I didn’t really know what to expect going into Night in the Woods, mainly because everybody was telling me something different. The Steam page, like every indie game ever, seemed incredibly vague and wasn’t going to give up any meaningful information without a struggle. Meanwhile, the mainstream reviews implied character-driven drama of a sort, and the audience reviews suggested it was the best thing since sliced bread dusted lightly with grade-A cocaine.
The actual answer is a lot simpler – it’s Scott Pilgrim meets Gilmore Girls, so at least it’s half good. And if you have to ask which one of those two things I like more when one of them contains Nintendo-themed kung-fu and the other one features a privileged brat and the world’s worst mother… Well, it’s a shame you have to ask, that’s all.
Night in the Woods is currently available on Steam for £14.99.
The basic plot is thus – in a 2D world where all humanity has been swapped out for anthropomorphic animals with varying degrees of emotional baggage, we follow the tale of Mae Borowski; a young girl/cat who has dropped out of college for pointedly unexplained reasons that she’s unwilling to discuss. She returns to her small hometown of Possum Springs to move back in with Ma and Pa and try to sort her life out once and for all, battling against old habits and her own problematic immaturity.
It’s also made pretty clear that her history with the townsfolk isn’t as good as it should be. Despite the genuine support of her parents, we work out pretty fast that Mae has done at least one incredibly bad thing in her teenage years that a lot of the townsfolk have not been quick to forget, though everybody’s hugely cryptic about it for the first ninety minutes at least. It’s one of those events so defining to the story that it practically needs capitalisation. It’s not the event, it’s The Event. Mitchell and Webb would be proud, despite the fact that we probably shouldn’t mention The Event.
Atmosphere is good, though. There’s an odd, ambient melancholy about the story, some hard-to-define quality that makes everything seem much more sad than it logically should be. Mae comes across as damaged and depressed, fighting every step of the way to deny just how bad the problem really is and overreacting when repression won’t cut it anymore. One bit that sticks out is an early sequence where she gets drunk at a party, and her actions manage to be both funny, embarrassing and filled with a sad poignancy all at once. That’s VERY hard to pull off, and one of those moments where I realised I was reviewing a game made by people with legitimate talent.
That being said, the pacing is… not great, partly owing to the way the gameplay structures all the little character arcs and side quests. Every day Mae wakes up, runs around Stars Hollow, and has little ongoing dialogues with various friends and neighbours. But this means it’s up to you to find them and prompt those discussions personally, because everybody else is nailed to the floor and can’t be bothered to come to YOU once in a while.
And honestly, I lost interest in some of them before too long. It’s pretty clear from act one which of these characters are going to give you the most bang for your buck, and which ones are basically supporting roles with the occasional proverb in them. Chain-smoking crocodile girl? Yeah, there’s obviously a lot more there than meets the eye. Beaky the bad-tempered porch bird? Eh, not essential to the overall plot, can probably skip without issue.
The honest truth is that I was losing patience with Night in the Woods at around the halfway point, about three hours in. It was all very well-written and perfectly serviceable, but as far as I could tell, no plot seemed to have happened at all. Small events were just circling around Mae like bees around a jam jar, but at some point you have to tip the jam jar over and cause some real excitement, otherwise it’s hard to get invested.
And without meaning to spoil, when that time finally comes that jam jar isn’t just tipped over, it’s goddamn thrown at the wall and the bees are replaced with man-eating panthers for good measure. A chance occurrence allows Mae to witness something she wasn’t supposed to, and suddenly the safety and stability offered by Possum Springs seem about as safe and stable as a Black Mesa research facility. Seriously, that five minute sequence bought enough goodwill and patience to happily get me through the second half, even though it never quite matches up to the promise of that exciting moment.
And then there’s the ending. No spoilers, but I will say that the conclusion and subsequent reveal of what’s been going on all this time are… Brave. I think there’s going to be a lot of people who like the finale and a lot of people who just frown at what seems like a bit of an anti-climax, especially considering a few events that intentionally go without any narrative payoff. For what it’s worth I thought it was interesting, though could probably have been handled a bit better overall.
All-in-all, Night in the Woods has a legitimately good story, bogged down by perhaps being spread a bit too thin and a bit too slow. The overall themes of maturity and loss of innocence are interesting, and there’s a bit of apparent inspiration from Firewatch in the way the story develops – though I’d say Firewatch probably nailed the snappy dialogue a little bit better. Then again, Night in the Woods doesn’t fob you off with a crappy eleventh-hour reveal about how the answer to the mystery is much less interesting than the mystery itself. I guess it’s all swings and roundabouts really, at least until you fall off the jungle gym and get tetanus from a rusty nail. Yeah, it’s THAT sort of story.
