The First Few Hours With Steam Hit Sons Of The Forest, A Terrifying Survival Horror
The woman with three arms and three legs won’t get out of my mountainside camp. She doesn’t appear to be a threat, and she must be freezing in her undies, but then again it must be a nightmare finding clothes that fit. It’s just…really unsettling. I know there are cannibals on this island, but she doesn’t seem to be one of them—rather just a lost triped who seems troublingly obsessed with running around the outside of my log cabin.
Sons of the Forest (SotF) is a sequel to 2018’s The Forest, an enormously successful survival game released at the peak of the genre. In The Forest, your plane crashed over a remote wilderness, in which you tried to survive by building shelter and fire, catching wild animals, and foraging through the scattered luggage from the crash for scraps and essentials…right up until the astonishingly creepy mutant creatures started sniffing around your camp. In SotF, your helicopter crashes over a remote island, on which you tried to survive by building shelter and fire, catching wild animals, and foraging through the scattered…you get the idea. It is, in its initial Early Access Steam launch, a very similar game.
That’s no bad thing, given The Forest provided a really fascinating combination of survival and horror. It was remarkable how well it combined the enormously popular genre of wilderness survival with a first-person fright-fest. Its genius was its subtlety, the way it played everything so straight until that first time you saw a peculiar figure scampering away through the trees, then maybe stumbled upon a hideous totem built from body parts and tennis rackets. The Forest was a game in which you could spend hour after hour building yourself a wonderfully elaborate wooden village, and then suddenly find yourself taken captive and held in an underground chamber lined with pulsating mutant horror.
Tense survival in a world of horrors
Sons of the Forest begins incredibly similarly, but this time for some reason you’re joined by a second survivor, a young man who appears to have had some sort of lobotomy (both ears are bleeding) to whom you can give written instructions on a pad of paper. “BUILD A FIRE,” or “COLLECT WOOD AND DROP IT HERE.” He gleefully gets on with his tasks, taking the busywork burden off of you as you begin putting together your lovely log cabin.
As before, you do this by chopping down trees (a superbly detailed process; you’re even able to direct which way it’ll fall by chipping out a chunk, then hacking away at the thing from the opposite side), gathering sticks and stones, and then plopping them magically into ghostly frames. Realism is not a primary factor in Sons. And as before, while you’re getting yourself set up with somewhere to sleep and eat, the local peculiar humanoid creatures will begin nervously sniffing around your camp.
Everything is vastly more pretty in the new game, and the scope of the island wonderfully ambitious. I’ve started two different games, one beginning in the summer, one in the spring, and each time the helicopter crashed in a different location. The first, in the rainy summer, was very similar to the first game (which made for an unfortunate first impression), albeit amongst wonderfully rendered trees, with photorealistic deer bounding around, and gorgeous bunnies snuffling in the foliage. The second time I landed on the side of a snow-covered mountain, with views like I’ve never seen a game able to generate, and extraordinary snow detail as my feet crunched rough paths through the white blanket. However, the temperature didn’t appear to have any effect on the game at all, which felt a little odd.
From both starting points, after setting up camp, I was quick to explore, and it’s here that I suspect Sons of the Forest will continue to distinguish itself: There’s just a lot more going on. In one incarnation, I quickly found a cave containing human remains and a lot of useful crafting supplies, then when emerging discovered I was surrounded by creepy humanish creatures scampering about on all fours.
They were awfully cross with me, and things turned ugly fast, as I swung wildly with my axe, taking down four before a fifth walloped me from behind. I woke up to find myself tied by my legs and waist to a pole in the middle of their crude camp. After escaping, I scrambled to another cave entrance marked on the game’s fancy new GPS, which then switched from rocky cave walls to human-built drywall. Cave-ins blocked some directions, but I found a storage room with some excellent gear on the shelves, and a 3D printer that allowed me to create a bunch of arrows, some grapples, and, er…a creepy mask.
