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Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Sons of the Forest Early Access Review

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I'll never forget my first confusing, terrifying encounter with a cannibal in 2018's The Forest, when an intelligent creature out of a nightmare decided simply to watch me rather than try to kill me. And while its sequel, Sons of the Forest, can't truly replicate the creepy novelty of that first time, it does build upon the gameplay, story, and atmosphere of one of the best ever survival crafting games in some very satisfying ways. It occasionally reminded me of its Early Access status with seemingly unfinished cutscenes and inconsistent performance, but not nearly as often as a lot of other recent games that use that label.

Set several years after The Forest, Sons of the Forest challenges you to survive and uncover new mysteries on a lush, temperate island that reminded me of hiking in the American Pacific Northwest. It's about four times the size of the original's map, and it is downright gorgeous. The amount and variety of vegetation, some of which can be used as a food source or to make medicines, adds a fullness and richness to the landscape that we rarely see in this type of game. The lighting is also incredible. Clouds that partially block out the sun on a warm day completely change the mood of my exploration. It's one of those small details that most games ignore, but when one of them gets it right, I really notice.

It isn't perfectly optimized yet though. While my RTX 3080 could generally cruise along at a smooth 60 frames or better at 1080p with DLSS set to maximum quality, I did run into semi-regular dips into the 20s when traveling long distances over land. And you sometimes see annoying pop-in with leaves and rocks appearing a couple dozen meters in front of you, which can really take me out of the experience. I also had a lot of glitchy sound issues, particularly during rainstorms or other times when a lot of different sounds were playing at once. Performance is usually one of the last things to be finalized, though, so hopefully a lot of this can be worked out over the course of Early Access.

Further adding to the believability and hostility of the environment in Sons of the Forest is a full system of seasons, including snowy winters that kill off most of the edible vegetation and require you to keep track of your body temperature. It's a nice change of pace, but I think there's more that could be done with these weather effects. Being soaking wet and freezing cold, even on higher difficulties, is more of a small annoyance than a life-threatening challenge. And, hilariously, you can't break the ice on frozen bodies of water, even using C4 explosives. But overall, I enjoyed both the visual variety and shift in difficulty seasons provided quite a bit.

Cannibal AI has gotten a significant upgrade since The Forest.


Of course, I haven't mentioned the cannibals yet. Much like in the first game, they cleverly subvert everything we've been taught about video game enemies, prioritizing self-preservation over aggression. Every run-in with these bone-clad baddies begins with a tense stand-off, and many will choose not to fight, especially if they're alone and you don't act afraid of them. Their AI has definitely gotten a significant upgrade since The Forest, with improved stealth, more advanced social dynamics, and more varied group behavior.

They can climb trees to get away or pounce on you from above, and even set ambushes, disguising themselves in piles of leaves. It's terrifying, especially if you're caught outside at night and you can hear that they're nearby, but you don't know where. I'll let you discover some of the more interesting interactions you can have with these fine folks on your own. Suffice to say, every time I thought they were out of surprises, they surprised me again.

When you venture into the depths of the island, though, cannibals will be the least of your worries. There are a lot more hulking, horrible mutants in Sons of the Forest than there were in its prequel, and they're a lot more dangerous. I really came to enjoy the stronger focus on combat, as it's used very effectively to build tension rather than just to check a box or provide cheap thrills.

Every fight with a powerful opponent or a large group of enemies is a heart-thumping resource management puzzle that reminded me of some of the best parts of Resident Evil or The Last of Us. Ranged weapons keep you out of danger, but ammo can be very difficult to come by. In melee, it's almost impossible to win without taking some amount of damage, which depletes your breakable armor pieces and healing items. And without batteries for your flashlight, you're as good as dead. I'd rather run out of bullets and food nine times out of 10 than lose my light source deep into a cavern run.

You would never guess where Sons of the Forest's later chapters take you.


So I found myself having to carefully consider the risks and rewards of each approach. Is losing a handful of arrows worth the loot I'll get from this cannibal camp? Is it worth the medicine I'll have to use to patch myself up if I go at this mutant with my axe to conserve ammo? The fighting itself also feels precise and responsive, so I never felt like I was robbed of my resources due to a bad hitbox or sluggish animations.

Even if you played The Forest, and you know how far some of the later chapters stray from a stroll in the woods, I can fairly confidently say you still would never guess where Sons of the Forest is going to take you before the credits roll. And if you didn't play the first one, well… buckle up, I guess. The terrifying tale that begins with trying to find a billionaire and his family who went missing in the wilderness expands on the supernatural elements established in the first game – not always in ways that I enjoyed, but it certainly never got boring.

The ending is both mind-blowing and, currently, pretty rough around the edges. I'm not going to show any of it here, but it's one of the few places I could really tell I was playing an Early Access game, with what seems like quite a bit of missing dialogue and some glitchy character interactions. In fact, I'd probably recommend you hold off on completing the story until it's in a more polished state, since there's so much else to do in the meantime.

And that includes building your dream cannibal-proof fortress with a new, totally modular building system that lets you place individual structure elements like windows and support beams wherever you want. I spent a good five or six of my 25 hours so far just setting up a base, and I really barely scratched the surface of what is now possible. Especially if you have a full, eight-person crew in multiplayer. Which, by the way, has been running great for me so far, with no significant server issues.

Verdict

Sons of the Forest takes everything its predecessor did well and does it a little bit better. And considering how much I enjoyed the original, I can easily recommend this strong follow-up. Exploring a huge, beautiful, deadly island through the changing seasons is a treat on its own. The new base building mechanics could entertain me for days without ever touching the main story. And to top it all off, we have smarter and more unsettling enemy behavior paired with thoughtfully improved combat. It’s already great, and it’s still in Early Access. With some healthy performance optimization and shining up of an impactful but sloppy ending, it could become incredible.

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