When the Night in the Woods Kickstarter popped up back in 2013, I backed it immediately. Without even fully understanding what the game is going to be like. I always admired projects Alec Holowka was involved in, and this one seemed to be another one I shouldn’t miss. And as the time went by, I still never really knew what the game would be. After completing the game a few times I finally understand why that was – it’s really not about how it plays and all about what it tells and how it does it.
If we are going to try and describe what Night in the Woods is, it would be something like – story driven exploratory 2D platformer with mini-games and day-to-day schedule. I’ve seen a fun comparison with Shenmue, even, calling the game “Shenmew”. And that’s kind of it in a nutshell, mechanically-wise. You wake up, run and jump around a small 2D town, talk to the characters, find optional stuff, do occasional mini-gamey things and experience the story.
Given that the story would make or break the game in this case, I must say – this is one of the best story-driven titles I’ve ever played in my life. It’s very definitely the best “growing older” story I’ve ever experienced in any type of media. I feel that some people might not find it as relatable as I found it, as a lot of character traits in this game seemed to be so very much like me and some of my friends in the late teens-early 20s. But even without relating to the events you will most likely enjoy what the game tells. Simply because how it tells it.
The basic setup here is simple – Mae, a bit of a social outcast, suddenly decides to drop out of college and go home to her small town. She reconnects with her old friends and tries to find some sense of normalcy and calm in the place she knows since childhood, but things don’t always go the way you want. And she gets caught up in personal issues of those around her and herself, with strange events seemingly happening in the town on top of these things.
I really cannot stress enough how well written and told the story is. Especially since we’re talking about a cute looking game about anthropomorphic animals in a story that mixes the issues of loneliness, living in a small town, growing older with creepy Lovecraftian mysteries and almost Lynchian weirdness. You’d expect the serious topics to be boring or badly done, but they’re not. It’s all paced so… naturally. Interesting things, a lot of mini-stories happen all the time, setting the right mood for the player just right.
There are mild hiccups, with ending parts being (seemingly intentionally) more convoluted than parts before and the back and forth across the same city can be boring to some. Especially since the platforming in the game is surprisingly not that well done, for how important it is. As such, some triple jumps, like in some Mario games, are sometimes tough to pull off and the platforming collision in general is more balanced towards you missing the jump rather than helping you still land even if you’re a bit lower than you should be.
And the mini-games, for as much variety they add, also feel a bit unbalanced and tricky to do. There’s an entire top down action game within this game that has some nice basics, but feels more frustrating than challenging after a certain point. The rhythm mini-game felt to me about half a second off the rhythm, which might’ve been intentional to show how clumsy the band of our characters really is, but feels unpleasant to do because of this. They’re never important and it’s great that those things are there to add some silly variety. But, as also with the surreal dream sequences, the small nagging imperfections make those more unfun than they really should be.
Oh and I want to give one hint about something that might annoy you otherwise. There are plot-driving choices that are usually about hanging out with Gregg or Bea, which essentially “end the current day”. And those can be postponed by saying no, but then returning and saying yes. Strangely enough, there are side-stories that also present you with the same choice sometimes, but if you say “No”, even if it sounds like you’re saying “later”, it’s a “no” forever. The event will be lost forever. It’s probably the biggest issue with the game right now, as it’s just absolutely inconsistent with everything you do before you’re presented with a choice like this for the first time and can ruin your enjoyment of the story a bit. So just note – if it’s not a one of the Mae’s best friends, say “no” only if you really don’t want to hang with that character.
Then again – as you might notice my main gripe with the game is the slight design fault that might lead to you experiencing less of the story. Just because of how actually really good it is. And how sad I am that I’ve completed the game. Twice too, since there are important story choices that cannot be experienced in one story as well. And I’d play it the third time too, if not for so many other games I really want to get to and play. Also real life stuff. Because I really liked the game,the characters, the world it created. And I’d love to visit it again.
Night in the Woods is a game that sucks you in and then stays with you after you’re done with it. It’s a simple, yet very complex, funny, yet serious story. It’s like hanging out with your weird friends in those weird times when you didn’t really know what might happen in your life in the future, yet had this strange feeling that nothing really changes. The nights of poetic truths of high school journal keepers. You have to play Night in the Woods.