TL; DR(eview) - Night in the Woods is a sometimes brutally personal story disguised by a charming design aesthetic. The characters are a special kind of flawed, making them (ironically, given their animal designs) more human than most other video game characters you’ll encounter, but their story is a bit disjointed at times.
At a glance, Night in the Woods might comes across as a game directed at a younger audience, with the cuddly critters that make up Possum Springs including an over-enthusiastic fox, a bear in a cute fedora, and your character Mae: a quippy cat. But it doesn’t take long to realize that the game’s story is going to tackle themes like depression, quarter-life crises, and the struggles facing rural towns. Possum Springs serves as a representation of small town America and has changed dramatically in even the two years that Mae has been away at college.
Mae has returned suddenly after dropping out of her sophomore year of college to the surprise of her family and old friends. Well-established shops have closed down in favor of chains and everyone feels more or less adrift. This foreboding sense of despair beautifully contrasts with the game’s charmingly-animated art style filled with anthropomorphized animal townsfolk. Listening to Mae’s father discuss his insecurities at having to work a low-wage grocery store position to even attempt to support his family becomes that much more heartbreaking when it’s coming from a cat in glasses and a blue polo shirt.
The gameplay of Night in the Woods mostly revolves around narrative decisions, with you occasionally choosing which line of Mae’s dialogue you will utter or which friend you might hang out with on any given night in Possum Springs. Aside from this, there are a few rhythm game-esque sequences, as Mae picks up a bass to play with her friends despite never knowing the songs. There’s also a fun little mini-game within the game. Demon Tower is a retro action game where you play through a series of levels as a cat hacking-and-slashing monsters. Each level has a key to find that unlocks a boss fight which leads to the next level. It makes for a fun diversion from the real drama addressed in the game’s narrative, which is the game’s true focus.
As I progressed through the story, I found myself repeatedly frustrated by Mae’s selfishness. As a character, she often comes across as a self-centered jerk, far too often worried about her own ennui way moreso than the struggles her friends are facing. She became a character I loved to hate, seeing elements of my own past in her outlook. I remembered college nights where I would mope about my own pointless issues instead of empathize with friends who were going through harder times. Mae’s selfishness isn’t an appealing trait, and a lot of the other characters call her out for it, but it is a very true-to-life element of that kind of character.
If I have a complaint about Night in the Woods, it is that the game’s overall story strikes me more as a disjointed series of vignettes rather than a narratively-satisfying throughline. I think this is an intentional choice and certainly might resonate with others but I found myself wanting stronger connective tissue throughout my time with the game. As I think back on my time, I’m left with much stronger images of moments between characters than I am of moments tying to the story’s ultimate “mystery.” And part of this probably comes from the mystery itself really only coming together in the game’s late hours. I think ultimately feeling underwhelmed by that aspect really just left me wanting to spend more time with these characters shooting the shit together, away from the more “dastardly” underpinnings revealed in the story’s endgame.
All in all, though, Night in the Woods takes a smart risk by telling an adult story with compelling characters.
Night in the Woods is out now on PlayStation 4, PC, Mac, and Linux.