Around the snowy mountain I discovered far larger caves, only possible to further explore if I could find a way to cross a rope stretching over an unclimbable wall of stone. I then climbed further up the mountain and found a large frozen pond, with abandoned sleds in the middle. With awful cracking noises under my feet, I made my way to the middle, and grabbed all I could before dashing back to the side. Here was a blue-glowing cave, with icicles almost concealing the entrance. And then the three-legged lady showed up.
A sequel worthy of The Forest
It’s worth noting that your odyssey begins with your helicopter not crashing for unknown reasons, but rather because it’s shot by bullets. This implies that there’s an awful lot more happening on this island than just mutant cannibals, not least that when you briefly come around after your accident, a man in a silver suit glares, then knocks you out with the butt of his gun. Hmmmm. You’re there this time because a billionaire family—mother, father and daughter—have gone missing, and you’ve been tasked with finding them. There’s clearly a far larger narrative to explore this time out. But rather crucially, it remains entirely optional.
That was a major joy of the first game, and is being repeated in this sequel: You can approach it as you see fit, playing it as a dead-straight survival sim, going in hell-for-leather trying to fight with everything, or focusing on exploration, trying to piece together its story. However, in a brilliant move, this time out you can much more heavily define this experience in the options.
It’s now possible to change the behavior of the mutants in a range of ways, individually raising or lowering their health, damage, armor, and most importantly, aggression. Turn all these down and they’ll mostly leave you alone, so long as you leave them alone. Turn them up in various combinations, and it’s going to be scary out there. You can also tweak the numbers of animals, the season you start in, and how long days and seasons last. You can even make it rain less. These are wonderful options that really understand how differently people want to play a game like this, and ensure it’s as interesting as it can be to as wide an audience as possible
The original The Forest was one of the true success stories of the Early Access model, originally debuting in 2014, and growing progressively more interesting to play over the next four years as it evolved through the feedback of its players. There’s every hope this follow-up can do the same.
Some immediate improvements are definitely needed, like ways to assign hotkeys for equipping chosen items, such as the knife and axe, without having to faff with the backpack. It also needs much better on-screen prompts for how to build things like fires. (Weirdly, an entire log cabin is simply built using the daft ghost-frame, but a simple fire is now much more complex and hands-on, requiring that you break sticks in half and pile them up; the method for doing this is unexplained and damned weird.)
I’d also say that while the crafting gives you lots to aim for, it lacks a narrative reason to bother. The idea that you’re looking for these billionaires is sort of implied in the (madly, unskippable) opening cutscene, but then never mentioned again by anything in-game. It really needs to establish the narrative a bit more, to offer the player a bunch more carrots from the start, and then leave it up to them if they want to follow.
But SotF is already leagues ahead of where The Forest began, and has co-op in place already. (No word on if The Forest’s much-lauded, terrifying VR support will be returning, though.) The GPS is a huge improvement, giving you locations of interest to aim toward from the very start, and thus an incentive to explore outward from wherever you happened to crash, even if it’s not really explained why.
And yes, wow, I’ve mentioned how gorgeous it is, but it cannot be emphasized enough. This is a legitimately stunning game, one in which I kept finding myself just stopping and looking, distracted by enjoying a view, or how the sunlight breaks through between tree branches over my snow-covered cabin. A lot of work is needed on the human faces and NPC animations, which really break the magic, but there’s likely years of Early Access ahead to see that all happen.
Don’t let Steam Early Access put you off
Oftentimes you might be put off by the “Early Access” label, wanting rather to wait until it’s just finished and officially out. But Sons of the Forest is already a very complete experience. I started playing The Forest in 2014, and then returned to it regularly over its years of development, and found it the most incredibly satisfying experience. From my first few hours with this sequel, I’d say something very similar is likely to happen.
Sons of the Forest’s similarities seem both a boon and a curse. I’d love to have seen this ambitious sequel distinguishing itself a bit more from the original, evincing a more distinct and original idea, rather than be a 10-years-later update of the formula. However, it’s an incredibly good formula, and this is an incredibly good rendition of it. I cannot wait to see what’s to come.
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