Through The Woods

FBT is a Karen trapped in Norse mythology. He’d like to speak to the manager.

Widowed Karen travels to a remote cabin by a lake in Norway, where she can concentrate on work and continue to ignore her son, Espen. One day, Karen sees Espen leaving with an old man in a rowboat, and dives into the misty waters after them. But when she arrives at the shore of an unknown Island, she finds herself in the mythical time of Ragnarök...

Having played AC Valhalla, I’m an expert on Norse mythology. I’m looking forward to this. Built on Unity, the engine that spawned a hundred so-so indie titles, TtW is both beautiful and clunky. The character animations and movement are basic and unrealistic but throw in a story about a mother who didn’t want to be one but now has to save her son, and the end of the world, and you’ve got a compelling Norse-legend walking-sim meets horror.

During her travels through this desolate but beautiful place, Karen can pick up notes and encounter a few survivors, from which she learns Ragnarök was only postponed. Having fought to a stalemate, Odin’s son and Fenris came to an agreement; Fenris will end his world-eating rampage if ‘Old Erik’ sacrifices a child to him every five years. But eventually, Erik ran out of children on the island. Scared that Fenris will awaken and destroy the universe, Erik used Bifrost shards to take kids from other worlds. Like Espen. Meanwhile, the parents on the island fell into madness, committed suicide after Erik took their kids, or were killed by the mythological creatures still roaming.

The world is largely the same - rotted villages, rock formations, lakeside, or woods – but its detailed, and the subtle light from the scarred moon keep things uneasy; you’re never entirely sure what you’re looking at – is that a shadow or a great hulking Troll? And the soundscape keeps your ears as on edge as your eyes are.

While this is about 80% a walking sim where Karen navigates the world and movingly confronts her feelings about Espen, the remaining 20% is Norse mythology; most of which wants to kill you. First up is a huge, lumbering Troll which often disappears into the trees, with only its glowing eye for you to track. Staring into trees for a sign of it is brilliant, until you catch it headed your way. Karen has a torch, which can be used to momentarily fend off some creatures, but also can attract them and mostly you’re just trying to navigate the dark, dank woods and shorelines trying to find safety. Karen has no defensive abilities, so it’s hide, run or get insta-killed.

While that is mostly fun and always scary, the terrain causes me to get killed just as regularly as my limited hide and seek abilities. Sometimes Karen can walk into water, sometimes not, while crevices, hiding places and routes that Karen should be able to traverse are often blocked, leaving you to go ‘oh well’ and wait for the Troll to catch up then try again. A frustration is the darkness means you can often miss pathways and exits, only marked by single flickering candles – which more than once I confused with the Troll’s eyes…

The standout threat is two giant dire wolves, who long for a good hunt – and Karen provides it. It’s so good, and such a great fairy-tale moment (While desperately hiding in a cave I found a red riding hood…) as you catch glimpses of shining wolf eyes in firelight and listening to them discuss which part of you they’ll eat first. That they can talk just makes them all the more terrifying.

Some threats aren’t quite as thrilling though. One, a screaming banshee you keep away by shining the torch at her is good in principle, but often she’ll be on you before you point the torch thanks to Karen’s slow reactions. No rush, Karen. If you get offed, it’s back to the last checkpoint which is often a distance away, and there’s nothing more boring in a walking-sim than retracing your steps. Later, navigating a swamp filled with undead warriors is just a drag, but a great moment is reading a note left by a fishman, driven mad by glinting eyes in the lake. I saw them too, and it nearly drove me mad as well. Such a great moment. There’s other great creature events too; sneaking past Trolls having a scrap was good, but earning the ‘Good Dog’ achievement f’ed me up.

As Karen stumbles toward Fenris’ mountain - and Espen - before sun-up, she also has to battle her own demons, and a scene where a witch forces her to relive them for her amusement is just painful. As is when Karen finds a cave where Old Erik kept records of the kids he sacrificed previously – the toys become more modern the further you go, implying Espen isn’t Erik’s first visit to our shores. Horrible.

It is a fairly short game, four hours tops, but perfectly timed considering the crap Karen goes through, both in her head and the world, and while the ending is a little uneven and underdone, it’s still incredibly bleak, moving and ominous. We have played this kind of scenario before – someone is forced into woods to find someone, unarmed and unprepared while some vague legend comes to life and threatens them, but unlike other woodland sneakers like Blair Witch, this isn’t all about the jump-scare. Its just a decaying, dying world that Karen is struggling to survive in, in both this reality and in her head, as she comes to terms with the fact she might be facing the actual end of the world.

It is slow for the first 30 minutes or so, the basic character animations and modelling are jarring and the English dubbing is a bit overwrought, but stick with it - once Old Erik shows up and we’re pretty much only seeing the back of Karen’s head, it’s incredibly immersive. And, give it a break; TtW began as a student project, eventually raising enough via Kickstarter for a commercial release. It’s unsophisticated, but no less emotionally involving.

There’s a fair few Norse Mythology games knocking about those days, and it’s easy to see why; the complex stories, incredible locations, awesome beasties, the characters with their motivations and betrayals – it’s not just Marvel’s Thor knocking around a gaudy Asgard that reminds you of Flash Gordon. It’s a dark, brutal place and a game dev’s paradise. While Karen and Espen’s story isn’t unique, it feels like a grand Grimm’s fairy-tale steeped in Norse legend and I liked that TtW didn’t just explain everything; my own curiosity drew me in. It is a little uneven and unpolished, but Through the Woods has earned its place in Valhalla.