Like all game reviews on this blog, this review assumes you’ve played the game, so it’s full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!
I named Night in the Woods my tenth most-anticipated piece of pop culture of 2017. Back in January, I was drawn in by its clever writing, gorgeous art and animation, and interesting mixture of gameplay styles. Now, in March, having played the game, I can confidently say that it succeeds wonderfully on those first two points, but on gameplay, not so much. Well… two out of three ain’t bad!
There’s a tendency in some games criticism circles to evaluate a game against what the critic thought it should have been rather than against what the game was trying to do. It’s best exemplified by critics who think that the BioShock games should have been Telltale-style adventure games where you can choose not to shoot people. Needless to say, that kind of criticism misses the point entirely. I bring this up not as a tangent, but to explain that when I say Night in the Woods should have been a visual novel, it’s not because I have any special attachment to visual novels; it’s because what Night in the Woods was trying to do would have been better communicated through the medium of visual novels, rather than the awkward adventure game/platformer hybrid it is. None of this is to suggest that Night in the Woods is a bad game! It isn’t at all, in fact. That being said, it is a game that frustrated me and delighted me in equal measure, and there were times that the frustrations almost outweighed the delight.
But let’s focus on the good, shall we? Night in the Woods is just gorgeous to look at, with a striking colour palette that emphasizes golds, reds, and blues and characters built from simple shapes. There’s a great deal of expressiveness in their eyes, and developers Infinite Fall did an excellent job animating the body language of the character models. Night in the Woods looks like nothing else in gaming right now.
However, the real star of the game is the excellent dialogue, full of wit, humour, and pathos. Most of it is written with a wry tone, but each character has their own individual personality that shines through. And sometimes, the game can get surprisingly emotional; Gregg’s confession regarding his anxieties about his relationship with Angus nearly wrecked me. The various conversations throughout the game deal with themes such as faith, queerness, adolescence, and economic anxiety in frank and clever ways.
Unfortunately, the spaces between that dialogue are boring as hell. Just moving around Possum Springs, while initially fun the first time you’re discovering everything, soon becomes a repetitive chore. Doing the same sequences of jumps over and over again to reach the same locations is tedious busywork that adds nothing whatsoever to the game, save for padding out its length. It’s not that the platforming mechanics are shoddy – they’re pretty solid, all things considered – it’s that they feel unnecessary. The musical dream sequences, for instance, are a visual treat, but I could have gotten same effect (minus the frustration) just watching a set of cutscenes.
The overall effect of the padding out of the game is that it feels lethargically paced. Part of that works to the game’s advantage, engendering the feeling of a small, dilapidated town where there’s nothing to do except pass lazy days shooting the shit. But for the most part, it makes the game feels like it’s just wasting time, purposely stalling forward plot momentum for no discernible reason. I could have absorbed all the relevant information the game was trying to impart to me much quicker if it were just a visual novel. And when the game finally speeds up towards the end, the resolution feels too abrupt and pat, which it wouldn’t have felt if the rest of game were similarly paced.
So I came away from Night in the Woods feeling like I’d spent way too much time in Possum Springs. That’s a shame, because I really love the world Infinite Fall created. I just wish they’d had the guts to eschew traditional game mechanics and trust the strength of their writing to carry the experience.