To be right up-front here – Heart of the Woods is fine on Nintendo Switch, but if you want the proper experience you’re going to want to play the PC version, where there’s an R18+ patch and the sex scenes are really, really good. You don’t get those on Switch. With that being said, you can also play the Switch version and just go look up that art once you understand the context. On the Switch, you do get this rather wonderful little game for on-the-go play, and that’s a nice compromise.
Heart of the Woods does start slowly, and if I wasn’t reviewing it I actually may have been tempted to put it down before getting past this. Things kick off with two girls on a train ride to a secluded little village, where they’re promised ghosts. See, the two girls are influencers with a popular YouTube channel for hunting down the paranormal, and they had been called out to this town on the promise of some Conjuring-style happenings.
Unfortunately, they’re both in a very bad mood. See, one of the girls decided to make this trip their last, before they go to splitsville, and the other is justifiably upset that they’re losing both their companion and business partner. At length… at long, long length… they decide that they’re going to make this last hoorah one to remember, and that’s when they meet the town local that will act as their guide. This set-up is more than a little melodramatic, and it meanders its way to its conclusion.
But then the paranormal stuff starts happening, and Heart of the Woods takes on an entirely different texture and drama. It is, after the first hour or so, a page-turner of a game, filled with a whole lot of mystery that just demands to be solved. Why is the mayor of the town so hostile to these outsiders? Why is the woods forbidden territory? Why is their guide, Morgan, on the outers with the rest of town, and just why did she get these two girls to come to visit? Heart of the Woods isn’t trying to bait-and-switch you, but if you do find it to be dragging its feet at the start, just be aware that the fantasy, sweet romance, and mystery elements are coming, and you will hit a point in this ten (or so) hour game that it becomes very difficult to put down.
The other thing worth noting, of course, is that this game is a proudly LGBT story. The relationships that are depicted are between girls and, indeed, there’s not a sausage to be seen. This is, of course, something that is an objective good in this industry. As much as the indies have taken great strides to diversify the kinds of experiences that games offer, it remains true that quality and non-exploitative LGBT-focused titles are not all that common. Especially those that go all the way with sex scenes (on PC, anyway – on Switch it’s just a story of pretty girls and a lot of suggestion) and otherwise look like something that designed for the otaku. Heart of the Woods doesn’t grab you and shake you until you appreciate how LGBT and therefore positive it is. It just is what it is, and it’s all so naturalistic it that this quality, all in itself, is warming.
Backing this up is the writing itself, which is elegant and interesting from start to finish. Every character is allowed to breathe and have their own personalities, and the way they slip between conflict and warmth, playfulness and horniness is all entirely believable, even with all the paranormal (and occasionally shocking) events going on around them. The town, as an isolated wintery wonderland, is another character in itself, and even if the game does occasionally dip into cliche, it’s only ever temporary.
I wasn’t a fan of the voice acting though. At all. Now I say that having seen plenty of other people celebrate the VAs, so I’m not going to suggest that everyone turn them off, but I did, and enjoyed creating voices for these characters in my mind instead. What I will say is that for a 130,000-odd word script, the fact that the developer was able to fund all the voice acting is an impressive indulgence all by itself, and I am glad they went the extra mile for those that want it.
The other issue I have with Heart of the Woods is when the decision-making comes in. The “multiple endings” feature feels a little shoehorned into this game, and purely kinetic VN with no alternate routes would have worked better, I think. As it is, the developers have diluted the message a little by suggesting that some of the plot threads are only optional.
Heart of the Woods is a beautiful and romantic visual novel, with a wonderfully winding plot and brilliant set of characters. Without giving anything away, the first hour or two isn’t indicative of the rest of the game, and once you push through that slow, senseless start, something beautiful, sweet, and, yes, a little sexy shines through the paranormal, gothic and mystery elements.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb