STAFF REVIEW of Through the Woods (Xbox One)

Tuesday, June 5, 2018.
by Adam Dileva

Through the Woods Box art It’s not uncommon these days for a small studio of just a few people to turn to Kickstarter to help fund a portion of their vision. They detail what the game is about and why they need the help, and if they can sell their vision to likeminded gamers, then it becomes funded and the wait for a release begins. This is what happened with developer Antagonist and their successfully backed game, Through the Woods.

Having released in 2016 on PC, Through the Woods has seemingly made the travel through said woods and has finally released on console. Before starting to play, I checked out the trailers and initial pitch and thought I was going to be in for a horror based experience, as a background of an empty forest with the protagonist set aside essentially writes the horror for itself. Instead though, not many scares were had, and instead, a more story based adventure took place, albeit with some minor horror elements, but not at all what I initially expected.

At its narrative core, Through the Woods tells a tale about how far a mother would go to save her son. Inspired by Norwegian folk tales, the adventure begins with the mother, Karen, recalling events of what exactly happened to her and her son, Espen. When asked where her son was, this is the beginning of her tale.

She recalls her and her son retreating to the wilderness for the weekend, but when Epsen wants to play, Karen is much too tired from her pile of work. You can tell there’s some tenseness in their relationship, events happen and eventually Espen is missing. Finding small traces of her son’s whereabouts, she explores and delves deeper and deeper into the seemingly empty forest nearby. Expect to feel lonely and afraid, as being alone in the woods can be frightening on its own, but factor in that you’re searching for your lost son with mysterious forces seemingly all around you, and the setting is a grim one.

Your only real tool you’ll have access to in your search for Espen will be your flashlight. Luckily it seems to have endless batteries, but eventually you’re going to prefer the darkness as your friend, as using the light to see easier will also bring you unwanted attention at times. And yes, I’m being vague on purpose, as the adventure is quite short in length, as I finished it in a single sitting in roughly 2 hours or so, so any spoiler really detracts from the overall experience.

Just like in real life, when you can’t see well, your other sense become heightened, and you’ll be hearing not only the wind whistling softly through the dense thickness of trees and foliage, but also what may lurk within the shadows.

Left Trigger will allow you to sneak slowly and unheard when needed and the Right allows you to run when needed to escape or simply traverse along the lengthy paths quicker. There’s no attack option, simply because there’s no combat. If you manage to run into, erm, an enemy, you’ll simply die outright and have to try again. While this creates a ‘run or hide’ tenseness in certain moments, this is also part of the problem of having dull gameplay.

The majority of your gameplay will be running from point A to B with only a few slightly off the beat paths to find a hidden collectable, but for the most part, Through the Woods is mainly a walking (well jogging I guess) simulator as there’s no combat or puzzles to solve along your journey. Having nothing else to essentially do along the way really also cuts down the horror element. Sure, there’s one or two spots that are a bit tense (again, purposely being ambiguous), but don’t expect any jump scares.

This was a little bit of a letdown, as exploring the woods at night by yourself is a perfect and natural backdrop for a frightening tale. That being said, I was always compelled to journey on and find Espen, as I wanted to find out what happened, and being a parent myself, I know I would continue on as well, regardless of the danger. While it may not have the fights or excitement, it managed to keep my attention with its slowly unfolding dialogue as I proceeded to search the woods.

I would normally detail the visuals before the audio, but the audio here is much more important for this tale. Given that you’re nearly always in the dark in the thickness of the woods, you’ll rely on audio clues around you in place of visual clues. You’ll hear things in the woods, unsure if it’s a natural animal, or something else entirely. Certain creatures react to you differently, sometimes chasing if they see you, some being blind but can hear you, among others, so you’ll learn what’s nearby with their auditory queues.

The ambient sound, wind in trees and minor noises brings more tension than anything else, and the soundtrack is quite decent when there’s a section of exploration and the backdrop of music. It’s a shame that the voice acting on the other hand is near atrocious for mostly everyone else. It’s not the worst I’ve heard, but far from even average. In a horror-like game, you need to believe their performances or else the whole experience simply falls flat. I wasn’t convinced for a second that Karen was in agony trying to find her lost son, and Espen surely didn’t sound convincing either.

Visually, everything is a mixed bag as well. The forest backdrop looks decent, though I guess it’s hard to tell when you’re almost always in the darkness. Most textures look passible, but certain pieces, even the skybox at times, looks terrible. I took a screenshot of me looking into the sky, and the sun simply looked like a white circle. The same went for night time, where the stars looked like an MS paint drawing with square dots littered throughout. While the villages you come across are decent, the animations clearly need a lot of work. Every movement feels janky and very robotic, and if you look at Karen’s face as she’s talking, she looks like an animatronic more than a mother in deep distress.

I can see the appeal for Through the Woods, as it does something a little different, but the 2 or so hour length coupled with the dull gameplay will be sure to be a disappointment to some. Despite its list of flaws, I was compelled to see it to the end, and to be honest, I think the ending will stick with me for quite some time.

Even though trailers may suggest a horror experience set in the lonely woods at night, it’s not exactly that. Its substory is its real strength, but is hidden behind hidden optional collectables littered throughout the woods. It does have a tense and eerie atmosphere, but lacks depth and interesting gameplay more than anything else.

Overall: 6.0 / 10
Gameplay: 4.0 / 10
Visuals: 5.0 / 10
Sound: 6.0 / 10


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