I give this creepy but still realistic and somewhat funny slice-of-life platformer...an 80/100!
This...may or may not be a bad idea. I had originally planned to review this a lot earlier, but life got in the way and I never got around to reviewing it, even after playing the game. But due to, err...recent events that came to light about the composer for this game, I decided not to put this off any longer. Night In The Woods is a short little game that really hit the ground running, going from a successful Kickstarter to getting released on many major platforms, such as the PS4, PC, and, as of last year, the Nintendo Switch, something few indie games can boast. But while on the surface it might just be a simple, somewhat creepy game about funny animals going about their lives, it actually has a surprising amount of depth to it, and it's resonated with a lot of people, me included.
The story's about a young cat woman named Margaret "Mae" Borowski, who's returning to her hometown of Possum Springs after dropping out of college. The problem is, she doesn't exactly have the best reputation, and other than her family and a select few friends, she hasn't received the warmest welcome. She struggles with the changes occuring within her hometown and among her group of friends, with one of them having randomly gone missing with no rhyme or reason. As she struggles with her identity, the demons from her past, and coping with the massive changes in her life, she begins having odd dreams and finds herself discovering a mysterious force lurking around her community...and she may end up losing herself in the process.
The creators of the game mentioned that the character designs and general art style were inspired by the works of one Richard Scarry, a famous children's book writer and illustrator who frequently designed cute animal characters with creepy-looking stares. I think it works well here, as the cutesy animal art style gives it the feel of a children's storybook, while the themes, atmosphere, and overall feel of the game make a striking contrast in how adult they really are, with the game dealing with issues like mental illness, the nature of one's existence, and what to do when life throws you a crappy set of cards. The game's art style almost has a muted look to it, like any colors used are a lot duller than they should be, likely symbolizing just how dead the town of Possum Springs appears to be. But the sprite animation is seamless, the lighting and scenery make for some beautiful imagery, and the cardboard cut-out look of the backgrounds is used to good effect.
I don't have much to say about the soundtrack, though. I thought it was nice, and the songs the characters play in the band segments are cool, but I'm not much of a music expert. The music does its job well enough. If I had one complaint, I'd say that I'm not quite sure what purpose the band segments serve from a gameplay standpoint. They don't really contribute anything to the story or progress it in any way, and they're just minigames where you have to hit certain buttons in time with the song, Guitar Hero style. I mean, the minigames themselves are decently fun (Except for Pumpkin Head Guy, which many feel is way too difficult, me included), but I feel like the band segmentd and the songs used for those could have been utilized in a way that would actually mean something. Speaking of the gameplay, there isn't really a whole lot to this game when it comes to gameplay. All you really do is jump, play a few minigames, and solve a few puzzles, and the majority of the game is character and dialogue-driven. Plus, the game is fairly short, only clocking in at 10 hours, less if you decide not to do the sidequests and minigames. I didn't find this to be a problem personally, but people who want to really invest time into games (Especially the ones that have 50-100 hours worth of content) can't really do that in Night in the Woods.
But the game does make up for that with its eclectic, three-dimensional cast of characters that are lovably flawed and interesting. Instead of playing a silent protag or a stock light novel hero who's as bland as tofu, you play a girl who has a dynamic personality and plenty of character flaws that make her feel like a real person. She's energetic, reckless, tends to put her foot in her mouth, is occasionally insensitive (Often saying what's on her mind without thinking), commits petty crimes like shoplifting, is constantly worried that all she does is mess up people's lives, and her past and present actions all have serious consequences for her. But the game still manages to make her sympathetic and someone we as players can root for by reminding us there's still more to Mae than her flaws. The side characters are all just as dynamic, providing full support for Mae in helping carry the story. While many of them don't get a whole lot of focus, they all have their own stories, and throughout the course of the game, we see them all grow, clash, and interact, making them all very memorable. It's a shame the game is so short, because I want to see more of these characters and watch them grow even more. Then again, that's what fan fics are for.
One thing I wish the game expanded on is the setting. It never specifies what kind of world the characters live in and what's beyond Possum Springs, other than mentions of other towns. Possum Springs has its own troubled history and the world the characters live in even has its own lore, Gods, and holidays that are similar to Christmas and Halloween but go under different names. I kind of wish the game expanded on those and made an effort to really give the world these characters live in all sorts of details that would make it come alive, such as its own religion, culture, customs, and so on. Some of the developers mentioned they based Possum Springs on places where they themselves lived (With one of them mentioning Pittsburgh), and while there are two short minigames that come bundled with Night in the Woods that do expand on the lore of one of the game's holidays, I still feel like more stories could be told.
Before I finish, I know this will need to be mentioned at some point, so I might as well get it out of the way: In late 2019, developers Scott Benson and Bethany Hockenberry revealed that the composer who worked on the game's music, Alec Holowka, was known to have extreme mental problems that often manifested into abusive behavior, towards not just them, but other people he knew and worked with as well. Some say he was emotionally and physically abusive, and some have come forward about him committing sexual assault. Scott and Bethany made the decision to fire him from their team in light of his behavior. However, days after he was accused, he committed suicide. Whether this was in response to the allegations, getting fired, or due to other factors, no one is really sure, but many were quick to claim that Scott and Bethany and the others who came forward "murdered" Alec with their claims, that they were directly responsible for his suicide. I personally think that's absolute bullshit, because based on the testimony from Scott that I linked above, there's no concrete confirmation that Alec committed suicide because of the allegations, or them specifically. It's kind of shitty to claim that two people who just wanted to make games, who are very open about their practices at that, and go about their lives are cruel enough to drive someone to suicide. Playing the blame game is not the way to resolve an issue like this, and how can someone really convince themselves that Scott and Bethany actually wanted their colleague to die, even in light of what Alec did? The behavior some people are displaying against Scott and Bethany is absolutely inexcusable, even more so because Alec's sister even made a Twitter post stating that internet assholes shouldn't use Alec's death as a means to harass the devs or as a weapon. But this is the internet, and people rarely listen, now do they? If you don't like Night In The Woods anymore because of this, or any other works they're making, fine. Don't play their games. But the staff in Infinite Fall are people too, and I know making the decision they did wasn't easy for them. I'm sure Holowka's suicide is hurting them just as much as Holowka's family. Unless there's EXPLICIT, CONCRETE evidence that Holowka killed himself because of them, which as of now there isn't yet, don't harass the devs and blame them for it. It's cruel, petty, and downright horrible, and there's no excuse for it. You need to stop and think about all of this instead of foaming at the mouth and blaming the first person you see. Bottom line, don't engage in this kind of behavior. It's shitty, petty, and doesn't solve anything.
Whew, I really needed to address that astral elephant in the room. But what about the game as a game? It's okay if you don't want to play it in light of recent events. However, I personally feel it's a great game that deserves all the praise and popularity that it gets, and I think the creators would want people to know it as just a fun game to play, with memorable characters, complex themes, and a story full of heart that can resonate with us all, rather than for the controversy surrounding it.