Reviewed On PC
If you’d forgotten about The Forest until now, I don’t blame you. After launching on Steam way back in early 2014, The Forest made waves as an impressive, if rough-around-the-edges take on a genre that hadn’t yet overrun the Steam storefront, if you can still remember such a time. Some nifty tree-chopping tech and a uniquely horrifying spin on the survival genre set it apart from the crowd, but a lot has happened to the genre since then, and despite receiving regular updates from the folks at Endnight Games, The Forest gradually faded into the background. This month finally marks the game’s triumphant exit from Early Access, and while there’s a little less fanfare this time around, I’m happy to say that it remains among the best survival games around, and is well worth your time if you’re willing to look past a few quirks.
The setup of The Forest is simple: your plane crashes on a peninsula somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, your son is abducted by a mysterious figure, and you set out to rescue him. Before delving into all of that, the game tasks you with a few simple directives to get you into the swing of things: build a fire, hunt for food, and construct a shelter, though in the process of doing so, you’ll begin to notice that all may not be as it seems. Aiding this suspicion is the presence of aggressive cannibals, who quickly begin to stalk you once you venture away from the crash site. Starting out with just a small axe and whatever other items you can scrounge up from the crash site, you’re free to wander the map, hunting lizards, deer, and other critters for meat, skin, and furs, and build a base anywhere you see fit. The buildings you can construct in The Forest range from the appropriately primal to the ludicrously intricate, but whether you choose to keep your base to only the essentials (a tent of sticks and leaves and some racks to store your items) or an elaborate wooden fortress adorned with hunting trophies and surrounded by traps and ziplines, the building tools are enjoyable to use and flexible enough to let you create more or less whatever you want.
More importantly, harvesting the components for these constructions can actually be enjoyable. One of the big features that sets The Forest apart from every other survival game is the process of resource gathering. Instead of punching trees and rocks to get resources, every resource is represented as a physical item. Rocks and twigs are found and picked up off the forest floor, and logs are gathered via a quasi-realistic tree-chopping system. Trees actually fall after you’ve chipped away at their trunks enough, coming crashing down to earth with a thunderous and enormously satisfying *crack*. The game even keeps track of your destruction, allowing you to permanently clear-cut swathes of forest as you build, giving you the satisfying sense that you’re altering the world and claiming territory within it. This isn’t to say that resource gathering is still exciting when you’re chopping your five hundredth tree— at the end of the day it’s still the same monotonous task you’ve probably done elsewhere— but in The Forest it’s mostly optional (you can build a base with everything you need in under five minutes if you don’t care about customization), and consistently more satisfying to do than in any survival game I’ve played.
Crafting, the other thing you’ll spend a lot of your time doing, is a little more finicky. Like building, crafting isn’t represented by a traditional menu, but instead by an ingame object (a mat you spread out on the ground). Unfortunately, navigating this interface and figuring out the recipes for the items you want is a very clunky and obscure process. For instance, there is no tutorial that explains to you that by first placing an item on the mat then mousing over the gear icon that appears, you can see a list of recipes that can be made with that item. And even once you’ve found this out, it remains slow and inconvenient compared to a more traditional menu. Assigning items to hotkeys is also frustrating, requiring you to combine the item you want to assign with your backpack on the crafting mat, then select which of the four available buttons to assign it to. Like crafting itself, this system is far from intuitive and is never explained ingame, forcing players onto the internet in order to wrap their heads around what should be a simple process.
Should you choose to spend your hours on the peninsula’s surface, working on base building and resource hoarding, The Forest will feel pretty familiar to veterans of similar games. But once you’ve gotten a lay of the land, you’ll inevitably begin to discover the many foreboding cavern entrances that are scattered around the world. This is where the bulk of the game’s narrative and progression lies, and once you’ve discovered one of them, the objectives listed in your journal encourage you to turn your eyes downward and begin exploring the massive network of caverns that lie hidden beneath the forest’s surface. These areas are pitch-dark and teeming with threats (some of them much more terrible than the cannibals), leading to very intense encounters against unseen foes as your basic light source, an unreliable lighter that lets you see five feet in front of you at best, flickers off at inopportune moments. You can eventually find a flashlight or craft a torch, but I found both of these items were only helpful in specific situations, rather than as permanent replacements to your not-so-trusty Bic. In fact, no matter how much gear you’ve accumulated, spelunking remains terrifying.
