Publisher: 1C Company
Developer: Antagonist AS
Rating: M for Mature
What would you do if your son did not listen to you and was kidnapped by a living Norwegian legend? What if this being’s intent was not so nefarious? These questions are asked of your character Karen in Through the Woods when her son, Espen, is kidnapped by Old Erik.
Violence: There is no combat in this game, but any of the multitude of monsters you encounter throughout the game can instantly kill you. Depending on where you wander on the island, you can find caves with bloodied skeletons on the ground. There is a moment in the final chapter where you can kill an injured giant wolf with a boulder. You do not see the impact, but you hear it. It is heartbreaking as he begs you to end his misery. This is optional, but you do earn a trophy for it.
Language: There are multiple uses of curse words such as f*ck, sh*t, b*stard, and son of a -. The Lord’s name is taken in vain in just as many times.
Other: This game deals with heavy themes such as domestic abuse, grief, suicide and what weight we carry in the aftermath.
When I purchased Through the Woods, I expected a super quick Platinum trophy, and I got it. I did not expect to like the game going into it, and indeed, I did not enjoy my playthrough. But as I let the game settle in my mind, I went back. My opinion started to change little by little. Maybe, just maybe, Through the Woods is not the pile of trash I thought it was.
You play as Karen, a single mom too busy to enjoy time with her son. Her son is Espen, an imaginative little boy who wishes for his mom to look up from her work. When we start the game, we find them estranged from each other bearing the scars of poor decisions made by Karen. When supernatural forces spirit away Espen, Karen is forced to reopen these old wounds in her quest to save him.
The entire game is either told as a flashback or an unseen person is hearing Karen’s story from her record of what happened. It is not exactly clear since it is not revealed until the end of the game. As you progress through the story, you hear a voice-over from Karen recounting her feelings about what she felt at that moment. None of this is set up before you start so it is confusing when you hear it the first time, as she sounds like the voice actor had a cold the day she recorded. In fact, all of the recorded dialogue sounds stiff and unnatural. They sound like they were coming from a Speak and Spell.
As you load into the game, you can tell it was made on a small budget. While there was great effort put into some environment details, everything else is not pretty at all. Everything looks like it belongs on the last generation of systems. Thankfully, things look better by a small margin when things take place in darkness which is about half the game. The gameplay is very straight forward as it is almost a walking simulator. You can run and crouch. Sadly, the sneak function is essentially pointless, as I was able to finish the game without needing to use it for actual stealth. Instead, there were only a handful of times I used it and it was for low hanging cave openings. Any time I should have needed to use it, running past the present threat was much faster and easier. Not to fail to mention that a loading screen was an essential guarantee just a few yards up the trail.
Now that I have gotten all the bad stuff out of the way, I should mention what this game does right. As you explore the island, you find journals of the island inhabitants that recount their experiences with Old Erik, and eventually, you encounter some of these people yourself. All of them are grief-stricken over their children that have been taken. There is even an instance where you see one take their own life in front of you. I thought, “why should I care, these people are not my son. I can do nothing for them,” and I continued on. When I loaded into the last chapter, I felt like there was nothing that could save this game from my negative feelings. Then, a twist presents itself. When you find your son, he refuses to come back with you. He is not scared and demands you let him stay with Old Erik. I had figured that he was just some dumb kid rebelling against his mom. When he is taken again, I started to feel more invested. Why would he willingly want to continue with Old Erik?
As the pursuit continues, the full extent of Karen’s past mistakes–and the damage done to her relationship with Espen in the process–is brought to light. Could Espen have continued with Erik to rid himself of his mother? Is Karen so determined to retrieve Espen because she is still trying to mend things with her son? These questions were at the back of my mind as I trudged on to the poignant finale where all is revealed.
All of these story beats and twists are handled well, but they come too little too late. The overarching story of Through the Woods is well written but poorly performed. The gameplay and visual quality is awful, but I still can not say this is the worst game I have played. If you want an interesting story or easy trophies, I recommend that you wait for a sale to pick this up. It is a shame, as the themes and story shown deserve much better.
The Bottom Line
Through the Woods is a game you get if you want easy gamerscore or trophies, as its heavy themes are not portrayed the best.