Through The Woods Review

By Mark Delaney, 3 months ago
There's been a run of games focused on Norse mythology as of late, from God of War to Hellblade, and even something less direct like Skyrim. The latest game to focus on the mythos of the Norwegian and Scandinavian people is Antagonist's Through the Woods. What began as a student project graduated to a Kickstarter success story and has now come to Xbox. If you're in it for scares, there are only a few in this brief and unpolished story-driven horror adventure, but despite its problems, it's worth seeing through to the end thanks to its effective inclusion of some really unsettling folktales.

Logo

Through The Woods tells the story of Karen and Espen, mother and son living in a cabin in the woods of Norway. Their relationship is clearly damaged at the start of the game, and over the course of the three-hour story, this broken bond will be explored both in real-time and through Karen's monologuing. The game doesn't send a strong first impression thanks to some really wooden animations and voice acting. These things are somewhat forgivable due to it being an indie game made for just $40,000, relative pocket change in the video game space, but ultimately because it's so story-oriented, one can't simply forgive these faults entirely as they hinder the immersion.

Karen's quest to find her son makes for a compelling carrot and stick for players, and because the surrounding folklore is often so grim and tragic, it never feels like a happy ending is guaranteed or even likely. Parents may feel especially driven to find her son Espen as the introduction, despite the presentation issues, can still be quite harrowing. That's really what Through The Woods does best. It was clearly made by people with great understanding and appreciation for the macabre folktales, and the way they're utilized as both the focus and the backdrop keeps things unsettling.

Alone in the woods. Surely that'll end well.Alone in the woods. Surely that'll end well.

This also makes exploration more inviting. The game's woods are not entirely linear and it can be very easy to go off the main path and find more information, like more folktales and fateful scenes of death and decay. The best parts of the game are often reading stories left behind in the unnerving woods, telling tales of kidnappers and creatures alike. One could feasibly consume such stories via another medium, but taking them in over the course of this brief game is memorable and more than a bit skin-crawling.

As the game is so mechanically sparse — you can crouch, run, or interact with items, but that's it — it makes for yet another hide-and-seek horror, the style du jour for horror gaming. Enemy encounters often fall flat because they're usually pretty easy to navigate and avoid, even comically at times. There are still a few good scares in Through The Woods, however, and they're made better by infrequent music and atmospheric noises, like trees rustling suspiciously in the wind and the distant cries of witches. In a world where lots of indie horrors these days decide not to actually include enemies to run from, it's nice to have a game that does deliver such moments, even if they're more often not so scary. The real scares come from the stories you'll read.

In awe at the size of this lad. Absolute unit.In awe at the size of this lad. Absolute unit.

The final scene makes for a strong culmination of all you will have read and seen previously, and the game uses both an interesting gameplay mechanic and plot twist in its waning moments to stick with you after you've hit the credits. Visually the game doesn't look great but it's not terrible either. Because most of the story takes place under the night sky in the woods, poor textures aren't much of a distraction. It has a way of working to its strengths. Collectively, it comes off as a game that could've been fantastic with a bigger budget, but at the same time, it's admirable to see what it became in this form, flaws and all.

The achievements in Through The Woods won't require much skill, but they will likely demand a guide and at time of writing a trio of them are either glitchy or unobtainable. There are several collectible types and they each come with related Gamerscore. There's also a few story unlocks and several more that will require you to stumble upon particular scenes in the labyrinthine forests of Norway. You'll want to make sure you allow yourself to get killed a few times too, and by each of the enemy types.

Check out our The Best Xbox Adventure Games Available in 2018 article for a compilation of other great games in this genre.

Summary

Through The Woods is a horror game that delivers some good scares, just not really in the way that was intended. Enemy encounters are easy to overcome and at worst take just a bit of trial and error. The more effective scares come from the many stories you'll read as you span the woods of Norway looking for your son. Throw in some solid sound design, including an infrequent but effective soundtrack, and it's a game that's worth playing for horror fans, so long as you know it's not just some branches that are broken in these woods.
3 / 5
Positives
  • Backdrop of the Norwegian folktales keeps things interesting
  • Collectibles worth finding
  • Some effective music and sound design
  • Interesting gameplay mechanic helps sell the last scene
Negatives
  • Really wooden animations
  • Rough voice acting
  • Most scares fall flat due to wonky enemy behavior
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent roughly three hours in the woods looking for Espen and more often finding all sorts of monsters from folklore. He gathered 18 of 27 achievements for 385 Gamerscore. An Xbox One review copy was provided by the ID@Xbox team.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is one of three voices on the TA Playlist podcast. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his fiancée and son. He almost never writes in the third person.