"You realize that the world...might not be quite what it seems"
The caves are also where the vast majority of the game’s narrative elements are found, though storytelling is not The Forest’s strongest suit (nor, I think, is it intended to be). That initial plane crash/kidnapped son setup does little more than serve as a backdrop to the gameplay, but as you start exploring the world around you, you quickly realize that the peninsula itself holds many secrets, and indeed has a much more fascinating tale to tell than the loose father-son rescue story going on in the background. Through an organic process of discovery that teases you with discoveries big and small, you realize that the world has something more going on and might not be quite what it seems— if only you can put the pieces together. The plot is thin and sparse, told mostly through photographs and objects discovered throughout the world, but the answers are out there, and you needn’t collect every last clue to understand what’s going on. Smaller narratives about the fate of your fellow passengers and others who visited the peninsula in the past require some detective work to fully uncover, but so long as you make it to the endgame, the big questions are answered in fairly straightforward (if bleak) form. This isn’t to say that The Forest’s narrative is especially well-written (particularly the ending, which comes out of nowhere and features some hilariously awkward dialogue and acting), but it does manage to intrigue and delivers enough genuine ‘wtf’ moments that it’s ultimately worth experiencing.
The Forest also ought to be applauded for being one of the most unnerving games I’ve ever played. Whether you’re in a cave or on the surface, the appearance of enemies (and sometimes just the imminent threat of attack) keeps you permanently on edge, especially when rolling solo. There are no safe places to hide — even the walls of your base can be destroyed if you don’t deal with attackers— and enemy AI is designed to play on your fears. Cannibals, the enemy you’ll encounter most frequently, are delightfully creepy: unleashing blood-curdling screams when they’re distant, then silently circling around or climbing nearby trees to jump at you when you least expect it. You’re incentivized to constantly look over your shoulder and keep your ears open for signs of a danger— no matter what you’re doing, you can be forced into combat at a moment’s notice. The mechanics of these fights are fairly simple, but not unenjoyable. The majority of encounters boil down to either jabbing cannibals with a spear over and over or shooting them full of arrows until they collapse, but the agile and unpredictable way the AI moves does at least keep you guessing, provided you aren’t playing with others, at which point boxing in and murdering entire groups of cannibals becomes fairly trivial. Some of the other foes are a little more engaging and usually require some creative item use since tackling them in head-on combat is usually a death sentence, but fights against them are far less common.
"No matter what you're doing, you can be forced into combat at a moment's notice"
The Forest is also playable in co-op from start to finish, which is how I’d actually recommend you play it if you have a couple of like-minded friends. Up to eight players can band together in a single game to build bases and kill cannibals, and although playing with others makes combat trivial (so long as you don’t split up, which is easier said than done), the story and horror elements still work quite well. I found that having friends to chat with still didn’t do much to relieve my panic when I was caught out in the dark and surrounded by foes, and if your group has the stomach for it, you might opt to use the in-game walkie talkie system to voice chat rather than your usual chat client. This system, which requires that your character hold a walkie talkie in their left hand to stay in contact with others, is a novel way of keeping everyone terrified, as equipping a light source unequips your radio, forcing you to choose between calling for help and fending for yourself when caught out in a cave or dark corner of the woods. It’s an extra layer of challenge that I’m sure many people will choose not to engage with, but a clever addition nonetheless. The only notable downside to multiplayer is that your single player saves are kept completely independent by default, preventing you from porting your progress between the two modes. This issue is surprisingly easy to address if you’re willing to move some files around in the game’s directory, but it’s a bit silly not to allow such a basic feature in the game by default, and the workaround available to PC players will almost certainly not exist in the console version of the game that’s due out later this year.
Of course, for all that it does right, The Forest does take some big missteps along the way. Like so many other ambitious open-world games, a large possibility space and dynamic systems that clash with one another results in a multitude of bugs and a fair bit of jank. Shoddy animation, physics-gone-wild, and AI that runs in circles while screaming are the kind of thing you can expect to deal with most often, and thankfully they’re little more than a source of comedy, but the occasional disappearing structure or inventory item is a whole lot less tolerable, wasting both your time and precious resources. The game is far from unplayable in its current state and neither myself nor my co-op partners ever lost serious progress (aside from an issue involving a save caused by human error), but a steady stream of glitches is par for the course during any play session, breaking immersion at best and causing annoyances at worst. The game’s visuals are also a bit lacking— wind effects in the trees are a nice touch rarely seen in games and the cavern areas look halfway decent, but the forest itself looks very unattractive, with some very low-detail trees and foliage that feel like they could’ve used a little more attention. These issues are only exaggerated when playing in VR, an otherwise excellent addition to the game that will be written about elsewhere on this site in the near future.
Four years later, The Forest is still absolutely worth your time. Provided you don’t mind the occasional hassle and aren’t absolutely fed up with survival games yet, The Forest brings a lot of interesting new ideas to the table, taking genre staples like crafting and base-building, and combining them with a genuinely intriguing world to discover. It’s somehow an effective horror game that doesn’t rely on canned scares, a comprehensive survival game that doesn’t beat you over the head with difficulty, and a robust building game that makes gathering resources tolerable, all at the same time. Despite a litany of bugs, a story that doesn’t quite stick its landing, and some bothersome UI decisions, my 30-plus hours with The Forest were full of moments of exciting discovery and incidental hilarity that will stick with me for a long time, and I look forward to revisiting it in the years to come.