Night in the Woods, from developer Infinite Fall, is the newest in a line of successful Kickstarter stories. Funded back in late 2013, the game massively exceeded its initial goal, before finding its way into backers' – and consumers' – hands. It's an adventure game that sees you assume control of Mae, an anthropomorphic cat who has left college to return to her home town of Possum Springs to live with her parents after suffering some sort of breakdown. While reconnecting with her old friends, and trying to figure just what in the heck to do with her life, some darker, more sinister things start making themselves known to Mae and her friends – and it's up to you to figure out just what's going on.
While the game is primarily an adventure game, it's got a little of everything while you try to uncover the mysteries of Possum Springs. It's actually a rather eclectic mix of minigames and genres. Platforming is the most prominent of these and makes up the majority of the game's "traditional gameplay", but there are some other things too, like stealth gameplay for a pick pocketing minigame, a really unique band-based rhythm segment, a weird duelling mode for a knife fight, shooting for an archery segment, and a plethora of other smaller one-off things. Some of these mechanics are more successful than others – the knife-fight in particular is rather annoying – but the fact that there are so many different things being done allows the game to constantly feel fresh. They all make sense in the context of the story too, otherwise incorporating so many different types of mechanics likely would have come off as scattershot and unfocused, which mercifully is not the case.
That being said, the gameplay is very much not the primary focus of this title. Night in the Woods is definitely story first, and it's all the better for it. The story is crafted expertly, conveying the emotions and feelings of a stagnant twenty-something's life perfectly. If you're in that age bracket or remember how it felt, it's all but guaranteed that this game's writing will strike you on several occasions with something that hits so close to home that you'll need to pause the game for a moment to collect your thoughts. This writer had this happen at least a dozen times throughout the six or seven hours it took to beat the title, much of it pertaining to the incredibly powerful and touching familial relationships. This leads to the games strongest element: the relationships.
While the slowly withering small American town is the backdrop for the game's main narrative, the relationships explored in the game are the real star. Be it with Mae's parents, her estranged BFF Bea, her current BFF Gregg, or Gregg's boyfriend Angus, the relationships in the game are absolutely perfect. Biting wit, tender, genuinely touching relationships, and uncomfortable underlying dread that you can't quite place are present throughout the game, and with a few exceptions everything conveys a legitimate feeling of living. This is delivered through experiencing the mundanities of everyday life, but also through more stressful things like existential crises, and just the horror of not knowing where your life is going or what to do with it.
There are a couple of little areas where the writing doesn't maintain this lofty standard, but it doesn't really effect the overall enjoyment of the title. Mae encounters these crazy surreal nightmares every night when she returns home to sleep – after her daily routine of heading into town and talking to all her friends and many of the natives – which while intentionally vague don't really feel necessary until the very last one. They don't build in a way that feels meaningful, and seem like they may only have stayed in the game to have more regular gameplay in the title. They look marvellous, though, which at least helps a touch. In addition to the nightmare levels, the last act, while mostly engaging, seems to lose itself in a couple spots, making the timeline of events and why certain things are happening hard to follow. But it's only a brief hiccup before the game returns to form and ends magnificently.
When all is said and done, while the relationships are the best part of the writing, the most impressive might be how deftly the game jumps between different feelings and emotions. Much like real life, the game doesn't stay on one track for long stretches of time, hopping between joy, melancholy, anger, horror, and back and forth at the drop of a hat. This builds and builds until that underlying sense of dread we mentioned crescendos into some truly horrific things towards the end of the game.
While the story is definitely the main attraction, the art and music deserve a round of applause as well. The art is delightfully stylised, helping enhance the sweeter elements of the game while still maintaining an impressive level of detail and a wonderful variety in locations – we were particular fond of the incredibly 'Vaporwave' mall that Mae visits – and a truly wonderful colour palette is used. Another nice touch is how the saturation of the colours used differs based on the weather, which we thought was really quite cool. Not to be outdone, the music for the title is incredible. Composer Alec Holowka crafted a massive and incredibly varied library of music for this game, which helps enhance every single last scene it's present in.
Night in the Woods is a truly magnificent adventure game. An eclectic array of different gameplay mechanics play off of a small American town vibe incredibly well. While the gameplay is fun and varied, the main attraction is the absolutely incredible writing. A college-aged life crisis story paired with some much darker and more sinister elements is used as the framework for developing some of the best-realised relationships we've seen in gaming. All of this set to an incredible soundtrack, while utilising a wonderful art style with exceptional use of colours that makes the experience that much sweeter. A few small complaints aside, this title offers a remarkable demonstration on how to write a game, and definitely stands out as one of the best Kickstarter releases we've encountered thus far.