Soapbox features enable our individual writers and contributors to voice their opinions on hot topics and random stuff they've been chewing over. Here, Jim delves into a game he found both wonderful and strange...

When I first heard about the "Twin Peaks-meets-Winnie the Pooh" cuddly adventure Beacon Pines, you could say that I was more than a little intrigued. I watched the trailer, read the synopsis, and looked at the key art. It all looked very cute, but what was this sense of mystery bubbling away under the surface? The idea that everything is perhaps not as cuddly as it seemed? It was this that pulled me into the world of Beacon Pines and didn't let me go until I had rounded out every ounce of the story.

Beacon Pines is a game all about working your way through a book in an attempt to find the 'perfect ending'. You are greeted by a smooth-voiced narrator (voiced by Kirsten Mize who does an incredible job) who could just as easily be reading you a sleep story on your popular unwinding app of choice; she is ultimately the main character of the tale. The story itself takes place in a world filled with adorable anthropomorphised animals, and it follows Luka (a deer), Rolo (a liger), and Beck (a cat) as they uncover a mystery that underpins the whole town.

Beacon Pines 2
Image: Hiding Spot

I won't get into what exactly the mystery is because that'll spoil all of the fun (and the game!). What I will say is that the solution is not the one that you thought it would be. Beacon Pines makes you think it is doing one thing before sharply turning in another direction and slapping you in the face for being so gullible. The characters all sound like they are talking in Animal Crossing's Animalese, but what they are actually saying couldn't be much further from that series' dialogue.

the story threads are more original, the endings feel absolute and the payoffs are greater.

The story itself is one thing, but the real joy of Beacon Pines comes from how it lets you decide what direction the narrative will take. At various points when the narrator is reading through the story, you have to make a crucial word selection to fill in a blank word. Depending on the word you choose, this will change the resulting action accordingly. You find all of the words naturally while you progress through the game's chapters, and you can return to scenarios later to use those new words to unlock a new path.

It is this 'choose your own adventure' twist on the narrative that makes the story so engaging. Uncovering the town's mystery is one thing, but getting there after seeing all of Beacon Pine's alternate endings (where characters die, are kidnapped, or suffer other fates) makes the true ending feel all the more important. There's no "well that wouldn't happen if they had just done X", because you have already tried to do X and, what did it result in? More death, probably.

Beacon Pines 3
Image: Hiding Spot

This experience of getting wrapped up in the story on the one hand but actively making decisions of where it goes next is a brilliant way of bringing the player closer to the game and making them feel satisfied with their work. Much like this year's equally brilliant Sorcery!, by putting the trajectory of the story in the player's hands, the story threads are more original, the endings feel absolute and the payoffs are greater.

I was perfectly happy to put the controller down and have the story delivered to me

If you play like me, you might follow one path right down to the bitter end only to discover a finale that neither you nor the narrator is pleased by. So you flip back through the pages, return to the crossroads, and use a different word to take an alternative route where you are genuinely pleased that your former actions are no longer in effect: "are they still alive?", "so who's evil now?", "what do I know at this point?" You can make mistakes and witness the consequences, but there is always the promise that you can do things differently next time around.

If it wasn't for this central mechanic then the Beacon Pines experience would not be much more than having a storybook read to you. You walk between stages where more plot is fed to you through dialogue or narration, before heading off to a different area to repeat the same process. The game does not demand much of you as a player, and the main reward is the promise that you will get to find out what happens next. For many, this lack of actual gameplay will be off-putting (it's fair to say that there's no need for a difficulty scale on this one) but for me, moving Luka around town was just enough to keep me engaged, and I was always perfectly happy to put the controller down and have the story delivered to me.

Beacon Pines 4
Image: Hiding Spot

You're not going to have to think very hard about the puzzles (most of the time, the game gives you the answer before you have had time to act) and choices, and there are no actions which require expert controls and repeated attempts. Instead, you have a chance to sit back, relax, and become wholly ingrained in the game's world without worrying about skill level. How many times this year can you say that a game has afforded you such an opportunity?

If achievements were a thing on Switch (and yes, I'm manifesting here) then Beacon Pines would have none. For the sake of this, just pretend it doesn't have any on Xbox or Steam, either. It's not an experience where you can win or lose, be good at the game or bad at it — it's simply about telling a story and keeping you in the loop by offering a choice at the most critical moments. It's true, this is no 150+ hour epic nor one for completionists to pour over for years to come. But if you have an evening or two to spare and want something which is going to demand very little of you in return for a lot, then you could do much worse than to take a trip down the mysterious town of Beacon Pines.

Have you had a chance to play Beacon Pines yet? Fill in the blanks in the comment below!