Oh God, why did I ever decide to post on both Mondays and Fridays? And actually tried to stick to it? I’ve been trying to write this review since Friday and I just cannot come up with anything clever to say. So, you know what? It is what it is!
The small town of Willow Ridge is constantly blanketed by darkness. You see, the forest around it has come alive and the only thing keeping the citizens alive is their guardian, the giant lighthouse in the center of town. For the only thing that the forest hates is light. Countless people have tried to escape, countless more have tried to break the curse. Countless of lives have been lost. But one night your husband, the lighthouse keeper, disappears out into the forest. And shortly after the forest takes him, the lighthouse explodes and the forest begins to invade. Someone has been waiting a long time for this and it seems a nefarious plot is already in motion.
Child of the Forest is the second Rite of Passage game and I’ve already reviewed the first the game, albeit briefly in a Casual Friday. Made by Mad Head Games, probably my absolute favorite HOPA developer, I went into this game expecting quite a lot. I enjoyed The Perfect Show quite a bit even if it, maybe, didn’t live up to things like Dark Realm. And my honest opinion is that this is probably Mad Head Games’ weakest serving so far. Why? Well, that’s what this review is for, yes? So continue reading to find out!
While I acknowledge that it’s not entirely fair to mark a game down for their color choices simply because others do it poorly, one of the first things I noticed about Child of the Forest was the fact that it was very blue. Now, I appreciate the fact that they simply didn’t make the forest dark but rather tried to infuse it with color as much as possible. But why blue? It’s not blue and yellow, a combination I am dreadfully bored with, but it’s still blue. And don’t give me the “it’s supposed be dark and moody and blue is really good for that” because there are options. Imagine a forest bathed in dark red or green, that’d work.
Luckily Mad Head Games are pros and knows that no color palette, regardless how good or unique it may be, stands up to four hours of scrutiny so, like always, they use every opportunity to bathe the graphics in other colors such as yellow and greens and even reds. It really helps make those scenes pop and stick in your memory and they feel very special when you do finally get to one that so obviously doesn’t fit in with the rest of the world. It gives you a very good idea of what these people went through and how they chose to distance their interiors from the drab blue and dark they saw outside all the time.
But the main color here is purple, a color favored by Mad Head Games in general, it seems. And I approve of this simply because it isn’t very common. It’s gotten to the point where I can almost tell what studio made what game based simply on the dominant color choices. But purple is definitely an enjoyable color that lends an air of fantasy to the art style.
Mad Head Games also use colors very well to highlight areas and draw player attention which is extremely important in any HOPA. If I’m reduced to dragging my mouse cursor all over the place just to find all the areas just because it doesn’t sparkle, the designer did something wrong. That said, there were times that I had missed obvious things because they hardly stood out and I roamed this world looking for answers a bit more than I would have wanted.
Another area that didn’t exactly light my pants on fire were the hidden object scenes. Don’t get me wrong, they were perfectly serviceable and very well made, both in quality of graphics and in how the items were hidden. But I had issues with the interactivity as it was poorly implemented and I spend far too much time on some scenes simply because finding the interactive elements were a pain in the ass. Yes, I used another swear word. And they weren’t always intuitive either as when I’m looking for a flag, my mind doesn’t immediately jump to the toy tank and making the area of interaction tiny doesn’t do the games any favors either.
Granted, it’s not like this issue popped up in every single scene but it was noticeable enough for me actually get frustrated with more than once. And this unintuitiveness was a recurring problem for me throughout the game. Solutions weren’t always as straight forward as they could, or rather should be. It smelled a bit too much of eighties and nineties adventure game logic and on more than one occasion I found myself using every item in my inventory just to find which one worked. And this ties together with the problem I had a bit further up in the text, not finding all the objects, as sometimes I’d missed a not-so-obvious object and other times the solution was just weird and never occurred to me.
And they never really justified some of these solutions. A game like Monkey Island can get away with strange solutions because it’s set in a universe or world that doesn’t make sense and the game constantly reminds you of this. As such weird, out of this world solutions don’t feel as jarring as here where reality isn’t that far off.
On the flipside, the puzzles were just way too easy. Take the pictured puzzle above. It’s a pretty straight forward “complete the pattern” puzzle… or so you’d think. I was ready to go as soon as I saw the puzzle but the game threw up barricades and said “NO! Can’t do that yet, you need the combination.” Uh, no, Mad Head, I don’t because there’s exactly one solution to that puzzle and I’d appreciate not being TOLD the answer.
