In the first of several Early Access Checkups I’ll be doing, I’m taking a look at The Forest, which we previously reviewed here. In brief, this seemingly Lost-inspired survival horror sandbox title casts the player as the survivor of a plane crash, forcing him to fight against the elements and tribes of cannibals to find his kidnapped son. The game focuses on realistic survival simulation (hunger and thirst) as well as exploration and building as the player hunts for clues to his son’s whereabouts and creates defenses against the cannibal threat. A popular Early Access title, I’ll now take a look at how the game has developed from its earliest versions to its present state.
The first thing to note is that the game (and per our prior review) is about two years old, which gives some idea of just how ‘early’ Early Access can really end up being. Two years can account for pretty large shifts in the gaming landscape, see trends change, or new titles render the innovations of an older game obsolete. The Forest itself came out amidst a surge in popularity of both survival/crafting sandboxes and horror, in a landscape full of similar titles (Ark: Survival Evolved, DayZ, H1Z1, Miasmata, Rust, State of Decay, The Long Dark, The Withering, 7 Days to Die, just to give some examples). Many of these titles were or still are in Early Access, so The Forest isn’t alone in its long development. Yet with AAA titles jumping on the primitive crafting and combat angle (Far Cry: Primal or the upcoming Horizon: Zero Dawn) and Sci-Fi sandboxes growing in popularity, there’s probably limited room on the horizon for all these titles to share.
So how is The Forest shaping up? Obviously the real measure of Early Access development is activity and responsiveness, whether devs react to what is essentially ongoing crowd-sourced playtesting to address issues, and enough new content along the way to keep players invested rather than moving onto the next of many offerings. For the most part, The Forest has absolutely shined in this regard, with highly-active developers. In just shy of 24 months of open development, they’ve launched 37 version milestones, not counting various smaller hotfixes.
Spread among new content and technical and balance changes, this is an impressive pace, and one that has kept interest in the game strong (it remains in the first page of top sellers on Steam for both Survival and Horror, and on page three for Open World). By every measure, the devs seem highly involved and committed, so there doesn’t seem any reason to fear the project going cold, as some Early Access games do.
Which leads us to wonder, what exactly have the devs been up to?
If there’s an obvious focus on the game’s many updates, it’s pretty clearly on crafting and building, with new recipes frequently added to the survival manual. Compared to our prior review of one of the game’s earliest versions, these new options include larger and renewable fires, various premade shelter designs, all sorts of storage and decorative items, a sadistic variety of traps, and most recently rafts, houseboats, and even catapults, oddly enough. Maybe most significant is a supply cart that lets you haul logs (or dead bodies, I discovered), alleviating some of the frustration in constructing larger structures noted in our first review, although this can still feel arduous.
The custom building is also quite impressive and dynamic, with various pieces snapping together intelligently or even adjusting to the terrain, such as platforms that can be built along rock faces. I’m not great at this kind of stuff personally (ask my ramshackle Fallout 4 settlements), but for some players, the building is probably a dream come true.
The other side of the building coin is the natives, who will assault the player throughout the game and whose attacks increase in intensity and danger the more you explore, clear, and build. The real center of the gameplay is this building vs. assault dynamic, as it is in many open world survival sandboxes, and The Forest does it pretty impressively. The updates have added new enemy types, and the devs adjust balance and behavior in almost every revision, so this is clearly a big focus.
I still think the AI could use work, though, as I encountered the same issue with cannibals readily killing themselves in my firepit as reported in our earlier review. Given the game’s dark atmosphere, I like the idea of fire as a weapon (crafting even allows you to set your melee weapons ablaze), but the enemies could stand to be more intelligent about it.
On the story side of things, one complaint in our prior review was that the game could leave you feeling directionless, and even two years later, this is very much still the case. The player’s explorations will quickly reveal hints at the basic story of the game, about cannibals and other, worse threats that lurk in the forest, but a lot of what is available story-wise is more vague than informative. The player can find photos, drawings left by their son, cassettes to play, and other hints and clues, but none of it amounts to anything substantial.
While a few cave areas seem significant to the cannibals, suggesting weird rituals and human sacrifice, it’s only creepy ambiance. This isn’t to say that the devs aren’t working on this, however, as they’ve added new areas to the game that will probably figure into the main story – a large sinkhole and a mountain region, although these are still incomplete. Ultimately as far as the narrative goes, even two years in there’s just too little meat on the bone to say much about what the story might one day have to offer.
There are also a number of lingering balance issues, bugs, and primitive game elements that probably should have seen improvement by now. I found a small pond with respawning fish that made getting water and food both pretty trivial, and I didn’t even need to craft the spear to get the fish (although the spear does have a cool animation for it), instead just wading in and hitting them with my ax. Crafting-wise, the sense of balance and progress is also somewhat off.
Some materials are oddly easy (like lizard skin for armor) or difficult (like bones and feathers) to obtain, and I had sticky bombs (requiring circuit boards among other things) before I had a bone spear or bow and arrow. The sleeping system is also a bit frustrating, as the game seems to make you wait until a fixed time before you’re allowed to go to bed, forcing the player to stay up and kill time in the dark (where it’s impossible to get much else done) rather than turning in early. None of these are game breaking issues, but they stick out a little given the time the devs have had to work on them.
With all of this in mind, whether The Forest is worth it as an Early Access title is going to depend strongly on what you’re looking for in a game. The crafting, building, and base-construction and defense aspects of the game are already pretty robust and are constantly being developed, so if your idea of a good time is building spike-laden death mazes to hold off armies of cannibals and mutants, The Forest absolutely delivers. On the other hand, story development seems much slower, so players interested in the idea of digging through the mystery of the cannibals and the main character’s missing son might well want to wait on a full release. It’s not a polished game by any measure, even two years in, but it is a scary one that delivers a primitive, atmospheric, and occasionally brutal survival experience.