Like many things that require effort from me, camping is not my bag. Even if it wasn’t dark and claustrophobic and didn’t require dreary communal toilets, I’m reliably informed that there are bugs. And given that I can barely deal with video game versions – I’ve abandoned a lot of games because a spider hissed at me – I reject any premise where I can meet her in person.
But that doesn’t mean I’m not delusional about my ability to be a skilled survivalist if I wanted to be. Much like watching a half-hour 24-hour ambulance make me think I could run the NHS, the games imbued me with an inflated and very inappropriate faith in my own abilities. I am convinced that I will only survive but prosper if I ever had to deal with, say, a zombie apocalypse or a plane crash on a mysterious island. (Yes, you’re right: I’m really intolerable in Escape Rooms.)
That’s good, really, because surviving a crash and landing on a mysterious island is exactly how we get to know Sons of the Forest. In the midst of a missing persons investigation, a helicopter inexplicably plummets out of the sky, trapped in a vast temperate environment where deer gallop across a clearing, fish leap from crystal clear waters and cannibals hide in the treetops patiently waiting for their arrival. beat you to death.
Despite the hype, I haven’t played the predecessor, The Forest, because someone told me it was a survival game, and I like survival games about as much as I like those bugs mentioned. While I totally appreciate why they’re popular (I’ve had a great time with Grounded), my personal experience has been to play with the survival elements – finding fresh water, getting something to eat, building a rickety hut to sleep in – just to get in the way. I have no imagination to build something impressive, and I play games to escape the boredom of everyday life, thanks.
Not so with the Sons of the Forest sequel, though. While the survival qualities are undeniable – you will need to carefully manage your hunger, thirst, strength and fatigue; even more so when the weather turns and you’re quietly switching your brand to popsicles – that delicate balance adds to the fun rather than hindering it, and is refreshingly simplistic given the island’s vast variety of flora, fauna, and free-flowing water. Even death on normal difficulty is slow, and fighting to retrieve a lost backpack is rare. Plenty of daylight also ensures that you can usually do your homework with plenty of time for a little sightseeing.
And you’ll have to investigate. It’s easy to fall into a relaxing island sandbox routine, endlessly decorating your base with unnecessary extra floors and zip-lines and completely forgetting you’re supposed to be on a rescue mission. Again, base building isn’t a pastime that usually engages me, but Endnight’s pick-up-and-play scheme system somehow hits the sweet spot between a sense of necessity without falling into annoyance.
The real magic of the Sons of the Woods, however, is not in base building or 3D printing sleighs for reasons I don’t yet understand, but in the mysteries lurking behind the boarded-up caves and underground bunkers and those oh-so-pesky cannibals.
More experienced Forest Sherpas may tell you that in the beginning the indigenous people of the island are more likely to observe than to attack, but this was certainly not my experience with the first sunset over my temporary home. Maybe that’s where I set up camp. Maybe I just looked particularly appetizing. Anyway, that first night I spent endlessly shooing away the silhouettes that soared screaming into the dark sky and flitted unerringly through the shadows, the meager light of my fire illuminating everything. But if it wasn’t for Kelvin – poor, sweet, useless Kelvin – I wouldn’t even have that. Fortunately, your Rescue Kit includes a handy tactical axe, and while you may have to get closer than you’d like to use it, it should keep you alive long enough to figure out how the hell you should find a temporary shelter to organize something.
However, I suspect your mileage will vary greatly depending on whether or not you team up with buddies. My two teams and I – all new to the series but successfully battling the urge to seek out guides – tried and failed together, sharing our discoveries and working harmoniously to keep the base free of cannibals, dealing with the complexities of building tools and, you know staying alive. And I don’t think my experience would have been as enjoyable were it not for friends nearby who caught things I missed and helped thin out the cannibal caravan when it stopped for a visit.
However, beyond the blueprint building function, not much else about Sons of the Forest is intuitive. Yes, it will feel familiar to anyone who has spent some time with the original game, but for newcomers, the clumsy control scheme and disorganized user interface can take some time to get used to. Yes, the inventory system is really great – I will now automatically deduct points for any game that doesn’t allow me to distribute loot in such an aesthetically pleasing manner – but crafting can be labor intensive, not least because the recipes you have only become visible when you accidentally drop stuff Together.
The combat is a little crazy too – although this is somewhat countered by the extremely stupid enemy AI – but it can be a pain when you’re in caves fighting all sorts of beasts that were categorically not in the Christmas pamphlet. And while I appreciate the gentle kindness of our mute companion Kelvin, after being on the island for a few weeks, I’m not sure what else he brings (unless you want him to smash the table, because let’s face it – Kelvin is very, very good at accidentally smashing things) . Yes, he kept me alive those first few days. Yes, I appreciate his commitment when I ask him for a fish, forget I asked him for a fish, and then go back to the pile of glistening gills and scales. But other than that, Kelvin is a responsibility… and the less I say about the perpetually cold three-legged girl with the see-through top, the better (she sure can wield firearms, I’ll give that to her).
And there is still so much to discover! So many mysteries and puzzles still to be solved. Will we ever find out why someone buried the hatch leading to the elegant underground bunker? Or why do the locals have thin traces of wet, sticky blood from their ears? Why are there so many imposing card-locked steel doors on a (mostly) deserted island that remind me of the Dharma Initiative every time I see them? And will we ever find out why we have a terrible, horrible wrist tattoo that hums with sinister energy from a vicious last night in Magaluf and I’m in the ass at the tattoo artist?
Maybe. May not. The amazing thing is I do not care. And for a player usually so faithful to storytelling, that makes Sons of the Forest even more surprisingly liberating… and such a lovely surprise.
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