In FOX n FORESTS, there is a character called Retro the Badger. He is a badger that likes retro games and makes constant video game references.
And that's pretty much all you need to know going into FOX n FORESTS.
Too often the word retro (the adjective, not the badger) is thrown onto games that can only claim the label due to their aesthetic. But playing FOX n FORESTS gave me PTSD-style flashbacks to bashing my head against the wall playing games like Castlevania and Ghosts and Goblins as a kid - for good and for ill.
The controls feel very 1990s, with Rick, the titular fox and our main character, committing to every jump like he has lead weights tied to his feet and has to sign a contract and file paperwork in triplicate. His attack selection, particularly at first, is aggressively limited, and I constantly took unnecessary damage early on forgetting that I couldn't shoot in the air. While you can eventually expand his repertoire a little - and in doing so open up small hidden areas of each stage, which you will visit multiple times in order to proceed with the story - Rick rarely feels overly powerful, and even the earliest stages will give you pause no matter how far you get into the game.
This is not a fast game. It's slow and methodical and attempting to rush through it with anything less than an intimate familiarity with each stage will result in a broken heart (and possibly a broken controller).
FOX n FORESTS is a difficult game to review because I can't tell if it's too hard or if I'm just bad at it. Obviously, difficulty is subjective - what one person considers too difficult could be considered just right (or even too easy) for someone a little more "hardcore." However, in general, this is a game that is designed with difficulty at the forefront. You’re meant to feel weak and vulnerable, one fox against the world. It’s meant to be slow and methodical. And if it weren’t for a couple exceptions, I’d be willing to say the game pulled off this intentional difficulty fairly well.
Unfortunately, the game has two particularly galling "autoscroller" levels that take the game’s otherwise immaculate approach to level design and hurl it screaming out the window. In these stages, our protagonist flies through the stage like a side-scrolling shoot 'em up of yore. What could have been a nice break and some variety in playstyle quickly became tedious...and then infuriating.
If an enemy so much as sneezes at Rick, he dies in an unnecessarily dramatic animation. If he so much as grazes a single pixel of the scenery, he dies in a unnecessarily dramatic animation. These stages are bad enough on their own - boring, long, and repetitive - but the addition of the out-of-nowhere one-hit-death mechanic that isn't present anywhere else in the game, was just so baffling that it felt like I was playing a much worse game.
There are only two of these levels, but the game is aggressively short overall, and when the rest of the levels are, overall, fairly cleverly designed, it just made these abominations stand out all the more. The second of these stages very nearly did me in, and if I wasn't so close to the end of the game at the time (not to mention that darned sense of professional obligation), I definitely would have packed up and gone home rather than play through it one more damn time.
As mentioned before, our protagonist is Rick. Rick the Fox somewhat reluctantly signs up to helping a magical tree regain its missing bark and fend off the insidious fifth season. It's a simple premise, but that simplicity is no flaw. It feels very much like a fable, which is clearly intentional with the game starting and ending like a storybook. Obviously I won’t spoil the story, but while it retains this sense of simplicity throughout, the story has a satisfying conclusion and is pleasant overall, even if the writing ranges from mediocre to cringey and is packed with wall-to-wall puns (very few of them good).
Upon signing on for his task, our hero is given a "magical melee crossbow"...which is just a mundane crossbow with a bayonet on it and not overly exciting. He is also given the power to switch seasons on the fly, which is not mundane and is very exciting. The season-changing mechanic is easily the high point of the entire experience and its is integral to the game's more clever level design. It's also intensely entertaining to use, particularly as you get into the more clever manipulations of the ability.
You'll start out simply switching to winter in order to freeze stretches of water that you can't clear with a jump (Rick can't swim, of course, except where the game arbitrarily decides that he can), but soon enough you'll be leaping from falling leaf to falling leaf in the autumn, or clearing the summer foliage so you can navigate hidden paths in the trees.
