Welcome to beautiful Possum Springs. Where miners lie, dreams die, and the kittens cry.
Night in the Woods Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Mac, Linux, PS4, Xbox One, Switch
Developers: Infinite Fall and Secret Lab
Night in the Woods is a narrative-heavy adventure game following Mae Brokowski, a 20-year-old who recently dropped out of college with the intention of returning to her humdrum hometown of Possum Springs. After reacquainting herself with her home for the first time in a year, Mae begins embarking on a cyclical routine of banter between the locals of Possum Springs with no real responsibilities of goals for herself other than to pursue a tangentially defined idea of self-satisfaction and perhaps happiness. A cycle that is only broken up by little mundane yet quirky adventures with her assorted gaggle of like-minded friends, who would border on dull if not for their likeable personalities, detailed backstories, and general chemistry, which turns each of these vignette sized escapades into a treat in and of themselves.
Though I must admit that they are something of an acquired taste, mostly due to the personality of Mae herself. Beneath her veniere of irreverent snarkiness, she is a self-destructive, aimless, and generally troubling individual who has been carrying around emotional baggage with her for so long that it has gone on to shape her internal sense of identity. While that might sound somewhat outlandish, there is something refreshingly grounded about her, how apparent her flaws are, and how her personality and mood veer wildly based on the situation in a way that manages to paint her as a somewhat tragic and unfortunate character who may be a bit too relatable to some people.
All of which makes for an interesting character study at the very least, and leads to a conclusion that I think is intended to be some sort of metaphor for Mae being forced to confront the issues she has been repressing for so much of her life. However, the actual events that lead to this conclusion open up a myriad of questions and concerns over the overlying mythology of this otherwise relatable world, and the ultimate conclusion makes it clear that the characters who underwent this life changing experience aren’t really sure what to make of it.
It’s a bittersweet end that I suppose is appropriately realistic, but strikes me as a bit underwhelming due to how adorable and endearing the main cast is, and how I wanted them all to experience a happy ending… Which, now that I’ve written it out, might actually be what the developers intended the player to feel. A sense that everything should be better for these individuals, but unfortunately, they are still stuck in a variety of unfavorable life situations, as life does not always conclude on an uplifting note, and at the very least the characters feel as if they have grown to some extent.
But for how heartfelt, funny, and genuinely sweet this game can be at times, the title opts to add several layers of gameplay over its story, and they are often meant to emphasize the numbing routine of Mae’s life, her inabilities, and generally dissociative nature… and I can’t say I’m really a fan of… any of them. Every in-game day involves wandering from one end of town to the other, checking up on every character scattered about and vicariously experiencing their own little story arc. It begins as a somewhat riveting process, but the more one experiences the same thing day in and day out, the less magical it seems.
Even though the running, jumping, and platforming are all more than functional, the commute to the next main story sequence slowly began gnawing at me, to the point where I was elated when I realized I never had to go up the hill to the church to check that goldarn cliff again. The worst example of the doldrums of traversal are the dream sequences that cap-off most days, and while they begin as a nifty novelty, the act of triple jumping throughout a world of nonsense geometry and shapes in order to travel from the four corners of this map quickly loses all novelty.
There are also a variety of contextual WarioWare-esque mini-games meant to further enhance the ebbs and flow of the story and convey Mae’s skills or lack thereof. While they do have a certain appeal to them, I found the quality to be more than a little sporadic, with some being seamless and unintuitive and others being genuinely frustrating, namely the band sections or any event where there is some sort of sort of ‘failure’ condition. I generally do not like failing anything without being given the opportunity to immediately try again, and that’s precisely what happens with Night in the Woods.
That, and I get paranoid that games of this caliber are constantly hiding information from me, and will throw bad endings my way if I pick the wrong decisions. Thankfully, this title only has the one ending, but that did not stop the developers from weirdly inserting branching paths and side quests that I think are meant to encourage replay value, but with no way to skip dialog scenes, I cannot imagine that process being particularly fun. A sentiment that unfortunately sums up a lot of the gameplay here, as despite its efforts to emphasize the mundanity of Mae’s life, I could not help but think about how much more I would have enjoyed my time with Night in the Woods if its mechanics were kept at a bare minimum and there was little to obfuscate the narrative.
After all, I think it is safe to say that the two primary draws here are said narrative along with the game’s distinctive presentation. While the overall art direction might be a bit simplistic, often avoiding any detailed shading for its environments of characters, the overall design of it all boasts a level of care and skill that just about any frame of this game could be put on display at a contemporary art museum.
The simple shapes that make up much of the world geometry, the lack of ancillary details on most character designs, and the bold color choices all go to create something beautiful, while still remaining very much grounded in reality. Aside from the fact that everybody in the game is some sort of loosely anthropomorphized animal person, the town of Possum Springs is delightfully realistic, being a small rural town that falls apart bit by bit every day yet is coated in the distinctive colors and details of autumn. It all evokes a very nostalgic and wistful feeling that I feel would be considered relatable to people even without any personal experience with the minutiae of this elusive season or a settlement like Possum Springs.
Night in the Woods is an intriguing tale of a troubled youth struggling with a plethora of issues and trying to pursue elusive answers to questions she herself is unsure of, wrapped in an approachable and adorable presentation. Truthfully, there is little to prevent me from genuinely loving this game beyond the tedium and monotony that come with playing its for oneself. While more than tolerable initially, the daily routine of this title gradually chipped away at my patience, and steadily began to obscure whatever core competencies the game otherwise boasts. Amounting to a game that I liked, but would probably have enjoyed more if it were less ‘gamey’.