Through the Woods is an exploratory narrative horror experience inspired by the four man dev team’s childhood fears of what lurked in the dark, overgrown forests of rural Norway merged with classic Norwegian folk tales and Norse mythology. The story begins with the introduction of Espen and his mother, and initially gives players the feel that Espen is the primary character. Through a series of short interactions, a little exploration, and copious amounts of cutscenes we learn that Espen and his mother’s relationship is strained. She works long hours at night, and sleeps through most of the day, but she genuinely loves her son and wants the best for him. The family has been traumatized by the past actions of Espen’s father, but ultimately they’re doing their best to get by. After the scene is set, a new day starts with players taking control of Mother (whose name we never actually learn) only to discover that Espen has gone missing. Guiding Mother down to the broken down pier near the lake, players watch as Espen is carried loaded into a boat and taken away.
In an effort to rescue her son, Mother hops into the lake and swims after the boat which leads her to an overgrown island. It is here that the real experience with Through the Woods begins, as players can explore the island at their own pace. Hidden amongst the foliage, players can discover letters and other collectible items to reveal the folklore and further explain the backstory of the monsters that, with enough time on the island, Mother will encounter.
Through the Woods primarily offers a psychological horror experience, encouraging players to deviate from the fairly obvious linear paths that push the current events along in an effort to track down collectibles that will explain the folklore origins of the unique creatures, like the dastardly trolls, in addition to dwarven gates and the incredibly creepy Mist Children. As the sun sets and moon rises over the island, the forest becomes increasingly darker and more terrifying. The player is acutely aware of the potential dangers lurking in the shadows of the trees thanks to fantastic audio that goes above and beyond to create an atmosphere that chills you to the bone. You’re never quite certain if you’re hearing the wind in the trees or the ominous wailing of hungry beast that is stalking behind you. There’s no combat in Through the Woods, so it is up to players to use their only tool – Espen’s flashlight – and a healthy combination of stealth and good old fashion running to get through each chapter.
While fans of horror may feel that Through the Woods is not overreaching in its scare tactics, the game does excel and creating and maintaining a truly unsettling experience. This is culminated with an ending that is sure to leave most players wide eyed and genuinely stunned. Overall the experience with Through the Woods is a positive one, but the game does suffer from the occasional random crash to the dashboard, and long play sessions were also a victim of game stuttering and framerate drops. Gameplay is fairly simple as a result of the lack of a combat system. Most of the game’s experience is spent looking for and reading through the collectible lore. Unfortunately, there is one instance where a collectible – that actually serves as a solution to a puzzle – can not be interacted with. With some fancy camera maneuvering, it is possible to see the combination of numbers that are necessary, but the lack of the ability to interact with the item means that completionists will be disappointed by the missing collectible in their logs. Thankfully, Through the Woods offers a chapter select option so that once this hiccup is patched players will easily be able to jump back to the section and pick up their missing collectible.