Like many things that demand I make an effort, camping is very much Not My Bag. Even if it wasn’t dark and claustrophobic and didn’t require grim communal washroom facilities, I’m reliably informed that there are bugs. And given I can barely cope with the video game versions – I have abandoned many a game because a spider hissed at me – I tend to turn down any premise in which I may encounter one in person.
That doesn’t mean I’m not delusional about my capacity to be a skilled survivalist if I wanted to be, though. Much like watching half an hour of 24 Hours in A&E makes me think I could run the NHS, gaming has imbued me with inflated and very misplaced confidence in my own abilities. I am convinced that I will only survive but thrive if I ever had to deal with, say, a zombie apocalypse or a plane crash on a mysterious island. (Yes, you’re right: I am indeed unbearable in Escape Rooms.)
It’s just as well, really, because surviving a crash and landing on a mysterious island is exactly how we’re introduced to Sons of the Forest. In the midst of a rescue-stroke-missing-persons investigation, your helicopter inexplicably tumbles from the sky, marooning you on a vast, temperate habitat where deer gallop across the glade and fish leap from crystal waters and cannibals hide in treetops patiently waiting to batter you to death.
Despite the hype, I didn’t play the predecessor, The Forest, because someone had told me it was a survival game, and I like survival games about as much as I like those aforementioned bugs. Whilst I thoroughly appreciate why they’re popular (I had a fabulous time with Grounded) my personal experience has been that faffing around with the survival bits – finding fresh water, sourcing something to eat, building a wobbly shack in which to sleep – just gets in the way. I have no imagination to build anything impressive and I play games to escape the boredom of everyday life, thanks.
Not so with sequel Sons of the Forest, though. Whilst the survival traits are undeniably there – you’ll have to manage your hunger, thirst, strength, and fatigue carefully; more so when the weather turns and you’re quietly rebranding yourself as a popsicle – this delicate balance adds to the fun, rather than impeding it, and it’s refreshingly simplistic given the island’s vast array of flora, fauna, and freely-flowing water. Even dying on normal difficulty is a languid affair, and there’s rarely a fight to reclaim your lost backpack. The generous amount of daylight you get, too, ensures you’re usually able to get your chores done with plenty of time left over for a little spelunking.
And you will need to explore. It’s easy to slip into the relaxing routine of an island sandbox, endlessly adorning your base with needless extra floors and zip lines and completely forgetting that you’re supposed to be on a rescue mission. Again, base building is not a pastime that typically engages me, but Endnight’s pick-up-and-play blueprint system somehow hits the sweet spot between feeling necessary without tipping into aggravation.
The real magic of Sons of the Forest, however, lies not in base-building or 3D-printing a sled for reasons I’ve yet to understand, but in the secrets lurking behind boarded-up caverns and underground bunkers and those oh-so-pesky cannibals.
More experienced Forest sherpas may tell you that, at first, the island’s indigenous population is more likely to observe than attack, but that was certainly not my experience the first time the sun set on my temporary home. Maybe it was where I’d set up camp. Maybe I just looked particularly appetising. Either way, that first night was spent endlessly warding off silhouettes that shrieked into the dark sky and zipped unerringly through the shadows, the scant light of my campfire illuminating naff all. But if it hadn’t been for Kelvin – poor, sweet, usefully useless Kelvin – I wouldn’t even have had that. Thankfully, your emergency kit includes a handy tactical axe, and whilst you may have to get closer than you’d like to use it, it should keep you alive long enough to work out how the hell you’re supposed to get a temporary shelter set up.
I suspect, however, that your mileage will vary considerably depending on whether you team up with pals. My two squaddies and I – all of us new to the franchise but successfully fighting the urge to look up guides – trial-and-errored together, sharing our discoveries and working harmoniously to keep the base cannibal-free, getting to grips with the complexities of building tools and, you know, staying alive. And I don’t think my experience would’ve been anywhere near as enjoyable if it wasn’t for having friends nearby to catch the things I missed and help thin out the cannibal caravan when it stopped by for a visit.
Beyond the blueprint-building feature, though, little else in Sons of the Forest is intuitive. Yes, it’ll feel familiar to anyone who spent time with the original game, but for newcomers, the clumsy control scheme and disorganised UI may take some getting used to. Yes, the inventory system is legitimately magnificent – I will now automatically knock off points for any game that doesn’t let me roll out my spoils in such an aesthetically pleasing way – but crafting can be laborious, not least because the recipes you have only become apparent after you randomly chuck stuff together.
Combat, too, is a little janky – although this is countered somewhat by exceptionally stupid enemy AI – but it can hurt when you’re in the caves and taking on all manner of beasts that categorically were not in the holiday brochure. And whilst I appreciate the gentle benevolence of our mute companion, Kelvin, by the time you’ve been on the island a couple of weeks, I’m not sure what else he brings to the table (unless you want him to smash up the table because let’s face it – Kelvin is very, very good at accidentally smashing stuff). Yes, he kept me alive for those first few days. Yes, I appreciate his commitment when I ask him to get some fish, forget I asked him to get fish, and then return to a pile of glossy gills and scales. But otherwise, Kelvin’s a liability… and the less I say about the perpetually cold three-legged girl with the see-through top, the better (she sure can wield a firearm, though, I’ll give her that).
And there’s still so much to discover! So many secrets and mysteries still to solve. Will we ever find out why someone buried the hatch that leads to a swanky subterranean bunker? Or why the locals have thin tracks of wet, sticky blood running from their ears? Why are there so many imposing steel doors locked by keycard on a (mostly) deserted island that make me think of the Dharma Initiative every time I see one? And will we ever know why we have a terrible, terrible wrist tattoo that hums with the sinister energy of a mistaken it’s-the-last-night-in-Magaluf-and-I’m-shitfaced trip to the tattooist?
Maybe. Maybe not. The astonishing thing is, I don’t care. And for a player usually so faithfully committed to storytelling, this makes Sons of the Forest all the more curiously liberating… and such a delightful surprise.