Gregg Rules Ok!
Developer: Infinite Fall
Format: PS4, PC (Reviewed)
Released: February 21, 2017
Night in the Woods is a pretty difficult game for me to describe. It’s a game that’s charming and hilarious one moment, yet depressing and even terrifying the next. It’s a story that tackles themes of mental illness, moving on, growing up, coping with loss, the afterlife, finding your purpose, and how it can all be made just that little bit easier by sharing a pizza with your best mates. All of this is disguised under its deceptively simplistic and cartoonish art style.
You play as Mae, a 20-year-old cat person returning to her hometown of Possum Springs after dropping out of college for reasons she’s incredibly uncomfortable talking about. With no plans for her future, Mae just wants to return to her former life of doing nothing, while reconnecting with the friends she left behind. But it quickly becomes apparent that everything about her home is nothing like she remembers. Her friends have grown and changed, her old haunts are closing down, and locally owned businesses are being replaced by franchise stores. And as the Autumn nights grow colder and longer, strange things start happening around the town that may have something to do with her. Well, she thinks they do anyway. She’s not too sure. But they’re definitely not good.
Despite sporting a simplistic 2D art style that looks like it belongs to a young children’s cartoon show, the world of Night in the Woods feels surprisngly alive thanks to its attention to small details. As you explore the town of Possum Springs, you’ll see leaves rustle and float around as you run through them, cars drive by, pedestrians of all species and sizes walking past you, and even squirrels and other smaller animals scurry around the streets you explore. It’s a small but beautiful setting to explore, especially when backed by an awesome soundtrack that I always thought fit every mood and story beat.
One of the things that especially makes Night in the Woods a difficult game for me to describe is its gameplay. In a general sense, I suppose you could best categorise it as a point-and-click adventure game, while also kind of being a platformer and visual novel at the same time. To get around Possum Springs, Mae is able to run, jump, and even walk along powerlines like tightropes in order to reach the town’s rooftop areas. And she can also interact with people and objects whenever a small prompt appears above them.
While, at first, this style of gameplay feels like a fun and unique way to explore the fairly small world, it quickly falls into a rather repetitive gameplay loop after you complete the introductory chapter. For a majority of the game, you’ll basically be spending your time doing the following: Wake up, run around the town to find every possible object to interact with, decide which of Mae’s two friends to hang out with for the night while participating in interactive dialogue moments, return home to sleep or play around on her laptop, then play through a boring and unchallenging platformer-focused dream sequence. Then rinse and repeat until the next big story event happens.
Of course, this gameplay loop does lead back into the game’s story when you remember that Mae doesn’t have a job or any aspirations. All she can do with her day is wake up, fuck around town for a while, then hang out with her friends when they get off work. But just because the loop has a reason to be there doesn’t mean it can’t get pretty monotonous after a while. If you’re like me, you’ll eventually start wishing that you could skip past the same animation for Mae going to bed and waking up after seeing it for the tenth time.
Thankfully, Night in the Woods comes chock-full with a variety of enjoyable minigames to keep you interested, while also motivating you to push through the gameplay loop long after you notice its repetitive nature. Some of these are completely optional, such as the surprisingly engrossing full roguelite dungeon crawler that you can play on Mae’s laptop. While others are tied into certain parts of the story, usually popping up when Mae hangs out with her friends. These can range from a rhythm game that plays like Guitar Hero, to a shooting gallery that sees you using a water fountain against unsuspecting mall pedestrians.
But even if the minigames aren’t enough to help you put up with the gameplay loop, the story and writing of Night in the Woods surely will. Despite a lack of voice acting, the text-bubble based dialogue is almost always snappy and witty, if a little on the arrogantly snarky side at times. This made me excited to talk to anyone I could, even if it was just to see what entertaining conversations Mae could have with the inhabitants of Possum Springs.
In fact, the parts of the story that stood out the most to me were the moments that Mae spends with her friends and family. After the introductory chapter, you’re eventually able to choose which of Mae’s friends you’ll spend the rest of the day with once you’ve finished exploring the town. You could spend time with her childhood bestie, Gregg, for some delinquent fun, spend time with his calmer, down-to-earth boyfriend Angus, or even get to know the stoic and hard-working Bea.
As you spend more one-on-one time with these characters, you start to feel like you’re getting to know them personally over the course of the game. By the end of the game what start off as seemingly one-note NPCs evolve into three-dimensional characters with personal demons and aspirations. And since you’re the one that chooses which character you spend the most time with, your personal experience with them will be one that is unique to you alone.
Of course, despite its general comedic tone, the story isn’t afraid to suddenly take things seriously. It regularly clashes the unaware and responsibility free Mae against the issues that her friends and family have to deal with, especially on a daily basis for some of them. The game gets into some pretty intense themes, including abuse, coping with death, and poverty. But since these issues are coming from well-written and relatable characters, the times when the game tackles these subjects feel completely natural and earned. They’re handled in such a respectful way that it never feels like the game is trying to be edgy or depressing for the sake of garnering attention as an “indie darling”.
Like I said before, Night in the Woods is a rather difficult game for me to talk about. Not just because there’s so many aspects to it that writing them as a succinct summary is nearly impossible, but also because I feel like to get the best experience out of it, you need to go into it with as blank a slate as I did. And unfortunately, I feel as though that means I have to keep a lot of details towards the story and gameplay as vague as possible so as to not ruin that optimal experience for you.
That being said, I can still tell you that it’s definitely worth your time. While it eventually falls into a repetitive gameplay loop until its final chapter, Night in the Woods is a spectacular tale with sharp humour and memorable characters that understands how to tackle its difficult themes in a way that will definitely hit home for a lot of players. And with multiple story paths and hidden content, you’ll most likely want to start it all over again just as I have to see what else it has to offer. Night in the Woods is definitely going to be one of the weirder games you’ll play in 2017, but it’s also one you won’t regret experiencing.
Final Score: 4.5/5
Final Recommendation: Pick it up! For the fantastic experience it offers, it’s a steal at $20USD!