Gamplay? Well, there’s 2D platforming and… that’s it. You bounce around on vertical surfaces. What, you want more? Alright, we’ll occasionally drop in the occasional minigame. No, we can’t promise they’ll be worth a damn, just pick your least favourite and we’ll call it a day. Mine was the Guitar Hero knock-off, where you slam number keys in time to when they pop up to play a tune, one that you can’t focus on because you’re too busy slamming number keys. They’re also surprisingly difficult and come out of nowhere, with no warning as to what’s about to happen, but that almost feels appropriate with this sort of story behind it, so… good?
And yes, there’s platforming of the most basic stripe, to the point where it feels like the minigames are the line of defence that stop this thing being called a Walking Simulator, because it is one. There’s nothing wrong with that fact, but I wish it could just come out and accept it, rather than asking me to do pickpocketing with a tiny interactive minigame that wasn’t worth the lunch break it was put together in.
But without that, there’s just jumping, and that feels both lacking and lacklustre. There’s no special moves beyond the basic “hop-skip-ooh-look-the-third-jump-is-a-bit-higher” manoeuvre from Super Mario 64, and when you fall off a building, the only punishment is having to jump on cars and phone wires until you’re back to where you were.
It just all feels very empty, and that’s a problem when it’s such a big part of the game. In fact, it’s made even worse when specific sections are constantly being repeated over and over. Going through Possum Springs twice every hour will drill the routine into you pretty hard, and not just in a “hey, it feels like a second home” way. More of a “Christ, I would kill for a fast travel option to the convenience store” sort of way.
Let’s be completely honest here – the thin gameplay is only here on sufferance, needed to thread together a sequence of conversations and story sections that don’t really demand any sort of gameplay in the first place. This is a tolerable penalty when it’s only short bits of platforming with lots of interesting dialogue dotted around pretty heavily to break it up, but moments like Mae’s nightmares are where it pushes my patience, fumbling for long periods around dark environments whilst trying to find inexplicable jazz musicians, with no rhyme or reason to where they might be.
Now I’ll admit that I really like the background art of Night in the Woods, for taking very basic visual design and making it really pop and look unique, mainly through an intelligent use of colour. For all my bitching about the dream sequences a moment ago, they do look very pretty, and the game sets up a subtle colour scheme that reinforces danger and safety – blues and blacks mean you should be scared, greens and oranges mean you can calm down again, scaredy-cat.
Sorry, couldn’t resist.
But I’m not so hot on the presentation of characters, mainly because the simple animation limits them. Facial expressions rarely change except when absolutely demanded by the story (such as having Mae burst into tears), meaning that everybody looks unflappably stoic until the moment where they collapse into psychological torment. A vicious argument between Mae and her mother has the exact same expressions on both characters faces as the scene where they make up and show how much they love each other, that expression being summarised as: “do I want ham and cheese, or egg and cress?” As a result, it’s left to the dialogue to hold the weight of emotion all on its own, which just feels like putting all your eggs in one basket.
And then there’s music, which is generally pretty good, though I couldn’t call any of it catchy or memorable. The best stuff is the slightly depressing backing instrumentals, which do the UnderTale thing of being quietly upbeat in the most pathetically unconvincing way possible, the kind of music that demands to be played at farewells and whilst looking at old pictures of high-school crushes you regret not confessing to.
Then there’s the rock music played during the Guitar Hero bits, but I couldn’t tell you jack about those. I remember a few of the lyrics seeming rather heavily-handedly symbolic, but I was way too focused on pressing buttons and wincing every time I played a duff note, which was annoyingly frequent (those sections are the proverbial pain in the ass).
Night in the Woods is definitely good, but it’s ONLY good. It’s not the transcendental gaming experience of the year, mostly because it doesn’t have much interest in being a game, just a platform for a sequence of story events and dialogues that would’ve probably have fitted into a six-episode TV miniseries much more organically.
It feels like a creation made by writers and not game designers, or at the very least like the story was thought up long before anybody had any idea of what you were going to do in this game (usually the opposite of how the process is normally done). As a result, the scales weigh very heavily on the narrative side, but that’s something that can be excused considering that the overall story is pretty good, barring a couple of initial issues with pacing and the occasional unresolved matter that’s probably more down to my opinion than anything else.
If you want a relaxing, contemplative interactive experience and aren’t too fussed about challenge, you could do a lot worse than Night in the Woods. It’s better written than most games and usually stumbles owing to overambition, which is the best reason to stumble. Consider this a recommendation to those who like good stories, and a warning to those who just want gameplay from their games, you weirdos.
|+ Well-developed characters and dialogue||– Gameplay is barely worthy of the term|
|+ Attractive presentation and music||– Very slow start|
|+ Gripping mid-story plot twist||– Animation could be better|
|+ Palpable atmosphere and intelligent themes|