Forest

vndberogamescape • OP

Intro:

Forest is a 2005 eroge from Liar-soft. The main writer is Hoshizora Meteor, who also served as main writer for the fantastic Kusarihime. This is the first time I’ve reviewed an eroge that already has an English translation, so I’ll just say I read the original Japanese and can’t be held accountable for any mileage variation that may come with reading the translated version.

Story: 8.5/10

One day a forest suddenly sprouts up and overgrows the Shinjuku ward of Tokyo. A group of five characters are trapped not only in the forest, but also within a series of “riddles” forced upon them by said forest. These riddles are based on various literary works, and the characters of these works are the denizens of the forest. The individuals trapped in the riddles are also given powers, referred to as “Gifts,” though the story seems to forget about these for large stretches of time. Further, there is a meta layer to Forest, where two characters are reading/writing/listening to the story (exactly what is going on at this level is one of the game’s mysteries.)

Right off the bat there are a couple of story elements to Forest that I personally dislike, and inevitably negatively colored my opinion of it, though not as badly as many stories with these elements. First, I tend to dislike stories with themes related to the nature of fiction, the role of stories in our lives, etc., as they tend to be too self-important and navel-gazing. Forest has both of those vices to a degree, but fortunately manages to avoid suffering too much from them. Second, I dislike stories that are based on retelling literature, reusing literary characters, or otherwise making extended overt references to other works. Forest again avoids the worst of this approach by using the preexisting characters and story devices in such creative ways that they feel completely fresh and novel, not at all dusty or bland like how it goes when the writer use extant literature as a crutch. It also helps that Forest’s canon of literary references revolves primarily around a set of fiction (children’s literature from the late 19th-early 20th centuries) that isn’t often used in this way, save for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which at this point seems to have even surpassed Shakespeare and the Bible to become the most overused point of literary reference, and is unfortunately one of the main references in Forest as well.

With that lengthy aside aside, let’s talk about the story. Or try to. Forest’s story is extremely confusing, much more so than one might expect from the relatively straightforward premise described in my first paragraph (meta or no.) The confusion derives not so much from a complex plot as from a seeming scarcity of one. Much of the story is a collection of random scenes, either “riddles” from the Forest that hardly seem like riddles, or other shorter scenes involving the characters, the forest denizens, or the meta characters. There are small hints at a larger story, but that only makes it worse because your brain tries in vain to put the puzzle pieces together when you won’t have enough information to get much of anywhere until the end of the game, and even then you probably won’t get far. So you probably won’t allow yourself to enjoy these scenes as just a series of great short stories but the game also doesn’t give you enough information to form an overarching story beyond some basics you can probably figure out early on, and there is little to no flow from one scene to the next.

Fortunately these random scenes are great. More like fucking amazing. The sheer amount of creativity and imagination with which Hoshizora Meteor crafts these tableaux is enough to give you goosebumps. Although I referred to them as a series of short stories, not much of note really happens in many of these scenes. They are more like surrealist paintings set to words. But even that description is inapt, because there is just a hint too much cohesion for me to really view the story as surreal. It isn’t just a bunch of nonsense, which of course is a good thing. Nonsense isn’t much fun to read, whereas a series of loose associations that make just a touch more sense than dreams and that our brains are just able to follow can be a surprisingly satisfying ride, even if you are barely hanging on. There is a strange emotional thrill, which strikes me as being another category one could put alongside hot-blooded, tear-jerking, brick-shitting, or moe moments. But I have never felt this sort of pleasure in an eroge (maybe in parts of Subarashiki Hibi?)

Now, even if you content yourself to simply hanging on for the ride, which I finally did probably halfway in, there are still complaints to make. For one, some of the scenes drag on too long, particularly the “riddles,” and the thrill dies down. Some are just not as interesting or good as others. The system of the game also creates some unpleasant, rather than exciting, bumps in the ride. Most of the choices are simply picking from a list of dates, and you will likely not initially realize that you have to just go down this list to see everything (why make them choices?) and by that time you’ve missed parts of this practically linear story. The non-date choices often are inconsequential, or lead to an immediate bad end, or seem inconsequential but can lead to a bad end toward the very end of the story and then you have to hunt for where you went wrong (or more likely, look it up.)

Of course we can’t really ignore the overarching story, because the game does eventually drive everything to a point. The overall story is disappointingly weak for a number of reasons. I already talked about the spotty connections and foreshadowing. To be fair, the meta layer of the story allows the reader to not only have some sense that the story is heading somewhere, but also to actually connect some dots and not feel completely lost. However, that dot-connecting happens fairly early and then there is a sense of stagnation at the meta-level as well. The meta is also, oddly, the only part of the story with any sense of emotion. Between the semi-surreal nature of the story world, annoying characters, and lack of any convincing drama, I found it impossible to feel emotionally invested. There is certainly drama in the story world, but it’s based on character conflicts so divorced from reality that it contains no element of human drama. To draw a comparison to Kusarihime: although the scenes in Forest contain that same “pure aesthetic joy” of Kusarihime’s scenes, they have none of the “emotional power.”

