Growing Up is Hard and No One Understands: A Spoiler-Free ‘Night in the Woods’ Review
For a while, I’ve been a big advocate for the value of the Nintendo Switch. The Switch has a ton of great games on it, but Night in the Woods gave me a lasting moment of reflection and introspection that I haven’t gotten from other great games like Breath of the Wild or Super Mario Odyssey.
One of the best things, hands down, about the Switch is the access it’s giving to players to new indie titles (the Nindies!) that a ton of players haven’t had a chance to enjoy.
Night in the Woods is a single-player narrative adventure that follows Mae, a black cat, who has returned to her home town after having just dropped out of college. Mae’s surrounded by remnants of her old life, including her doting and concerned parents, a town of burned out adults, and a friend group desperately trying to figure out their early 20’s.
One of the really amazing qualities about Night in the Woods, perhaps its most powerful, is its voice. As a 23-year-old who really has no idea what the hell I’m doing, Night in the Woods’ characterization captures the millennial dilemma perfectly.
It’s not just patterns of speech, either; Mae and her friends have real, tangible worries – how do you know if you’re moving forward, if you see your friends growing up around you? How much do you owe to your hometown? How do you know if you’ve actually grown up?
The game is also really, really pretty. The art style of the game almost looks like it’s pulled from the pages of a childrens’ story book, which is even more poignant when considering that the game is about and for a generation that feels like they can’t grow up. The illustration of the game is paired with a really smooth sense of movement, that makes running around and particle effects look amazing and really satisfying. The pleasurable sense of bouncing and running along as Mae incorporates moves like triple jumps and 180, and the inclusion of these little elements shows that the developers have a deep love for classic platformers.
Running around in circles and exploring, touching, and talking are encouraged in the game – every morning you wake up as Mae, and can choose whatever you decide to do as you get reacquainted with your childhood home. The pacing of the game in the town-exploring phase is masterfully done. As Mae, there really is a sense of realness from going about town. If you hang out with your pal Gregg for a while, maybe you feel like seeing what Bea is doing. Perhaps you’ll go in and see what your mom’s doing at work. Alternatively, you’re really bad at playing the bass – maybe you should practice? The world of the game keeps turning without you, so it pays to really make your time count.
That said, one of the game’s weaknesses comes from the ease with which you can go about your day. Any time there’s a puzzle or missing link that you should be searching for, the game goes out of its way to make sure that you don’t get stuck on it. In dream sequences, when you’re looking around for objects and hidden characters, a little light comes out to guide you if you stand still for too long. If you miss a jump too many times, the game cuts to black and places Mae on the ledge there for you. In a game that discusses and seems to understand struggle so well, I’m a little let down that it didn’t let me struggle with anything. Night in the Woods challenges you in its questions about life, but that challenge just doesn’t follow through mechanically.
Following through is a problem that Night in the Woods has in a few places. On top of figuring out where you fit in Possum Springs, there’s also an underlying horror mystery, making everyday happenings in the town seem a little darker. And that’s great! Towards the end, the game gets so wrapped up in this mysterious secret that the payoff is a little lacking, and I wonder if the game might be better off without it. It raises more questions than it answers, and leaves a lot of plot holes in an otherwise really tightly-written game.
If you’re deciding whether or not to get it, you should know that the game’s port to the Switch is the full version, including all extra content from its Weird Autumn edition. It’s pretty great to have portable, especially since the game’s pretty good about letting you save and pick it up anywhere. A tiny gripe that I have about the Switch version is that that the controls are so confusingly picked (Y is select, and X opens your menu), and it’s impossible to change the controller bindings. You get used to it pretty fast, but if you’re switching (!!!) from a game with typical bindings into Night in the Woods, it’ll trip you up.
Minor nitpicks aside, all the hype for Night in the Woods is very well-deserved. It has acutely insightful characterization and dialog, and since the game is about the characters, that alone is enough reason to pick it up. Combined with its smooth and beautiful animation, and the game’s great soundtrack, it’s a spectacular addition to Nintendo’s independent lineup.