Selling a ridiculous 2 million copies within 24 hours, Sons of the Forest has become a smash, even in its Steam Early Access incarnation. And as you might expect for an open-world game, different people get different things out of it.
Some lean into the base-building aspect, while others embrace the scavenging and survival aspects of the game. Others may choose to go sledding with the precious soul that is Kelvin. But right now, I’m embracing the joys of running the hell away.
To its credit, Sons of the Forest starts slow, luring into you a false sense of security. The game bills itself as an “open-world survival horror simulator,” but when you’re pottering around, plundering suitcases, it’s all too easy to forget about that aspect of the game. Even when you blunder into a cannibal camp, they don’t immediately descend on you.
If you’ve not played The Forest, you may come to the conclusion that’s the norm, that they stay to their allotted zones. But then they start lurking at the edges of your camp or stalking you when you’re out scavenging. Soon, they start attacking, and the more in-game days pass, the more numerous those attacks become.
That’s what led to my abandoning my beach shelter and fleeing into the woods, hoping that Kelvin wasn’t being made into sandwiches. Was that a lack of foresight on my part? Could I abandon that save and start again? Yes, and yes.
I do have several playthroughs on the go, including one where I’ve actually planned for those attacks, building a more durable, long-term base. Sons of the Forest doesn’t, yet, have stone walls, but there are ways to make it less likely you’ll end up on the menu.
But I keep returning to that particular playthrough just because it’s such a rush to try — and fail — to stay ahead of this game’s enemies. I’m not chuckling merrily to myself as they try to murder me, (Okay, maybe I’ve thumbed my nose once or twice.) but it’s an experience I embrace as a horror aficionado.
It echoes how frantic some horror movies are, with the protagonists forced to think on their feet as the dead rise or some other looming force stalks them. When cannibals turned up at my beach base, I didn’t have an escape plan. If anything, I planned on holding my ground.
I fought off the first one, but when I saw their four-armed and/or skittering brethren, my stomach dropped. I was going to have to abandon my shelter to a superior force, and so I fled, rushing into the jungle. At least, that’s how it would have looked to an observer.
When faced with a fight-or-flight decision in Sons of the Forest, what’s actually likely to be going through your head is all the work you put into your base. Sure, mine wasn’t going to win any awards, but it was mine. Like Dawn of the Dead’s Stephen, I didn’t want to abandon my hideout. But unlike Stephen, I decided it wasn’t worth dying for and beat a hasty retreat.
If my foes had pursued me there and then, I’d have cursed Sons of the Forest for being unfair, but the game does give you time to catch your breath. And it gives you just a little space, more so than, say, Resident Evil 2 and your relentless pursuer Mr X.
However, the tension never goes away, so whether or not you decide to settle somewhere else, you’re always looking over your shoulder. You’ve learned your lesson, which is, unless you’re prepared to start the whole playthrough from scratch, to always be ready to move on.
So when it came to building a new base, I wasn’t thinking about fortifying it. Instead, I was looking to buy myself just enough time to get a treehouse up. If you’re lucky enough to have nabbed the zipline, or crafted a sled, there are a couple of escape options right there. Right now, I’m on my third base, and I’m already getting ready to flee.
In multiplayer you do have a little more backup, and the game’s bugs, solo or otherwise, can undermine Sons of the Forest’s horror. On a separate playthrough, I watched four cannibals just materialize in front of me. Yes, there was still that fear factor, but having them visibly spawn in didn’t do the game’s fear factor any favors.
Letting enemies pile the pressure on, even if the player’s essentially standing still, is a risky move. I can think of ways of evening the odds, going to that liferaft and grabbing the pistol, for a start. But I’ve become hooked on Son of the Forest’s high-pressure horror, the situation I’ve — through my lack of judgment — let myself get into.
It’s the intoxicating buzz of watching my back, the pulse-pounding terror of having to flee, and the optimistic, on-the-fly planning involved in setting up a new base. Will my character die horribly in the process? Yes, and they have, more than once. But when escaping by the skin of your teeth is this much of a rush, I’m not going to stop just yet.