Sons of the Forest Early Access Review: The Quiet Part Loud
When I was a kid, I had a lot of PC games I’d picked up at garage sales, and a few of them didn’t have a manual. Playing them felt like stumbling through the dark, but I kept going with them because any idle accomplishment under those circumstances felt like a small victory. You get your dopamine where you can, I guess.
I’m bringing this up because Sons of the Forest, now in Steam Early Access, reminds me of that experience. For everything it explains about itself, there are a half-dozen things that it doesn’t, from its story to its world to its mechanics. At the start of the game, you’re dropped into a hostile wilderness and expected to figure the rest out for yourself.
That ends up, for the most part, working in its favor. SotF is a puzzle box of an experience, where its slow build and lack of exposition adds to the overall mystery. There are a few things it really could stand to explain, like certain basic controls or parts of its UI, but it’s strangely addictive once you get a handle on it, with some real scares.
Sons of the Forest is a survival horror game that, at least initially, is more about the “survival” part. In addition to fighting through enemies with scarce resources, you’ve got to find and secure shelter, food, and potable water.
You play as an unnamed mercenary who’s sent to an equally unnamed island as part of a retrieval team. You’re out to find Edward Puffton, a billionaire who went missing with his wife and daughter eight months before.
On approach, an unknown force shoots down your team’s helicopters, and you live through the crash through pure, dumb luck. The only other survivor, Kelvin, is left deaf, concussed, and unable to fight. That leaves you essentially alone with an axe, a lighter, and a knife, against an island that turns out to be inhabited by cannibalistic mutants.
Compared to its predecessor, 2018’s The Forest, you’ve got a little more going for you in Sons. You start the game with a GPS map of the island, and your character’s initially more combat-capable than The Forest’s Eric Leblanc. For the first few in-game days in SotF, you’re set for most fights once you scrape together the materials to make an improvised spear.
My first impression of SotF, though, is that it’s surprisingly quiet, particularly for a horror game. Unless you’re playing on the low-conflict Peaceful mode, it isn’t long before you run into one of the island’s cannibals, but SotF doesn’t accompany that first encounter with a big musical sting or evocative cutscene. Instead, enemies are simply treated like part of the island’s landscape: tree, river, rock, bush, mutant cannibal.
It ends up being surprisingly effective. Much of the island is a well-rendered, colorful natural landscape, and it’s often beautiful to look at, but there’s a subtle atmosphere of dread that only gets more intense as you explore.
The coastlines are littered with totems made from tortured corpses, and many of the island’s most peaceful vistas have a corpse, old or new, hidden in them somewhere. I spent a couple of in-game days building a log cabin on an isolated river delta, and halfway through, found a space beneath a rocky overhang where a couple of people had crawled off to die. You’re never more than a few paces away from the site of someone’s ugly death.
The cannibals themselves show up almost at random. They’re cautious at first, but the longer you’re on the island, the more force they bring to bear against you. Again, this isn’t something SotF tells you; you go from being harassed by an occasional weird ape-man on Day 1 to having to fight entire skirmish parties by Day 12.
That throws you into a strange sort of arms race. Inasmuch as you have starting objectives in SotF, you’re meant to explore the underground cave systems in search of the equipment that’ll allow you to open up the parts of the island that are initially inaccessible.
Those caves, however, are some of the most terrifying environments in the game, full of some of the most dangerous monsters in the game. It's simple and primal, but there's rarely anything scarier in any video game than having to feel your way around in the dark, because there's something around that will see you if you turn on a light.
You have to stock up on resources to stand a chance of surviving the caverns, but that requires you to explore the island, and that, in turn, takes time that you don’t really have. Every day you spend on random exploration or base-building in SotF takes you closer to the game’s burn phase, where the cannibals start fielding small armies in an attempt to take you out.
As a result, I had a couple of false starts with SotF before I managed to find a groove. On the one hand, it’s a horror game, and like any horror game, it’s best to go into it totally cold.
On the other, there are a couple of crucial mechanics and pieces of equipment that the game doesn’t tell you about, so it’s useful to do some reading about it before you start. In particular, the quick-select mechanic, where your character can pull something out of his backpack to equip it rather than opening up his whole inventory, is both absolutely necessary for survival and never explained at any point in-game. (Addendum: numerical hotkeys were added to Sons of the Forest on February 28, 2023, in Hotfix 2.)
That leaves Sons of the Forest performing a truly bizarre balancing act: spoilers are death, and are also virtually required.
Sons of the Forest Early Access Review Impressions
- One of the most unsettling horror experiences of the last few years.
- A slow-building atmosphere of dread.
- Peculiarly addictive, even if it’s hard on the nerves.
- Satisfaction in managing to overcome and survive the island’s dangers.
- Core controls and mechanics aren't explained well.
- Next to no reason to build a base aside from your own entertainment.
- You get a crosshair when you throw spears or rocks but not when you shoot a bow or gun.
- The usual Early Access jank is in full effect.
The lo-fi approach to horror in Sons of the Forest means it’s one of the scariest games I’ve played recently, being hands-off with its environment and encounter design. You never feel secure or fully out of danger in SotF, and any stray fight can at least cost you resources that you can’t afford to lose.
It’s a strange, janky sort of game, though, and some of it’s in ways that can’t be explained by SotF being in Early Access. There’s a fine line between discoverability and impenetrability — between a game that’s meant to be figured out and a game that’s simply obtuse — and Sons of the Forest, like The Forest, jumps back and forth across that line.
Featured image by GameSkinny.