Through the Woods by Oslo based Indie Studio Antagonist is a third person psychological horror title available for Windows. Following in a similar vein to other exploration adventure games it attempts to create a balance between gameplay and narrative. Offering around three hours of playtime it is told largely in retrospect by the games main character; the Mother. The setting is a forest on the western shore of Norway, the locale provides the perfect ambience from which to regale us with the character's of Norse folklore and mythology, whilst taking a look at the fragility and sometimes enigmatic nature of familial relations.
The game is currently available on Steam for £15.99
We open with the Mother and her young son Espen who've recently arrived at a lakeside forest cabin. Being as the Mother has gone there predominantly to work, we quite quickly see Espen's restless and inquisitive nature which heavily contradicts the fatigued and detached attitude of his Mother. Continually bugging her for entertainment and company the way is immediately paved for his inevitable disappearance. Prior to this we are shown a (rather shoddy) cabin montage of her performing everyday duties whilst narrating about how she struggled with immediate family life, the absence of both Espen's Father and any kind of initial maternal bond with her son. As the game progresses it is revealed to us that not only does the protagonist have a few other skeletons in her (undoubtedly Ikea) closet but also this whole woodland break seems to be one big symbolic penance in how it plays out. For a game that communicates itself largely via the 'experiential' method it does try very hard to be somewhat controversial with not only the subject matter but also with some of the characters personalities and the decisions that they make. After briefly setting the scene we are taken on a journey that not only relates to the main characters conscience but intertwines it with the lore and dark legacy of the mountain region.
Control-wise, I opted for gamepad and off the bat everything is straightforward and fairly responsive. Not having a large list of actions, the tutorial section of which we are placed directly into is integrated quite nicely. One of the more poorly designed features are the character models themselves as although responsive enough, they do feel very clunky. Not unlike the majority of walking simulators, interaction is kept relatively minimal for the most part and for around the first 30 minutes it really does feel like exactly that; a walking simulator. Eventually, the mountain region delivers a little more flavour; there are a few intermittent hamlet style areas to explore and in which to learn about local folklore and the sombre situation that the people of the area have tried to live with. Some of this is told via diaries and novels and some via very sporadic and sometimes ethereal character occurrences.
Pretty much everything that you have an opportunity to interact with is, upon reading/studying, automatically collected. As nice as it is to have these things break up the sometimes, monotonous trekking, it does seem to cheapen their relevance as they are immediately relegated to not being much more than achievement fodder. It may seem like a minor gripe but I just didn't see any reason as to why she would take a lot of these objects with her as they felt like neither quest item or collectable.
Thankfully, it isn't too long until we stumble across some more tangible parts of Norse mythology, bringing into play one of the few times that we use the sneaking mechanic and a more defensive utilisation for the flashlight. The latter being something that is thankfully, only used sparingly as a deterrent as its reliability isn't something to be remembered fondly. Put it this way, Alan Wake wouldn't have stood a chance if he'd used the same model.
At around the halfway point we are treated to a lot more light and shade in terms of areas where upon we have to creep through caves, cross rope bridges and travel through small residential areas in varying states of disrepair. These moments are very welcome, however if i'm honest (if not a little pedantic) you barely spend any time feeling like you're actually going through "the woods" as much as "the mountains with a fair few trees".
Peppered throughout the region are quite frequent points of interest or 'landmarks' including large ornately Gothic doors and what appear to be, way-points that illuminate beautifully upon approach. As nice as these moments initially feel, they don't seem to serve a great deal of purpose aside from adding to the aesthetic in a somewhat random manner as opposed to an intriguing one. So much of the design seems to be quite disjointed, as though parts of the game structure were introduced but then quickly finished in an ad hoc manner bereft of the appropriate fleshing out, they really do beg to be imbued with some deserved relevance aside from being just another 'interesting thing to look at'.
Through the entire short adventure it felt as though the subject matter and folklore was more gestured towards than actually integrated properly which did leave me with a sense of detachment throughout. There is, in particular, a part towards the very end where we are learning what could be looked at as the piece de resistance of the Mothers history told to us via a Norse folklore theme which simply felt like yet another wasted piece of mythology shoe-horned in at yet another inopportune moment.
To get a better idea about the game, watch the video review by our editor John Hicks below:
Graphics and sound
The majority of the set pieces in the game are very pleasant to look at with a nice amount of detail. Lighting and bloom effects all serve their purpose very well indeed which is just as well, being as for the majority of the game, exploration is at the mercy of your flashlight. There are numerous occasions where I stopped to admire a vista and take in the beautifully rustic surroundings which did prove to be a nice departure from the rather frequent greys and browns of the mountain. Another nice touch came from the blood red fauna that make an appearance a little further on, contrasting well with the aforementioned duller parts of the colour palette.
Earlier on I touched on the stiff character models, this isn't helped by a very mannequin-esque design that lacks virtually any expression, facial and otherwise which I also feel hinders character/player connection.
I didn't ever feel that the character got stuck on anything and there weren't any glitches to speak of but the character animation is notably poor and seems to consist of far too few frames than is necessary.
A particular negative that seemed to stand out more than most were the water effects. Being still; the water design appears effective enough but upon flowing it takes on that very thick, treacle like resemblance that's seen quite often in games and lacks the definition that is admittedly, very hard to capture for a lot of game developers.
The sound has to be one of the most effective elements of Through the Woods. The ambient soundtrack featuring nicely but perhaps not enough, sets a lovely tone. The habitual noises that some of the characters make not only add a great deal to atmosphere but also help peak the sometimes understated tension, from the guttural rumblings of enemies to the sharp exhales and sniffs from the main character.
I do however, feel that a lot of what the developers try to deliver in terms of plot misses the mark quite widely, due not only to pacing but in some places poor performances from some of the actors. I understand that the Mother is supposed to be somewhat hardhearted but she speaks at times as though her dog has ran off as opposed to the more pressing matter of her son being abducted.
In an attempt to engender myself with a bit more of the games spirit I switched, for a time, to Norwegian dialogue with English subtitles as this usually proves to be a very effective method in which to bolster immersion. Alas, this didn't help a great deal either and seemed to only highlight the lack of gravitas (not to mention volume) with a lot of the dialogue delivery. Don't get me wrong it's certainly not all bad, in the latter part of the game there's a fantastic confrontation between the Mother and two other characters played out in a very unnerving manner indeed with some great voice acting. It does happen a little too late however, especially given the games short playtime.
It's hard to think of something that I could class as a big enough redeeming feature so as to recommend Through the Woods. I'd very much like to be able to describe it as a flawed gem but I simply can't, mainly as the game from start to finish was a very shallow experience. A great idea if not an uninventive one but a lot more could've been achieved had there just been more development. If I only could've experienced the mythology on a deeper level and been given an opportunity to relate a bit more to the characters, especially the Mother.
In my eyes, the biggest issue this game has is its short length. Antagonist seem to want to include quite a lot but not give the game enough playtime for its content to shine. It wouldn't have been as bad if I could accuse the developers of merely 'gilding the lily' but I feel that if some aspects were taken away, the game would become boring and even more undeserving of its current price. All in all it's a relatively ambitious project that genre-wise; feels neither here nor there, and thus ends up being a missed opportunity filled with set piece after set piece that sadly, do not seem to earn their place at all.
|+ Very immersive sound||– Not very immersive gameplay|
|+ Great lighting effects||– Clunky and bland character model design|
|+ Some chilling enemies||– Poor implementation of Norse mythology|
|– Far too short for what it tries to be|