Some games manage to win you over with just a few images. When I saw Among Trees, nestled between quick-fire trailers during the PC Gaming Show, I was immediately smitten with its strong visuals. The comparisons with Firewatch that followed the reveal seem apt - both games immediately stand out for the vibrancy of their colour palette. Among Trees' early morning is a mix of light blue mist dissipating into the yellows, purples and pinks of morning sunlight. The woods stretch as far as the eye can see.
Among Trees is a first-person survival game currently in Early Access on the Epic Games Store, casting you as a young woman alone in the wilds. You open your eyes and find yourself next to a dilapidated cabin on a clearing, with no hint as to how you got there. There's no story yet, but none was needed for me to be spellbound early on. The first order of business is clear - the cabin needs repairing. Stepping closer reveals the materials needed to fix it, and taking a note with a button press will display the required number of each item on your HUD.
While some materials are immediately nearby, this first task already requires me to venture out past the clearing, an excellent opportunity to familiarise myself with the four stats always displayed on screen. There's vitality, warmth, sleepiness and of course hunger. As time passes, you will grow hungry and sleepy, and so while I'm on my hunt for cabin materials, I also pull my first mushrooms and mulberries to snack on. Your item menu reveals whether what you've just picked is edible, if it needs to be cooked first, and by how much it will satisfy your hunger.
Generally, I tend to stay away from survival sims, as I don't enjoy the stress that inevitably comes with looming starvation or getting mauled by a wild animal. Among Trees takes a pretty relaxed approach to both of these issues - while you can die of wounds, hypothermia and starvation, they are all reasonably easy to avoid. On its loading screen, Among Trees warns you that while most animals are in fact friendly, bears are decidedly not. It offers a zen mode free of anything that bites, but overall, "Don't get mauled by a bear" is a reasonable ask, especially since it's not like the entire map is full of them. Instead, it's full of, you guessed it, trees, to the point I feel a burst of genuine excitement when I come across my first structure besides my own cabin, something that looks like a broken-down watchtower. For several minutes, all I do is walk, keeping my eyes on that tower, the beauty of the woods underscored by birds singing and leaves crunching underfoot. When I make it there, I find a wealth of new materials and with them new secrets to uncover.
The loop of finding new recipes and new ingredients to build with immediately hooked me and kept me going for hours. As soon as your cabin springs into existence (everything you build appears with a flash of light and a pleasant dinging sound as if by magic), you're able to build extensions, and each room will offer new items to make. Blueprints you find in the woods unlock new tools. These in turn require materials you may not have seen on your treks, and so you venture out further.
Besides that, I also enjoyed the little touches that give Among Trees an overall warmth, like how you can decorate your cabin with plants and whittled animals, or how a little animation of you filling a jar with takeaway stew follows your cooking. None of the systems are super deep - you don't need to make a container for your stew first, for example - but the ease with which Among Trees opens up gave me a lasting sense of achievement. I set myself a small goal every day, like uncovering a new area or an 'inside day', where I do nothing else but cook food, craft items or chop trees near the cabin. I do think the map could do with more variety and more opportunities for exploration, seeing most loot I found came from copies of the same broken-down tower, but it is in early access after all and already has a solid public roadmap, so I think it's best to wait and see. I'm already pretty excited for several announcements, such as fishing and a brewery extension for the cabin.
Right now, the pretty views sustain me. I'm the same in games as I am in real life - I get lost walking straight, and in Among Trees, that allowed for some magnificent discoveries while I still didn't have a map: following what I thought was a fairly straight-forward path to some resources I had to leave behind earlier, I keep my head to the ground looking for mushrooms, only to end up in a new area altogether. Suddenly, a beam of sunlight sneaks through the canopy and I look up to the wind softly rustling the leaves above. Bliss!
Even with how easily avoidable death is, I did have a few close calls, too, picking up wooden planks and steel wire until the sun went down, then racing back as I quickly started to freeze, made all the more severe by the word "freezing" flashing on screen the entire time until I was once again safe in my cabin. More and more, the small size of my backpack turns out to be the actual enemy, making me stuff myself with mushrooms I wanted to save for later in order to make precious space for one more coil of wire.
According to developers FJRD Interactive, Among Trees will stay non-violent. There are no firm plans to include hunting, and if hunting will be implemented, it won't be a gameplay requirement. When I finally see a bear as little more than a shadow in the distance, my HUD immediately displays a warning icon and I instinctively draw a huge circle around it. Because of precautions like this, I see Among Trees less as a survival game and more as something about living in, and by extension with nature, a game that has me excited for what's around the next corner, even if that's just another tree. Tomorrow, I'm hunting for more steel pipes. I can't wait.