after dropping out of college. The old mining town of Possum Springs has seen better days and now Mae is facing the prospect of being stuck there forever. The wider plot is a little silly, once you discover the town’s dirty secret, but that doesn’t matter because the real appeal is the much more down-to-earth problems of Mae and her friends.
It’s implied Mae has some kind of dissociative disorder, and so has trouble reconnecting with her old acquaintances, and struggles to make new ones. It doesn’t help that they have jobs and Mae doesn’t, as she instead spends her time exploring town and being icily sarcastic to everyone she meets. But she and all her friends have the same problem underneath: they’re approaching adulthood and they don’t know what to do about it.
Night In The Woods is essentially an open world game, and as such you’re given the freedom to go and talk to whoever you want. And while this isn’t a game that highlights its big moral decisions in the style of something like Life Is Strange, who you choose to spend the most time with, and how you treat them, does have consequences by the end of the game. In that sense there’s an element of Persona to it as well, especially in the fact that you can’t do everything on your first playthrough.
The game’s script is excellent throughout, managing to sound completely authentic for characters in their early twenties, while avoiding obvious clichés or soon-to-be-dated pop culture references. There’s some clever interactive tricks too, such as piecing together town gossip and the whispered secret from Mae’s past.
But the game’s greatest achievement is just how human it makes its anthropomorphised characters seem. Half the town is suffering from an existential crisis, but Mae in particular is terribly lost. And yet the game is able to portray this perfectly, without seeming too maudlin or hopeless. Instead she ends up being one of the most relatable video game characters ever put to pixel, and the closer your life experiences are to hers the more emotional the act of playing the game becomes.
In terms of gameplay, Night In the Woods offers some light platforming and a number of mini-games, which can involve everything from petty thievery to playing in a band. Apart from a cute little dungeon crawler on Mae’s laptop, none of them are particularly fun though and, thanks to the imprecise controls, the harder platforming sections end up just being a bit irritating.
These are still only minor issues though, and if there’s any real problem with Night In The Woods it’s the pacing – which sags notably in the middle. The game’s at least eight hours long, and it could do with being a little tighter than that. Not because it’s not interesting to spend time in Mae’s world but because your first instinct on completing the game is start it all again and see if you could maybe make it that little bit better for her.
Night In The Woods
In Short: A hugely impressive achievement in interactive storytelling, that tackles difficult subjects head-on but still manages to be life-affirming and relatable.
Pros: A superb script, with excellent dialogue, that makes potentially unsympathetic characters seem like lifelong friends. Great presentation and music.
Cons: The action and mini-game elements are fairly weak. Pacing sags in the middle half of the game.
Formats: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC
Developer: Infinite Fall
Release Date: 1st February 2018
Age Rating: 12