By Diego Hernandez / February 18th, 2019
|Title||Heart of the Woods|
|Release Date||February 15th, 2019|
|Genre||Fantasy, Drama, Romance|
|Platform||PC via Steam and itch.io|
Heart of the Woods is Studio Élan’s first release since forming on Valentine’s Day two years ago. Coincidentally, the game has been in development just as long as the studio’s been around. There’s a lot of reasons to be excited for this release. For instance, studio director Josh Kaplan is on the helm. Josh previously worked on another yuri-themed visual novel titled Highway Blossoms. Highway Blossoms is a visual novel many hold in high regards for its astonishing character development. Studio Élan also promotes Heart of the Woods as talented character artist Rosuuri’s first game with lewd illustrations. We encourage you to briefly check her works to get a grasp of how big that is. In any case, the marketing was done, interviews were had, and the game has officially been released. How does it hold up?
Welcome to another world. You start off this tale as Maddie Raines and quickly understand why it is you’re here. The paranormal activity themed online show that you filmed with your friend, Tara, got widely popular even though you didn’t find much. After several hundred adventures leading to nothing, it’s safe to say you’re getting a bit tired of it all. You’re ready to call it quits and go back to a routine life before you read an e-mail about a mysterious German village from a girl named Morgan. This is it, your last hurrah as you travel halfway across the world for something to finally happen. To say something happened is a complete understatement. Disney and Universal eat your hearts out, Studio Élan have opened up the wildest rollercoaster I’ve ridden in years.
My first impressions early on into the novel were similar to how Maddie felt. I was skeptical as the game progressed through its first chapter. There wasn’t much to talk about, much akin to how they didn’t have material to make a video in this mysterious land. There was doubt both in-game and out as to whether or not this would be interesting at all. In this writer’s opinion, this is the first instance you realize you’re playing an interesting game. When you’re feeling, on a one:one scale, the same as the characters it’s easy to immerse yourself within the adventure and just get lost in the text. That’s what happened, I just kept reading. There’s no way this is ending on a flat note, I thought. That’s when I went from being Maddie to being Tara. As I found out shortly afterwards, the game will periodically shift your point-of-view to another character.
The story takes a turn for the paranormal, and rather than being excited, our characters feel shocked. Studio Élan maintains its consistency of keeping the dialogue real. The foundation for what you think the world is has been shattered. Even if you’re a paranormal investigator, actually witnessing something paranormal for the first time is overwhelming and just flat out unbelievable. The same situation spurs conflict and divides our story in two ways, with Tara and Morgan on one side and Maddie on her own. The aforementioned roller-coaster has begun moving.
In her loneliness, Maddie reflects about what just happened, but not long after our fourth star, Abigail, enters this tale as a girl shrouded in mystery. So now the story is split evenly, and there’s story perspectives to take in aplenty. Whatever feeling of skepticism I felt during the game’s first chapter was all gone. As flowers were blooming for our couples, moods were high, and there were stories to be read. However, it was time to drag you back down to reality. Heart of the Woods isn’t what it appears to be. I wouldn’t say it’s a one-eighty turn like a Doki Doki Literature Club. However, if you’re going in blind, as you should, it can be considered an absolute game-changer.
It is from this point after the four characters are matched, that the ride goes from very high to very low. Choices that ultimately affect your ending are introduced and made. Characters will get closer and as a result get intimate. Your heart feels incredibly warm and fuzzy. Then a few minutes later, you’re on the edge of your seat in disbelief of what just transpired. All the while, what seemed outrageous and outlandish in the beginning is starting to feel more normal. As I went back to get all the endings and re-read the text, it’s crazy to believe how that transition was made naturally. You don’t even notice it, and frankly, I am amazed. Speaking of intimacy, If you were curious how the lewd segments came out, fear not. They’re proper in length, visually outstanding, and rewarding to get to.
The writing isn’t the only outstanding factor. The game’s art is absolutely gorgeous for the high scenes, and terrifying for the low scenes. The character sprites convey their emotion with the text to a tee while accompanied by partial animations. The background art, while simplistic at first glance, fits in nicely and there’s enough variety to please the eyes. The sound design gets my biggest praise as the tracks used blended perfectly with the other elements and made me feel like I was reading a fairy tale like no other. It’s undoubtedly a complete package made with love.
As I finished the game, I found myself in love with all the small things the developers did to make the game more immersive. For instance, the audio cues not only for songs but environmental sounds were a nice touch. Other small things, such as when your perspective switched to Abigail, as she’s more ladylike, she’ll refer to Maddie as Madison and her nameplate will change while you’re in the perspective. There’s also many other bits and pieces incorporated that when you notice them make you happy. If you’re a fan of noticing small things in games, you’ll be pleased with this one.
It isn’t to say the game is without flaws. The slow first chapter might be a turn-off for some. Some minor details about the main conflict and its resolution will need a second read to grasp. However, in the grand scheme of things, the game pulls through to be an unforgettable experience. I was practically glued to the screen from the minute I hit start. I finished at ten hours played. For a game without voice acting, all the elements lined up perfectly and seemed like it wasn’t even needed, though it would be nice if added later.
Heart of the Woods is the quintessential modern day fairy tale. With enough love, drama and touches of fantasy to make for a ride like no other. The best part is that it’s only $14.99 to enter this attraction. The future is bright for Studio Élan so get in on the fun early. Congratulations to the team on the launch!
Game provided by the developer for review purposes.
Adult Visual NovelHeart of the WoodsoprainfallReviewSTUDIO ÉLAN