Thursday, June 8, 2017

[REVIEW] Night in the Woods (PS4)

Night in the Woods
Played on: Playstation 4
Genre: Story-based adventure
Developer: Infinite Fall
Publisher: Finji

My opinion on the relationship between gaming and storytelling is... well, complicated. Stories have always been a very efficient way to make players emotionally invested in a game, but the trend of turning all of the spotlights to the story, while actual gameplay takes on a supporting role, isn't something that usually appeals to me. This is pretty much what happens in Night in the Woods, and yet the game's many charms kept me coming back until its shiver-inducing ending.

You play as Mae, a 20-year-old female cat who drops out of college for initially unknown reasons and decides to come back to her parents' home in the idyllic small town of Possum Springs. Once there, Mae gets to explore the town by walking around with mild platforming elements, such as jumping onto wires and tops of buildings. That's all there is to the game's platforming side, though, as there is virtually no challenge to Mae's jumps, no new abilities to unlock, and no enemies to kill.

Instead, Night in the Woods plays out like an animated indie comic book, and in that ambition it's truly something special. The lovely Possum Springs is home to inumerous antropomorphic animals, many of whom Mae can interact with. The town has clearly seen better days, as most of Mae's chidhood places have closed up or exist in significantly decayed forms. The bulk of the game consists in developing Mae's relationships with the townsfolk and rekindling her old friendships, while slowly uncovering the mysteries pertaining both to her past and to the weird happenings around town. The writing is, for the most part, excellent, even if some of the text-heavy sections can go a little overboard on the innocuous worldbuilding details.

It certainly helps that the game's graphics and sound are nothing short of phenomenal. There's a sense of peace about just wandering through the game's world, making small talk with the townsfolk, while admiring the colorful art direction and soaking in the subdued, melancholy soundtrack. Small details, such as the raccoons and squirrels interacting with background objects, the cars passing by in the Towne Centre, or the leaves flowing in the wind as you walk nearby, give the whole experience a sense of joy that's hard to explain with words.

Night in the Woods progresses at a slow pace, which fits the decadent small town vibe. This, however, can be a problem in regards to the exploration. Even though new areas open up every now and then, the days can sort of blur together as you walk the same streets, check the same places, and talk to the same people. There's a monotony about the experience which simply isn't much fun.

Like the name of the game suggests, however, there's a fair tinge of suspense about the storyline, and that's what keeps things interesting. At some point the strange occurrences, which are initially only hinted at, start piling up quickly, leading to a final chapter which is truly phenomenal from a storytelling standpoint (if even less exciting than the rest of the game when it comes to actual gameplay).

Then there's one of the game's most interesting aspects: Mae's scrapbook. Her drawings are essentially collectibles, gotten after experiencing specific passages of the game's story. This is a fine reason for the player to try and develop the various minor storylines Night in the Woods offers, several of which can be genuinely funny, creepy, heartwarming, of all of that at the same time. My big complaint here is that you can't fill out the scrapbook in a single playthrough, as choosing to spend time with a specific character will often mean eschewing a different storyline altogether.

It's hard to judge a title like Night in the Woods. The coming-of-age story hit all the right notes with me, with lovable characters, an excellent setting, and just the right amount of creepiness and serious themes. The truth is, however, that the gameplay itself left me entirely unimpressed, even bored at times. I kept wanting the game to offer exploration that's more interesting outside of the story progression, to no avail. If you want a challenging platformer with pleasant gameplay progression, you should probably look elsewhere; if you don't mind lackluster gameplay in name of a truly excellent story, however, this is a game you won't soon forget.

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