As the writer moves to tie things up toward the end of the game, the meta narrative takes on a greater focus. Given what I’ve said above about the meta having not only the more cogent plot but also the only compelling emotion, this is initially welcome. I actually became excited for Forest as a story, not just as an aesthetic exercise. I cared what would happen to the characters. The unfortunate thing is that as the meta overlaps with the story world it takes on many of its downsides. For one, it starts to make less sense. I will admit that I’m sure I missed clues about what happens in the story. On one occasion, when I had to backtrack halfway through the game after one of those sneaker bad ends, I noticed a piece of foreshadowing that had gone over my head, the type of clever foreshadowing that is invisible when you first read it but obvious when revisited. That foreshadowing didn’t impact the story or my understanding of it, but I mention it because it’s very possible I missed other clever elements of Forest that would impact my understanding. Still, I feel justified in taking Forest to task for its handling of its endgame for at least a couple significant reasons. First, a majority of readers seem to find its plot hopelessly convoluted, and reading multiple explanation sites doesn’t yield a universal understanding of what exactly the fuck happens or really shed much additional light in general. Second, more importantly, the second downside the meta takes from the story world in the end is that in the closing movements of the game it loses a lot of its emotion, instead sinking into its own convoluted plotting. Abstraction is the death of feeling, and by the end of the game, it was hard for me to even care what happened or why.

Characters: 5/10

As mentioned earlier, the main characters in Forest are mostly annoying. Their personalities are generally unlikeable, in a variety of ways. And given the abstract nature of the story, there is little sense as to how the events form a part of their lives, aside from the fact that they are forced to figure out the mysteries of the forest. Largely for this reason, there is limited character development for the cast. Forest does feature a couple of character “arcs” in the latter half that develop some of the characters and shed light on their lives outside the forest, but these come too late, only exist for some of the main cast for some reason, and still fail to fully make you care about them.

The exception, character-wise, again implied above, is the meta characters. All two of them. It’s enjoyable to read/listen (Forest has a large amount of voice-only lines) to their interactions, and it’s easy to care about them despite them being shrouded in much more mystery than the main cast. I suppose the literary characters can also be enjoyable and have their moments, though they are very much side characters.

Sound: 6/10

Forest has a pretty poor soundtrack, despite a fitting Celtic theme. Probably 90% of the BGM is either forgettable or grating. There are two or three good songs, but these songs evolve over their course to capture several different moods, which is usually a good thing in music but is a problem for eroge songs that are meant to set the mood for specific scenes. In general the music in Forest often mismatches the scenes during which it plays.

Fortunately, Forest has quality voice acting, even if most of it is wasted on irritating characters. Nearly all of the voiced characters are covered by big names, like Miru, Kawashima Rino, Hokuto Minami, and Isshiki Hikaru, and they generally return good performances.

Art: 7/10

The art in Forest is somewhat similar to the art in Kusarihime, despite being from different artists, in that at a glance it looks to be poor quality but on closer inspection and greater exposure one realizes the depth and detail and can appreciate its unique style. The difference here is that Forest also has quite a bit of legitimately bad art, especially in the CGs. The other issue is that there are very few CGs, and they are almost all in the ero scenes. Instead the art assets tend to be concentrated in a large number of sprites, including many different outfits (costumes, really) for the main cast. Most of the backgrounds are also surprisingly disappointing, despite the enormous potential in a Tokyo overrun with vegetation.

Ero: 5/10

The ero in Forest is some of the most obligatory I’ve seen in an eroge, considering there isn’t even, for most of them, any romance to create an excuse for the characters to fuck. Perhaps for this reason, the quality of the ero is fairly bad. The scenes generally come out of nowhere, with no context to add any deeper feeling to them, but are fortunately at least very short. One might expect the scenes to be well written in that kinetic, erotic style of Kusarihime…and I can’t say the style is completely absent, but it isn’t as prominent in Forest. Maybe the writing style would’ve been sufficient if the other pieces required for good ero were present, but they aren’t.

Overall: 81/100

Pros: A collection of mind-tickling scenes that are a triumph of imagination; good voice acting; unique art style; compelling meta narrative

Cons: Story narrative ranges from nonexistent to convoluted; bad music; bad ero; annoying, unsympathetic characters

Forest does some things extremely well, and does some things that you won’t see in probably any other eroge. At the same time it has huge gaps that prevent it from being an enjoyable story. I can see how people with different tastes may find no problems in it, and may enjoy it being more puzzle than story. For me, that feels like an empty intellectual exercise, and that’s what I feel Forest is too much of the time. Most of the rest of the time it’s an empty aesthetic exercise, which is much more palatable to me. But in the end, even aesthetics can’t be everything in fiction (forgive me, Nabokov, for I have sinned.) You have to develop a connection with the story, feel that it matters to you and your life, or at least to a more general and universal “life,” and that’s generally where characters come in. They don’t do that here. While characters aren’t the only thing missing from Forest, they are one of its most fatal flaws, and the easiest explanation for how such a promising game with such prominent strengths can nevertheless end up disappointing. Kusarihime also had some plot weaknesses (though much less severe) but it managed to be great because the characters and the less-abstract nature of the story made it mean more. Forest is certainly one of the most ambitious eroge I’ve encountered, and it succeeds enough of the time that I think it’s a game every eroge fan should try. Just don’t count on enjoying all of it.

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