The short review of Night in the Woods is that it looks gorgeous, the characters are interesting and very modern, and it has a topical, effective and subtle message. You’ll like it most if you are cool with reading your videogames, even though it is still very much a game.
I couldn’t help but compare Night in the Woods to Life is Strange for a couple of reasons, even though they have a huge amount of differences. One is simply the portrayal of youth culture and dialect, which this game does a much better job of. The game is helped by the fact that dialogue is expressed through text and not voice actors, which might ham up otherwise decent writing, but Night in the Woods is still brilliantly written. Even if you groan sometimes when a character replies with “okay” or “whatever,” it isn’t unrealistic. The second factor is, the game helped get me over my annoyance with story heavy point-and-clicky games where you make choices. If you read my Life is Strange reviews, which you shouldn’t, I basically just ramble on about how I am really caught up on why you make choices when you can’t really shape the protagonist’s story. And in this game, if anything, you have less control… but it works. The game never asks you to make monumental choices, which could be a problem for some people, but for me it makes a lot of sense. The dialogue choices you have are often about revealing something that has already happened. Your character may be talking about an old shop in town and you can choose which memory the protagonist, Mae, discloses. You can’t change who Mae is or what she will do, but you can make the narrative into the version that you will be most interested in. This method applies to a lot more in the game, as I found out at the end while looking at achievements I missed, I realised I had skipped over moments with characters and sub-plots. In a way that was a shame, because I do want to see those stories play out, and I may go back, but I did have the choice to give the world more attention and find them.
The game is also successful if you think of it as a sort of moving graphic novel. Unlike a game that tries to ape live action media, a screenshot from Night in the Woods looks like it could be printed on a page. It’s more than a facsimile or what it resembles, it is just as good, if not better, since the game format does bring stuff to the table, even if it is minimal. Beside the aforementioned choices you have, If Night in the Woods was a printed book, you’d be seeing a lot of the same backgrounds and panels that look almost the same. The story is partly about routine and monotony and Mae works out her place in the town and what to do day to day, and this makes much more sense to experience as a location that you can move through at your own pace. However, speaking of pace, at times the game takes control of time away from you in a way that a graphic novel couldn’t. In minor moments there are pauses in speech that are effective in recreating awkward silences or disbelief.
There isn’t too much gameplay, and some may argue that the platforming is shoehorned onto a game that doesn’t need it. However, the platforming handles well, and while all it serves as is a break from walking and talking early on in the game, it takes on more significance later. Moments when Mae struggles to move or is in peril are more effective because you have come to feel like you have a lot of control over her movements. Likewise, the narrative comes to enrich the platforming, which is basic… but how many platforms are just serviceable at this point. A platformer has to do a lot of work today to do something fresh, and what Night in the Woods provides is a little platforming with a character you really give a damn about. Also the mini-games, including rhythm sections and a pixel based dungeon crawler help add detail to the world and give you something to do if you get a bit tired of pushing the story forward.
Near the end of the game, I did stumble upon a forum where people were discussing being disappointed by the final act. I didn’t see any spoilers, but it did make me think. The final part of the game does become more cinematic, using moments of montage and mixing up chronology. It can feel a little strange after being so used to the cycle of the rest of the game, but the characters themselves are being uprooted and experience strange stuff, so it does make sense. The game’s message does seem to be quite clear too, without hammering you over the head with it (I won’t analyse it now, or talk about the late game).
I only have a couple of issues with the game. One ludicrously tiny thought I had was that I wish Mae’s shirt changed. Again, I understand the desire for a single character design. Mario wouldn’t be so iconic if he had changed out his dungarees after level one and kept switching. But in this game, the cycle of going to bed and getting up to hit the town is pretty integral, and changing clothes could reinforce time passing and not make me worry about how bad Mae smells. While I can only praise 99% of the moments when you can choose what Mae talks about, there is a moment in the game where I felt annoyed at a few options that were very restrictive. You can pick between “you always have a choice” and “you can always choose.” I get the point of sometimes having Mae only able to say two equally ineffective things, but in this case I don’t see why Mae couldn’t just say this without player input. I also wish the game lead you to the stuff I missed a little more. I get the point of letting the player explore and earn the sub-plots, but I’m left wanting even more of this world, and I don’t feel like I missed (at least some of it) just because I was rushing. If I need to replay it, then its a shame that the climax is so heavy, since it isn’t the sort of game you instantly want to go for round two with.The way Night in the Woods navigates choice and gameplay will frustrate some people who look for clear interactivity, but I also can’t ignore that it completely clicks with me, and I think it undeniably works better as a videogame than it could in any other form. The art is gorgeous, the writing excellent and the music is good, but the gameplay ties it all together.