Make no mistake about it, Night In The Woods will stay with you. There aren’t very many games out there that manage to leave an imprint on the people who take the time to experience them, but Infinite Fall’s emotional adventure into rural isolationism, palpable Americana and the melancholy of long lost youth does just that. It’s both tongue-in-cheek and deeply tragic, with one eye winking at the audience and another turned inward at the very real growing pains of finding your very own place in the world.
Our window into this world is Mae Borowski, a college dropout (and cat, naturally) who returns to her sleepy hometown and its anthropomorphic community, only to discover the rust belt town is both instantly familiar and inherently skewed. There’s an intriguing sense of mystery to the story just waiting to be unearthed, with the reason for Mae’s decision to leave education behind (and a life-changing tragedy from her past) hinted at subtlety throughout her interactions with the people of Possum Springs.
It’s a style of writing more akin to an art-house teen drama or a slow burning novel, a feel that pervades almost every facet of NITW’s six or so hours of story. It’s a game by the very nature of your interaction - you’ll explore its beautifully rendered 2D world at your pace, speaking to NPCs, interacting with everything from notice boards to laptops and using a little light platforming here and there - but its heavy focus on storytelling creates an experience that’s more of a visual novel projected through the prism of open-ended exploration.
There’s an intriguing dichotomy to Mae’s relationship with the hometown she now finds both alien and familiar. It’s a credit to Bethany Hockenberry and Scott Benson’s writing that we get to witness the threads of Mae’s slowly unraveling psyche play out in the Possum Springs of here and now. Her hometown is a living time capsule, sealed in the sedentary amber of an economy that’s left its long-dead mining industry behind. And yet we’re delicately invited to see how it's our heroine that’s barely changed, her bohemianism more an analogue for her desire to hold onto the hedonism of her teens than a true reflection of her current state of mind.
It’s one of the best - and more importantly, most identifiable - stories we’ve ever played in video games as a whole, never mind on Switch. It’s a game very much of our time, one that deals in themes of sexuality, love, tragedy, mental health and the very real schisms that run through many a modern family. Mae may be a larger than life caricature at times, but the challenges she encounters are beats many of us will recognise and every thread is dealt with a deftness we’ve rarely seen outside of the likes of Life Is Strange.
It’s a narrative driven experience, and while there are other little elements thrown in to mix things up - including mini-games involving stargazing, shoplifting, knife fights (yes, there’s even a splash of combat, albeit briefly) and general social vandalism - it’s very much an interactive comic book linked together with some light exploring and a dash of platforming. That heavy focus on character development means NITW’s pacing can suffer as it indulges itself in long conversations between Mae and her friends, family and acquaintances. It’s a game that moves at its own pace, and the human drama of its plot benefits from such attention, but it’s a story that will occasionally feel like a slog.
The supernatural sub-story that runs alongside the post-teen angst of the game does feel a little out of place at times, often being left to the wayside in the wake of her emotional re-connection (or lack thereof) with her old friends, but it’s a narrative element that benefits greatly from the additional Weird Autumn content that was patched post-launch into versions of the game on other platforms. Mae now has a series of hallucinatory dream sequences that ramp up the platforming while adding a tangible phantasmagoria that reaffirms the stranger things at play beneath Possum Springs’ surface.
There are also some unexpected - and pleasantly surprising - genres folded subtly into NITW’s narrative heavy world. There’s a rhythm game mini-game (accessible through story-driven band practice and a bass guitar found in Mae’s bedroom) that will push your timing to its limit. It’s difficulty curves make it more frustrating than enjoyable to begin with - however, since Mae often points out she’s forgotten how to play most of the songs her old band know it’s more a purposeful product of design than a technical oversight.
There’s also a pixel art, top-down 'roguelite' found on Mae’s laptop. There are nine levels in total to explore in Demontower and it's so robust in its enemy types, boss battles and character movement you’ll almost forget you’re playing a game inside another game. It’s just the kind of meta experience you’d expect from a game created in the homogeneous scene that gave us TowerFall and Celeste. Not bad for a mini-game hidden in the corner of laptop desktop.
Having the ‘director’s cut’ that is Weird Autumn already included in Switch’s version of NITW makes it feel far more substantial, thanks partly to the inclusion of some new NPCs to meet and those aforementioned criminal activities. They’re throwaway in terms of gameplay, but they fit smoothly into Mae’s attempt to reconnect with her friends. There's even two companion stories - Lost Constellation and Longest Night - included for added stargazing fun (with the latter offering a cute little fairy tale that riffs on its own unique mechanics). The game also runs silky smooth on Switch, running at 1080p/60fps when docked, and 720p/60fps when in handheld. Bar slightly longer loading times when compared to other platforms, it performs like an angst-ridden dream.
Less of a game, and more of an interactive story with some light platforming and exploring to tie it all together, Night In The Woods is one of the most rewarding experiences you can play on Nintendo Switch. A curio better played for yourself than described by us, it’s an indie title that will no doubt leave an impression with its enchanting soundtrack, disarming story and instantly identifiable character arcs. Both strange and wonderful in equal measure, few games are as easy to recommend as this.