Heart of the Woods Review

Heart of the Woods Review 14.99

Title: Heart of the Woods

Developer: Studio Élan

Platforms: PC, Switch (Coming Soon)

Release Date: 2019-02-15

Game description: "Heart of the Woods is our take on a fairy tale. It has romance and betrayal, magic and villains, and questionable moral decisions. It’s a sort of love letter to the kinds of stories that we grew up on, and to the kinds of stories we wish we’d had." - http://vnstudioelan.com/games/heart-of-the-woods/

5

Heart of the Woke

Often times I find myself going through the new releases on Steam to try games which I’d never previously heard of. This has led to many surprises over the years – both for the better and worse. Earlier in the year, this exercise brought me to the page for a visual novel from a developer I’d never heard of – Heart of the Woods by Studio Élan. All I knew about it came from what I immediately saw on the Steam page – a few screenshots, and about five seconds of its trailer (muted). That was all I needed to decide and jump in completely blind. 

After reaching the end credits, I immediately went to read more about Studio Élan, and was genuinely surprised to learn how small the team was given how incredibly polished Heart of the Woods feels. I am writing this particular review eight months after having played the game; but am taking the time to do so because it has stuck in my mind moreso than most other games this year.

Train rides, right?One of my personal favourite types of media (be it games, movies, shows, etc) is one which has realistic, well-developed characters characters put into a thoughtfully considered story which draws you in and wraps a blanket around you. I especially have a fondness for stories which just go for it – ones that defy your expectations, and aren’t predictable. Heart of the Woods is exemplary with all of this, and also does something which I wish more game stories (visual novels in particular) would do – it never overexplains. 

When I’ve played through long visual novels (50+ hour ones such as Wonderful Everyday, Umineko, Grisaia, etc) a personal grievance of mine is when they will spend, quite literally, 40 minutes talking about – ultimately – trivial or minor details. Sure, one could argue that they’re weaving an extremely complicated yarn and benefit from a slower pace; but 40 minutes is a lonnnggg time! Heart of the Woods navigates around this problem exceptionally well – its compelling, deceptively complex narrative with a smaller cast of super-well developed characters can be completed in just 6 or 7 hours.

Let these girls take you on a journey

While normally I’d dive into some of the initial story beats to give you a quick taste of the flavour this game provides, I genuinely believe this game benefits from approaching it with the same experience I had with it – knowing as little about it going in as possible. I’ll do my best to dance around anything story-related by saying it’s a great blend of things – it’s fantasy, adventure, and above all it’s a romance story. 

As mentioned, the cast of characters is pretty small; but they all play a very important part. It felt very much like the anime A Place Further Than The Universe in its approach to the characters’ whimsical love for seemingly everyday interactions. I was quite attached to all of them by the time the credits rolled, and when it came to the romance, nothing ever felt trite. 

One of my biggest problems with romance stories in visual novels in the past has been that they can feel unrealistic. Budding romances progress in an unnatural way, characters who have been together for 20 years but seem like they don’t really know each other, etc. Heart of the Woods never has this problem – all of the existing character relationships feel true to life, and the ones which newly blossom do so with a pace that I’d absolutely see being true to reality. Everything felt natural. 

This is also a Yuri visual novel, meaning it is an LGBTQ love story. I was not aware of this going in at all, and while I am not directly a part of that community, as an empathetic ally I felt it handled the queer side of its writing in an impactful and sincere way. It never feels pandering or pithy (like some Dad-based Visual Novels which may or may not have come out last year, cough). It reminds me of The Missing (my personal GOTY last year) in how it isn’t afraid to talk about real-life issues that people who are gay, lesbian, or trans have to deal with. It doesn’t sugar coat them, but it also doesn’t ruminate on them forever. There are parts where characters talk about having been bullied for being gay, or having been rejected by their peers for being trans, and it all feels like real people having real conversations – conversations with vulnerability, and ones which give everyone involved (including the audience) a feeling of catharsis once they’re reached their respective conclusions. 

The full package

Aside from the notably affecting story, Heart of the Woods excels in a number of other ways. One which I feel should become the new standard for VNs is the specific attention paid to accessibility options. Fonts for those with dyslexia, described audio for background music/sfx, enabling and disabling sound cues, and far more. 

It also has lovingly crafted art for every scene, music which consistently sets the mood, and the developers at Studio Élan have been fantastic at keeping the game updated based on their fanbase’s feedback and requests. The art and music both stand out in particular to me, especially so when bearing in mind that this is an independently developed VN. Often times, indie VNs outsource their art as much as possible (meaning it is usually inconsistent in quality, and has fewer variations), and use licensed music. Everything here is original and handmade for the game, and its cohesiveness makes the experience all the more compelling.

If I were to provide any criticism, it would be that occasionally the writing can be a bit simile-heavy and flowery for my taste. Things such as “… and her hair was as dark as the coffee in my hand.” That’s a purely subjective thing, and truthfully, that is me nitpicking throwaway bits of dialogue in trying to find something critical to say about the game at all. 

Heart of the Woods is an exceptionally good visual novel – perhaps one of the best I’ve played in years. I can only hope that Studio Élan continues to put out fantastic, lovingly crafted experiences for years to come. I can’t wait to see the next projects to come out from these devs, and encourage you to check out the Kickstarter launched around the same time as this review! 

Pros

  • Lovingly crafted in every aspect
  • Strong, affecting story
  • Accessibility options which should become a new standard

Cons

  • Occasional dialogue which ends with eye-rolling.

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