Night In The Woods is an adventure game heavily focused on story, characters and exploration, with some platforming to get around town. Mae's a cat so the roofs and ledges and powerlines are all her playground, and she's not the only one up there by a long shot. You'll also be doing various activities and interacting with the world in different ways, getting to know the townspeople, hanging out with friends, exploring Possum Springs inside and out, and venturing into the surrounding areas.
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Night in the Woods is simply an incredible game, one that gives off the feeling of settling down with a really good book. A lot of games that seriously focus on the state of our world and our societal issues can often feel a bit preachy or overwrought, but Night in the Woods pulls it off seemingly effortlessly. It perfectly captures the feeling of living in a world that is crumbling around you, where sometimes all you want to do is goof off with your friends, because the issues are too big for any one person to handle. There's this nagging feeling of existential despair hanging over the game, but it starts at the margins, just out of sight.
The opening acts of the story have a very cozy, almost Animal Crossing-esque vibe, as you become accustomed to the town of Possum Springs and settle into a daily routine. The recurring characters who appear each day imbue the town with life, and as the game goes on the amount of locations to check on each day increases. Although the platforming isn't super sophisticated, it's enough to make you feel as free and rambunctious as Mae does when she's running about through town. You begin to feel a hint of the stability that Mae was searching for when she dropped out of college, but it's tinged with a bit of sadness - her old friend Casey is gone, Bea seems to hate her guts for some reason, and Gregg is forming his own plans with his boyfriend Angus. Possum Springs is changing, and in some ways declining.
As the autumn progresses, you can palpably feel the slow shift in tone as Mae's mental health begins to take a toll, and more and more seemingly supernatural elements creep into the story. The middle quarters of the game are peppered with wonderfully surreal dream sequences in neon blue and pink that seem to wordlessly hint at the emotional and existential turmoil going on within Mae's head. It's these creepy elements that inform much of Night in the Wood's unique tone, and by the end of the game they are perfectly married to the game's themes about what it means to live in a society where people are only valued for their labor and the systems we uphold are designed to be able to crush us at a moment's notice.
Mae is just a normal person, a twenty-something year old with no job who couldn't handle the stress of college. She's not a hero who can fix the world, or even fix her friends' economic and interpersonal struggles. There are tons of moments in the game in which you are given dialogue options where neither options are the "right" thing to say, because Mae's social awkwardness makes it hard for her to navigate heavy conversations. One particularly memorable moment near the beginning of the game involves a drunk Mae attempting to apologize to Bea for her behavior; the dialogue options are perfectly formulated, formal apologies, but when picked they only come out as half-coherent drunken sobs. The message here is that Mae is her own person with her own flaws, and no about of omniscient guidance on the part of the player can change that.
The extent of the player's control comes from how they choose to spend Mae's time, both in terms of exploring Possum Springs and in terms of which of the main characters they choose to hang out with. There are tons of scenes and conversations in the game that are totally missable depending on what you do while playing the game. None of these change the overall outcome of the game, and yet there's still a powerful incentive to seek them out - namely, that the writing in the game is extremely good. The characters are relatable and well-rounded and funny - funny like how your friends are funny, not like a Joss Whedon character making cool quips or something. My favorite is Bea, Mae's depressed goth friend who truly cares for her deep down, but there's also a lot to love about Gregg's hyperactive criminal antics or Angus's quiet, understated sense of humor. Through your various hangout sessions and the IM messages you exchange with them on your computer each night, you begin to genuinely appreciate who these people are, and feel for their struggles, which are all too relatable to so many of us these days.
I would be remiss to not mention the artstyle and music, which are both excellent. The art is simple yet pleasing and evocative, capturing both the warmth of Possum Springs as well as the dark and eerie undercurrent that pervades the game's playtime. The music is also, uh, simple yet pleasing and evocative, calming and catchy and full of little leitmotifs that truly help tie the story together. The whole experience of playing Night in the Woods is strangely immersive in this regard, filling you with a potent mix of emotions that is hard to describe. You begin to feel like you truly occupy Mae's shoes; her home becomes your home, and her friends become your friends. Few games have made me feel such powerful emotions as this one, and much like a good book, I find myself longing to return to it and experience the story again.
Also, I want Mae and Bea to kiss.
This is a hard game, but not in, like, difficulty or anything. It's hard because it hits really close to home in a lot of ways, especially if you're from a small, economically depressed rust belt town not unlike Possum Springs. This game captures the zeitgeist in a way that I can't really say I've seen elsewhere, and it does so admirably, but in a way that made me cry a lot, so. You know. I'm predisposed to really love this game based on that alone.
In a hypothetical scenario where it didn't speak to me as much as it very definitely does, there's still plenty to recommend the game. It doesn't pull its punches at all, but it's also funny as heck and the mystery is pretty fun to unravel, too. The main cast is great, but you'll also probably find yourself checking in with all the people around town after every plot event just to see what they're all up to.
In terms of more video game-y things, the art style is extremely charming and the music is great. I've gotta admit that I was really happy to get this for the Switch and play it, because I really didn't like trying to do the platforming with my keyboard... that's more of a me problem, though. It's genuinely pretty fun trying to platform around town and walk on telephone lines.
Anyway, this is a definite recommend for me. You probably should be in the right headspace for it, of course, but it's a great experience. It is kind of hopeful at the end, in its own way, and I feel like it's the kind of game that works especially well in these trying times.