What's the scariest thing an enemy can do in a survival horror game? Turns out the answer is "just stand there". That's likely to be what your first glimpse of The Forest's cannibalistic mutants will be: a sudden double take, a human figure among the trees, standing, watching, waiting. It's genuinely terrifying.
The game opens with you aboard a plane. The glow of the seat-back screen, a small child next to you - your son? - and a sudden, violent crash into a remote forest. You come to, briefly, just in time to see the unconscious child carried away by a sinister, savage figure. Next time you wake up, you're completely alone and it's up to you to survive what awaits outside the wreckage.
Food is an immediate concern, but luckily the plane fuselage is full of uneaten in-flight meals as well as miniature bottles of booze and soda cans. An emergency axe is conveniently placed at the ragged hole that acts as your exit. Drop down and there are more rich pickings in the form of suitcases strewn across the crash site. You quickly learn not to linger for long - those cannibals will be back to investigate soon.
You have, rather conveniently, also got a survival manual in your backpack and it's from this that you can select the things you want to craft. From a rudimentary shelter and a simple campfire to a full log cabin, garden and animal pens, nothing is off limits provided you can gather the materials. That task is made easier by the fact that any craftable items - rocks, sticks etc - have a shimmer that makes them stand out from the surrounding foliage (though there are still some peculiar quirks that arise from being in an environment full of logs, sticks and leaves, but being told that you have to collect certain ones in order to craft what you want).
Don't expect to get much finished, at least to start with. Those cannibals are ruthless and incredibly hard to avoid. You'll be lost in concentration, chopping down trees and gathering logs, when you'll see one, on the edge of your vision, watching you. They travel in packs, so if you're looking at one of them, you can guarantee two more are darting through the undergrowth to flank you.
The Forest does a superb job of creating these moments of confrontation. Rather than have enemies rush you immediately, tipping the genre towards action, the game has them wait for you to make the first move and then make short dashes to keep you within range. It's a very different kind of tension, a real stand-off made all the more scary because these guys are smart. It's behaviour familiar from nature documentaries, and you genuinely feel like you're being hunted rather than simply attacked. You can maybe take down one or two with your axe, if you get lucky, but the odds are that it's you who'll be taken down.
Chances are you'll be killed instantly, your body dragged off for whatever grim ritual they have in mind, but sometimes you'll wake up in a cave, surrounded by human remains. If you're lucky (which might as well be the mantra of The Forest) you might be able to find your way back out, using the flickering flame of a cigarette lighter to guide you. Or you may just run into another hunting party on its way back and end up properly dead.
It'll likely be the second one. The Forest is a ferociously hard game, and one that makes each day survived feel like a genuine triumph against adversity. Even if the cannibals don't get you, this is a steep undertaking. A new enemy-free mode has been added in the latest update (activated by typing "veganmode" at the menu screen) for those who'd like to test themselves against the wilderness without constantly being slaughtered, and it reveals that disease, hypothermia and hunger are just as likely to finish you off, albeit more slowly and desperately.
Right now, The Forest is a visually strange place to visit. The broader canvas is often stunning, offering dank, claustrophobic areas where the sun barely penetrates as well as dazzling vistas as lovely as anything in The Elder Scrolls. Animals are lifelike and painstakingly animated, yet some flowers and foliage still present as flat textures. The sound design is stunning, with rainfall and storms that sound absolutely real, yet lightning flashes sometimes show up as big white squares in the middle of the ground. For every scene that sucks you in, there's a scruffy detail waiting to take you back out of the fantasy.
Such things are to be expected in an Early Access title, though, and the gameplay is also in a state of flux. The addition of the enemy-free mode is very welcome - and at least allowed me to survive long enough to see how rich and deep the crafting system can become - but it also reveals that without the constant risk of being gruesomely murdered, the core survival mechanics aren't all that compelling on their own. Equally, with enemies at large, the game is punishingly difficult and the fact that you have to sit through the opening crash sequence every time you start a new game quickly becomes annoying.
This is a game that has come on in leaps and bounds in recent weeks, however, with not only the addition of the peaceful mode but also features such as rafts and houseboats and even sharks. Oculus Rift support is also planned, which on current form should probably come with a voucher for adult diapers.
There's no shortage of survival sims on the PC at the moment, but while The Forest explores similar territory, it's forging its own unique path. The atmosphere is subtly but noticeably different - scarier, prettier, more concerned with the realistic nuts and bolts of lonely survival than multiplayer mayhem or Minecraft-esque construction. It also helps that its enemies aren't bloody zombies and are genuinely unnerving. It's certainly the first game of its type that has made me feel genuinely vulnerable and afraid, which is no mean feat. It'll be exciting to see where the developers take it next.
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