“The Forest” begins with a bang. You’re on a passenger jet that hits something and plummets from the sky to crash on a mysterious, cave-filled island. You’ll wake up as the sole adult survivor long enough to see someone or something holding your son before they flee and the game fades back to darkness.
Once you’re fully awake you’ll find a small hand ax and then proceed to spend the next couple dozen hours not thinking about your son one bit as you explore, craft and survive on the island.
First launched in early access all the way back in 2014, “The Forest” was one of the earliest entries into the crafting-driven survival genre. You’ll be searching for supplies to keep the hunger and thirst at bay, collecting materials to build shelters, traps and weapons to battle both the elements and the island’s mysterious, cave-dwelling and cannibalistic denizens.
It’s a largely free-form game that invites players to explore and experiment. You can stay on the path of clues to find your son or, like me and my gaming group, spend a couple dozen hours building a gigantic base surrounded by spike traps as we slowly become the real monsters of the island as we equipped ourselves with bone armor and fire weapons.
There’s a solid formula here where your investment of time and creativity make surviving the harsh elements of the island easier. Collect some sticks and rocks to make an ax, use that ax to chop down a tree and use that tree to build a house. Protect that house with traps and walls. Rinse and repeat.
But after a couple weeks of solidly playing “The Forest,” I’m not entirely sure that I would recommend it for people looking at trying out the genre. After dipping our toes in a couple other similar games, “The Forest” certainly has one of the better crafting and exploration systems — and once we finally got to it, one of the better stories pulling you along — but it’s held back by a universal failing with these kinds of games: It’s not exactly respectful of your time.
One of my biggest problems with these kinds of games is just how much time and effort it takes to build something and how much of a pain it can be if that thing either breaks or you change your mind partway through.
Late in the game in “The Forest,” you’ll find the blueprints for a log slide that allows you to shuttle supplies over long distances and even catch a ride by jumping on a turtle shell as if it were a sled. It has the potential for great fun but chopping down trees, loading logs onto a cart, navigating that cart through a field of stumps, building the slide and then finding out after a couple hours of work that the path you built doesn’t work quite right is just a real bummer. Even worse is if you decide to break down the slide to try out a different placement, you don’t get everything you put into it back.
It left us in a situation where we’d settle with stuff that we either didn’t really like or discouraged from building stuff in the first place. As we reached the end of our time with the game, we turned on cheats in the game that allowed us to build anything and everything, which was admittedly pretty fun.
I think a lot of this is in service of trying to infuse some realism to surviving in a harsh and unforgiving world, but it doesn’t exactly translate into a fun experience. Being able to only carry two logs at a time when some projects require upwards of 100 logs isn’t as immersive as much as it is a chore.
There aren’t a lot of games that get it right — that consider both what is narratively fitting and what is fun and engaging to play for hours on end — but luckily the world of video games is about constant growth and iteration on ideas. The sequel to “The Forest” is in the works to be released sometime this year and there’s the very promising “Valheim” that just released on PC this month.
Matt Buxton is a freelance writer and gamer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.