I often see this issue in HOPA and one company that was disturbingly guilty of this was Eipix back in 2013 or thereabouts. They’ve gotten better. This was never a very difficult puzzle, I saw the solution as soon as I saw it, but don’t go making it EVEN easier by giving me a solution. And definitely do not stop me from even attempting it before I’ve found the solution. Then it becomes busy work and I hate busy work puzzles. They’re glorified keys and I’d prefer it if you just went with keys because at least that doesn’t piss me off. If you absolutely insist on having the solution in the game, have it be a journal update and not something you have to find and put on the puzzle to even be allowed to try.
If it seems like I’m being overly harsh on the game then… well, yes, I sort of am. This was just Mad Head Games’ second game and it’s completely unfair of me to weigh it against their future titles. But even comparing it to The Perfect Show I find it lacking.
One thing The Perfect Show did that I adore was design the game in a non-linear fashion. This is of course a difficult choice, non-linear or linear, and either has their issues. Non-linear has a tendency to be very backtrack heavy whereas linear rarely lets you stay and admire scenes for long. Linear is also good if you want something very story heavy as it allows you to tell the story in a much more direct way. But I like exploring areas again and again only to find new things and paths which is why I adore non-linear or hub based as I like to call it. But if The Perfect Show was non-linear then Child of the Forest is a linear game.
You do start out running back and forth in a small area but once you leave the town it’s pretty much a straight path to the end. And this would be fine if there was a good narrative to back it up but… honestly, the core of the story simply didn’t interest me. A wife going off to save her husband, yeah, sure, whatever. I found that aspect of the story to be completely boring and a rather glaring spot on the game’s record. The previous game in the franchise had far more edge to it and a much darker tone which I appreciated a great deal. Here, that’s simply not there.
So I really, really dislike the game. Right? Well, no, actually not. I came away really liking this game. I know that makes zero sense right now because you just read a few paragraphs of me intensely disliking the game. But I didn’t. True, there were definitely parts of it I disliked, hated even. But there were also things I really enjoyed.
To get some of the more obvious out of the way, the graphics were gorgeous. Complaints about color choice aside, I don’t think Mad Head Game are capable of making a bad looking game. Not as good as their other games, sure, and this was still early in their game making career so there are rough edges, especially when it comes to character art. But it’s still a stunning looking game and the creature design was fantastic. A game with great creature design can win my heart regardless of flaws.
Audio wise the game held a really high level, the music was gorgeous and the voice work was pretty damn good. And despite issues with linearity, simple puzzles and hidden object scenes and the occasional frustration I greatly enjoyed playing through the game.
That’s because one thing that one of the things Mad Head Games does best is world building. Even if the plot of the game itself wasn’t too interesting, the world most certainly was. A town in the middle of a living, hostile forest shrouded in perpetual darkness, only kept safe by a single light house? Sign me the hell up right now because that is truly fascinating. And the game never threw it in your face either, slowly developing the story and the world over the course of the game. Instead of starting the game with a massive exposition dump, you’re thrown in without safety goggles and piece by piece you’re given the story and everything that lead up to this point. Through a flyer here, a cutscene there, a book somewhere else, dialog to keep you on your town, the world that was laid out before you was completely engrossing and one I truly wanted to explore.
And to keep things interesting, there were actually things from the first game that carried over. The old, wandering man from the first game shows up again, tying the events from the first game together with this game. Not in an obvious, obtuse way but in a way that furthers curiosity and tattles of a much greater world. Because if he’s here then that means the events of the first game took place in the same world. And that is an interesting world to be living in and one I want to return to again and again.
I’ve always been a fan of HOPA games that have a common denominator but this series proves that it doesn’t have to be the main character. It was made even cooler because thanks to the collector’s edition you get to read this man’s journal (if you can find it, heh). And it seems like he has a lot of stories left to tell and that excites me.
To further their cred as one of the best developers, even their main menu went WAY over the top when it came to thought. Just finding the Extras was fun and then to unlock his diary took an additional bit of trouble solving. It also scares me because now I wonder how much I missed in previous games I played because I never noticed anything like this in the other games. But they can feel free to bring it back!
So yeah, it isn’t the most impressive game I’ve ever played but something I’ve noticed about Mad Head Games, more than any other studio, is that each and every game of theirs has a heart and a soul. Even their worst game is still among the very best and a blast to play because every bad thing is immediately countered by something fantastic. And it’s just hard to stay mad at it because around every corner there’s something new to learn about the world.
It’s not perfect but I still HIGHLY recommend the game. I imagine it’s quite the impressive tale if it’s one of your first HOPA. But even for jaded HOPA veterans there’s still so much to enjoy about this game!