I went into The Fabled Woods with very little idea of what to expect. I purposely hadn’t read anything about the game, so all I knew was that it was a short, narrative experience and that it came with a separate soundtrack file. Putting those two pieces of information together with the fact that the game clearly takes place within a wood, I was fully expecting some sort of walking simulator with a perhaps pretentious story musing on the nature of humanity or love or something equally ethereal. The game’s opening even starts as you might expect from such a title: awakening in a sunny wood with a soothing voice telling you the opening of a story.
Imagine my surprise, then, when about two minutes in The Fabled Woods took a sharp left turn with a dream sequence in a hellish red void where you’re listening to a woman being brutally murdered.
As it turns out, what The Fabled Woods actually entails is a two-hour-long pseudo-horror mystery story that you uncover as you walk through the titular trees. The tale is revealed through a combination of narration from the three primary characters, Larry, Sara, and Todd, and surreal memory sequences. Through them, you can learn about a series of grisly murders and reveal the truth behind the mystery of the woods.
The first thing most players are going to be struck by is the visual design. The forest that makes up the bulk of playtime has been carefully crafted to look appealing, with bright, warm sunlight and lots of greenery to enjoy. The creative intent is clear: such a beautiful woodland is helping to hide the dark secret at its heart. The contrast really builds on the horror of the story and in that regard, the visuals are a stunning success.
I will say, however, that I really struggled with the game’s graphics initially. There is a lot of chromatic aberration distorting anything that isn’t dead centre of the screen, and there isn’t currently any settings option to turn it off. Combining that with the soft haziness used to evoke a warm afternoon, a lot of what you’re looking at is uncomfortably blurry. I also encountered a few places where trees and bushes looked like repurposed assets that hadn’t been incorporated entirely cleanly.
That being said, once you get used to the slightly out-of-focus visual filter, large sections of this game are stunning to look at, particularly with regard to the lighting system.
Unfortunately, the game is not entirely solid from a mechanical perspective either. For one, if I dared to play for more than a few minutes, it started to sound like my reasonably high-spec computer was filling up with bees, despite the fact that the game is relatively simple in terms of mechanics. I also found the game chugged particularly hard during a brief section in the forensic anthropologist’s office, likely caused by the light motes carefully dotted throughout the room. The game’s lighting is dynamic and arguably its most attractive feature, but its current implementation is a huge drain on processing power.
There are also a handful of bugs to watch out for. One reasonably harmless one I stumbled across twice was the wrong voice line triggering when I interacted with an object. Ultimately these issues didn’t derail gameplay at all, but The Fabled Woods is so focused on its story that missing pieces of it, when it is already so short to begin with, was disappointing.
Much more troubling for me was a moment when an event failed to trigger. At various stages in the game, a new path will open once you have completed a specific section of story; without that change physically occurring in the game world, there is nowhere for the player to go. In my initial playthrough, one of these events didn’t trigger, meaning that I was trapped where I was, with no idea what I was supposed to do.
Not only did this mean that I was stuck, looking for a path that didn’t exist, it negatively impacted the entire rest of my time spent with the game. While I was able to work out reasonably quickly what had happened and was able to fix it by rebooting the game, I could never be completely sure that the same thing wouldn’t happen again at a later point. As a result, any time I still hadn’t quite finished a section, I didn’t know if I had missed something or if the game had glitched again. Fortunately, the game is so short that the issue didn’t persist for long, but it entirely crippled the sense of expanding exploration The Fabled Woods was shooting for.
So, with slightly shaky mechanics and mildly appealing graphics out of the way, we’re left with the story. The Fabled Woods is presented as an interactive narrative and it’s very clear as soon as the game starts that it is the story you’re supposed to be focusing on. With that kind of a baseline, I had reasonably high hopes going in for what I was about to uncover; unfortunately, I was setting myself up for disappointment.
The Fabled Woods’ story is not utterly without merit. It has the bones of an interesting premise, and the people you meet, particularly Sara, manage to eke out a surprising amount of character for how little time they are given. This is backed up by some really solid voice acting from all three main characters.
The core issue is that the game is simply too short to tell a compelling or shocking mystery. Short stories can be surprisingly impactful and the same can be true of short games, but in my opinion The Fabled Woods sits just a little too shy of a fleshed-out narrative. There’s so little time to work with that the story twist supposedly hinging the entire endeavour has very little weight, as well as being rather predictable. The solo developer clearly has a lot of creativity behind him and there’s a lot here to indicate his potential; as it stands, however, the biggest impact The Fabled Woods had on me was making me wish that I was out hiking somewhere in nature.
With the current bugs and the relatively high price tag for the experience you end up getting, I sadly can’t recommend The Fabled Woods as it is now. That being said, I am excited to see what the developer does next. With a bit more experience and time, I think we could end up getting something really special.