Each stage has only one season that you can switch to and from, meaning you're essentially negotiating an alternate stage on an aggressively-limited timer, but it's thematic and clever and great fun to use when you get the hang of it, especially when the game rewards you for experimentation. I got a giddy sense of glee in the first stage when I switched to winter and found, to my delight, that the annoying electric eels that jumped out of the water to block my jumps like Mario fireballs would crash into the ice in a gratifying pop of vengeance and cash.
My first instinct is to call FOX n FORESTS a metroidvania, but extra light on the Metroid and double-heavy on the 'vania. It's stage-based rather than open world, but as you progress you'll unlock additional abilities that allow you to find hidden secrets in each stage, therefore allowing you to progress with the game's relatively short story, as well as rewarding you with cash. Cash is used to upgrade aforementioned abilities, as well as improving your combat capabilities so you don't die quite as easily and kill more effectively.
That being said, I'm not sure the game needed the Metroid angle. I feel like it would have been a strong enough title without having to backtrack to stages in order to find magic seeds to progress through the game, especially since you can't just leave the stage early as soon as you've gathered the seeds you missed the first time (often because you literally could not get to them). You still have to reach the finish line every single time.
You will get sick of some of the earlier stages that you must visit no less than three times, and there's very little different each visit to keep them from growing stagnant after one.
Probably due to this design choice, there's only a dozen or so levels, and I feel like the game could have benefited from dropping the backtracking element and adding more levels since the team's clever and unique approach to the season-changing mechanic in each stage is easily the game's best quality.
Another double-edged compliment is the game's checkpoint system, run by our aforementioned badger friend. Retro will take a small sum of your cash in order to set a checkpoint that you will return to when you die. This is used in lieu of a lives system, and let me just say to the developers: good for you. Difficult games are not made better with the implementation of lives systems, and games like Dark Souls and Shovel Knight did well to find a way to make death punishing while omitting any sort of "game over" state.
Overall, the checkpoint system is a breath of fresh air and the game is much better for its inclusion. Unfortunately, every time you die, you lose all your progress. While this may sound obvious, it means that all of the hidden objects and cash you accumulated since speaking to Retro must be gathered again when you are whisked back to the checkpoint.
Maybe it was just my frustration when, after dying yet again to the same tediously precise obstacle, I had to collect the same slightly out-of-the-way treasure chest every time, or maybe it was the general open feel of each stage making it seem completely superfluous. Either way, I felt like it was a small nuisance that could have easily been improved on by simply allowing the player to keep what they found when they died, especially since cash has very little value as you get into the second half of the game.
As I write this review, it's important to note that I had a first draft that read much more positively than the final product. FOX n FORESTS swayed me early on with its charms, but I feel like it quickly overstayed its welcome as the developers began to supplement the game's difficulty with tedium and repetition. I hated going through the stages two, three, even four times; I hated the fact that the higher difficulties seem to only increase how many hits the monsters take to defeat; and I hated those stupid autoscroller levels.
It's not impossible to recommend FOX n FORESTS, but there are plenty of titles that do what it tries to do better. Its season-changing mechanic is legitimately one of the coolest things I've seen all year, and the story is actually pretty cute. However, the game is aggressively short, particularly for a $20 title, likely because the devs relied so heavily on backtracking and grinding to pad out the game time. With a little more focus on its unique mechanics and a bit more time designing levels rather than going for a faux metroidvania angle, FOX n FORESTS could be a solid title. But as it is, its flaws easily outweigh its charms and this is a pass for all but the most ardent retro platformer fans.
FOX n FORESTS (Reviewed on Steam)
The game is average, with an even mix of positives and negatives.
FOX n FORESTS is a game with a few really great things going for it - including its charming story and mostly clever level design that puts its clever season-changing mechanic to good use. Unfortunately, a few aggressive flaws quickly sap the fun out of the entire experience, including forced backtracking; annoying one-hit-kill autoscrollers out of nowhere; and its overall short playtime. It's difficult to recommend the game overall, but it might be worth it for hardcore retro platformer fans.