I picked up Night in the Woods a few months after it reached the Nintendo Switch after a friend recommended it; my first playthrough has taken around 20 hours and I fully intend to replay soon – Night in the Woods is, at first glance, a cute side scroller full of adorable zoomorphic characters… But it’s anything but.
You play as Mae Borowski, a black cat, who has recently dropped out of college and returned to live with her parents, in her hometown of Possum Springs, an old mining town – Mae returns to find that her hometown has been hit hard by the closure of the mine and throughout the game we get to see just how much of an impact this is having on Mae’s friends, family and local businesses.
With shops closing down throughout the course of the game and the character’s discussions of hardships as a result of the struggles caused, I really felt as if I was witnessing the slow descent into ruin. Throughout the game you learn a lot about Mae’s mental health – I think the game does a good job of exploring depression and other areas of mental health (Mae’s dissociative states) without going overboard and making it into a huge thing. I thought the parallels between Mae’s mental health and the slow dilapidation of the town were good. Towards the end of the game (Small spoiler) you begin to question Mae’s mental health even more and the game leads you in a way that you think you know where it’s going and what’s going to happen before you’re hit with a plot twist that loosely reminded me of Hot Fuzz. One of the ways we get to actively explore Mae’s mentality is through the increasingly abstract and bizarre dream sequences that you play through at the end of each day – Each dream sequence mostly comprises of a search for different musicians (There are exceptions), as you find them their instrument kicks in to the background music. I really enjoyed this mechanic, it was simple and nicely done, and as these are dream sequences, they leave you searching for their meaning.
This game is packed full of optional extras – There are so many different things you can do, including several mini games within the game; One of these mini games is a fully realised 8-bit game called Demon Tower, accessible through Mae’s laptop; personally I was terrible at this, which is quite embarrassing to admit because it’s incredibly simple in design. This is something I fully plan on tackling in my current playthrough. My favourite mini game was basically a version of Guitar Hero, Mae plays bass In a band with her friends, and whilst you play through the songs as part of the game you can also access them at any point by picking up Mae’s bass in her room. Although the songs sound pretty much the same (I think they may actually be the same), the difficulty gets harder! Additionally as well as mini games there are different activities and secrets you can find throughout the town. These include rearing some rat babies and star gazing – I really loved looking for stars on the roof with Mr Chazokov, I was disappointed if I started a day in the game and it was one where he wasn’t up on his roof.
I enjoy looking up the stories behind stars in real life, so getting treated to a star gazing side quest complete with adequately dark and interesting stories was perfect. Hangouts are the game’s main form of progression in the story. Something I wish I knew at the beginning is hanging out with more passive characters like Mae’s mum or Germ does not end a day and progress the story – I missed out on so many hangouts for this reason.
One of the mechanics in Night in the Woods is that it forces you to pick which one of your friends you hang out with as you’ll not get a chance to do all of the “hangouts” in one game; I like this as I feel like the developers really thought about replayability and also reflecting real life whereby if you miss out on an activity you miss out on another possible interaction. Mae’s friends consist of the rather sullen Bea (A crocodile), super hyper and excited Greg (A fox), and his sensible boyfriend Angus (A bear). You get a closer look at what’s happening in each character’s life if you chose to end a day with once of these characters, and this understanding builds their character arcs the more time you spend with them. I like that the characters progress their life without you – Who you choose to hang out with changes your experience of the game completely, and this sort of choice and effect is something I’ve been craving in video games since playing Life is Strange.
Without giving away too much, Night in the Woods comprises of incredibly dark moments, an exploration of topics like economic depression, mental health, religion and growing up, lots of interesting and fun sides and funny moments. I feel the characters are really well developed and a lot of thought has been put into their backstories, and fleshing out their personalities. The game itself is aesthetically pleasing with a hand drawn cartoony feel and gameplay is really smooth. Where I feel the game could have improved is towards the end, where you find out what’s been going on the whole time and it all happens all very fast and at once. For me I would have liked more here either in the form of more dialogue or just an extra bit of gameplay. Overall as a small indie game I think it’s done very well and I would probably rate it an 8.0 / 10.