Playing Beacon Pines feels a bit like early winter nights, where you’re surprised by how quick the darkness creeps up – yet comfy and warm under a blanket.
Coming from indie developer Hiding Spot, the setting might look like your usual cute woodsy town populated by anthropomorphic animals, but there’s a dark terror lurking beneath. Like its colourful story, Beacon Pines doesn’t belong to just one genre. The game is visual-novel-meets-exploration, with sparks of choose-your-own-adventure.
It fits snuggly in with the Switch’s other cosy offerings. There are cute characters who speak in similar warbles to your Animal Crossing neighbours, and even a minigame that reminded us of Spiritfarer’s fishing function. We say the game is like a novel because the story is literally within a big book. Sprinkle in some spookiness, and you’ll keep on turning pages...ahem, pressing buttons.
You play as Luka, a 12-year-old deer who has been through a lot for his age: the death of his father, the disappearance of his mother, and a new guardian in the form of the unfamiliar yet kind Gran. Not to mention a takeover of the town by a conglomerate called Perennial Harvest Co. with an unsettlingly happy CEO at its helm. It’s no wonder Luka just wants to enjoy the spoils of being a kid: hanging out at his best friend Rolo’s treehouse, and getting into mischief. Trouble is, that mischief turns from hijinks to horror real quick. It might have something to do with the strange goo leaking from the abandoned factory, or the upcoming festival, but things are not quite right in Beacon Pines.
The format is a story-in-progress told through excellent voice-over, by a self-referential author, who is, herself, a character. She needs your help figuring out how it ends. You do this by picking words to put in her sentences. The game calls these ‘Charms’ – cutely illustrated trinkets with a single word on each. You find them as you interact with items and villagers. The Charms tutorial is inconsequential (‘We were just gonna go HIDE / CHILL / PONDER’ for the day’), but you’ll soon find that choosing certain Charms over others will lead to chilling and thrilling ‘The End’s. These are Beacon Pines’ version of dying: dead ends. When you reach one, the author will offer some colourful commentary and encourage you to try again.
Make no mistake though: this game is not repetitive. You’ll play through these many different endings, from suspenseful to humorous to heartwarming, until you finish because, despite the many ‘The End’s, there is one true ending and you'll want to see it.
Uncovering Charms is the main form of exploration and it’s exciting to have one pop up onscreen as a reward for your curiosity. Also at your disposal is a literal story tree, the branches of which grow as you progress. It’s called The Chronicle, and it helps you tick off the Charms you’ve used.
New Charms will have you flipping back to the Chronicle to reactivate a previous turning point. Try these, and the game presents you with secrets that you might not have uncovered otherwise. You’ll find little gems that pay off if you're the attentive type, which further expand a deceptively small world. All this is accompanied by a soundtrack that is wonderfully sweet and calming, until it crescendos with dramatic flair. The music drives the emotion here, from warming your heart to giving it a workout.
Beacon Pines' flaws are few, and mostly things that are a matter of taste. We felt the Chronicle needed more detail on our choice outcomes. At a glance, we could only see which charms had been used, not which ones had led to our immediate demise. We also found there was a lack of player interaction, with long stretches of pressing 'A' to move the story along. There’s little involvement in solving the puzzles, too – often the characters will reveal the answers before you get to figure it out. The lengthy paragraphs can also be a little draining when you’re reading small script in handheld mode.
Overall the hands-off play and long stretches of text might hamper action fans, but cosy players will be too swept up in the cliffhanger tale to notice. This is a strong arrival from the small yet talented team at Hiding Spot. The storybook imagery, layered characters, and gripping plot will have cosy gamers on the edge of their couches – but wrapped in a blanket.
Beacon Pines presents a rich world filled with deeply considered, not to mention adorable, characters. The beautifully crafted art, paired with a soundtrack that both captures and sets the mood, make for a wholly enjoyable experience. It might not be for those who prefer action, but it is a lovely and compelling story that sees Luka, Rolo and Beck delve into a bevy of unique situations. You might finish it in less than a work day, but it’ll stay with you for much longer.