Back in 2010, a little game called Heavy Rain speculated what a futuristic detective’s work might one day look like. High-tech glasses, virtual recreations of crime scenes, awkward walking animations to pick up trash. Forest Grove is the taking of that concept and fleshing it out into a full-game experience. It’s Cyber Scenario Investigation (CSI, like what I did there?).
It’s 50 years into the future, a teenage daughter of a tech billionaire has gone missing. Eight suspects are on your radar, all of whom have some element of mystery to their histories. A house to scour for clues and a series of puzzles to solve. Are you up to the task of uncovering the sordid affair? Can you prove the worth of cutting-edge technology and be the first to solve crime in a simulated environment?
Find Your Gro(o)ve
Forest Grove has a relatively cliche opening salvo. Zooey, daughter of tech billionaire Max, has disappeared. As a member of the newly founded investigation unit, your job is to find out where Zooey is. Along the way, you’ll need to uncover both physical and digital evidence by scouring the family home for clues. It’s a basic mystery setup, effectively, which is actually pretty good.
The reason why it’s not simply derivative and boring is due to the characters and structure of the game. The house is entirely empty, you won’t be conducting interviews nor eagle-eying “subtle facial cues” like in L.A Noire. Instead, you have to reconstruct the entire goings on yourself. Forest Grove never tells you what happened nor points you in the direction you should be looking.
Which is to its credit, as it makes it far more interesting and rewarding to piece it together yourself. Aside from Zooey, there are eight key figures involved, all of whom have some question marks surrounding their role in the situation. It’s a bit like playing a Knives Out video game but without the humour and Daniel Craig accent.
One unfortunate stumble the game suffers, however, is that the conclusion is as predictable as an M. Night Shyamalan plot twist. Within my first 30 minutes, I’d already solidified my main theory – which as it turns out, was virtually spot on. There are a couple of red herrings and a deeper thread to uncover, but the core of the mystery is about as opaque as a fresh window pane.
Make Your Case
What makes Forest Grove relatively compelling is its focus on the backstories of the personalities involved in Zooey’s disappearance. Prior to her vanishing act, Zooey was suffering from mental health issues, coupled with a crippling fear of Cotard’s syndrome. Intriguing in and of itself. Then you throw in a beleaguered housekeeper, a conflicting stepmother (Mary), a questionable work associate of dad (Roger).
Not to mention the boyfriend who doesn’t always stray on the side of passive and friendly. Lastly, there’s Zooey’s clinician, the one handling her medication, who may or may not be intertwined with her stepmother. It brings together a web of intrigue, as each individual swindles, manipulates and shifts the emerging narrative in your mind.
While a couple of characters like Roger or Brad (boyfriend’s work colleague) have under-developed backstories, the lurking underbelly of their relationships was fun to unpick. I flip-flopped between being dead set on someone being an ally, to suddenly uncovering an element which told me they were foe. I judged their messages and interactions, and I appreciated the work put into some of their narratives.
It all leads to a final conclusion at the report desk, where you use all of your collected evidence. You can allocate a variety of criminal charges to any one of the eight people of interest, but you’ll have to back up your claims. You need the correct charges, correct people AND the correct evidence to fully solve the case. It makes you feel like a genuine detective, even if you fail it the first five times…
Picking Through The Foliage
Before you can reach the stage of pointing fingers and making wild accusations (in my case), you’ll need to of course gather proof. Forest Grove can be (reductively) boiled down to a walking simulator with a bunch of interactive elements. You walk through the digital recreation of the Kunstimatigaard household via the cutting-edge Nanodeck.
As you explore the three floors, you’ll pick up various items to scan for DNA samples via fingerprints or perspiration. You’ll solve puzzles by finding codes or passwords to access safes and personal devices. The futuristic aspects comes into play by hacking into audio recordings by… holding ‘X’ and moving left and right, and lining up an image with a projection in each room.
It’s fairly rudimentary, and none of it takes a whole lot of thought. The gameplay I found to be almost on automatic, as I systematically worked room-to-room, interacting with anything with the symbol over it. Your engagement with the world is probably Forest Grove’s weakest aspect, as the puzzles are basic and the process of gathering evidence is middling.
That being said, I was stumped more than I care to admit. From misreading needing an acronym to a safe I just couldn’t find the code for, Forest Grove had me stuck a couple of times. Part of this can be attributed to over-thinking the solution, while in the safe’s case, there’s just no logical hint as to what to look for.
Pieced It Together Yet?
What does take a bit more thought is the process of lining up evidence. Sifting through messages on devices can glean you important information on what physical evidence to plump for. Forest Grove splits evidence into two tabs – physical and digital. Physical items will attach DNA samples, linking one to another. Digital evidence creates a timeline of recordings, pictures and messages you mark as suspicious.
To give you an idea of how intricate this is, I actually knew who had done what and how, thanks to messages and using the timeline to figure it out. The problem was, I didn’t have the evidence to prove my case. Forest Grove comes together when you actually have to think like a detective and use the material at hand.
I especially liked the timeline system, as it uses in-game mechanics in a thematically integrated fashion and engages your brain. Where the process of collecting evidence failed to inspire in the first part, the mental gymnastics to pull it all together was compelling. You need almost 90% of evidence collected before you can even submit, requiring the player to actually search around properly, too.
I enjoyed it a lot, though having to go back through rooms to comb over every surface for the one or two missing items was tedious. Games like this typically have an option or an indicator you can use to help identify the last few bits, to ease the frustration. Sadly, Forest Grove doesn’t have this, consequently making the last couple of hours a bit boring, killing some of the momentum.
Lost In The Woods
The last thing to consider is Forest Grove’s immersion and the quality of its attempts to convince you of its story. Unfortunately, this tends to veer more on the side of worse than better. Some voice acting is decent, such as for Max or Zooey. Some, however, can be pretty awful. Mary, Zooey’s stepmother for example, sounds like she couldn’t be any less interested in actually sounding like a normal person.
The house itself is well-realised, with a solid integration of futuristic touches as you approach the cyber-replicated home. Using mini drones, light bars and a huge VR-looking box to contain the home works wonders at selling the 50-years-in-the-future atmosphere. It seems kind of obvious, but the Kunstimatigaard house actually looks and functions like a real home too, which is nice.
Character models are a bit less convincing, however. There’s something rather stilted or wooden which prevents any of the recordings or pictures from being believable. Brad’s depiction especially just looks like a caricature drawing, and it does break the immersion a bit at times.
Overall though, considering the budget and size of the team making the game, I don’t think this is overly detrimental to the experience. There are some issues here, but they’re likely due to funding and resources, as opposed to poor direction or decision-making. Eventually, you also get used to it, so it looks decent but without particularly excelling on this front.
Forest Grove was a fun surprise, combining the relaxing feel of a walking simulator with a more intricate and thought-focused mystery to solve. I started out with a bit of interest but finished it having been absolutely determined to figure it all out and bust the case wide open. It grew on me the more I played, and I found myself thinking over the details and the timeline more and more as the game went on.
Is it a perfect CSI episode transformed into a video game? I wouldn’t say so, as the collection process and logical leaps aren’t always the most compelling. There are some rough edges, such as the lack of streamlining for the end game and the awkward presentation at times. As a potential foundation for future titles, however, I think there’s more than enough here to be optimistic.
I came away from the game satisfied and fulfilled in equal measure. It has faults and flaws, but Forest Grove is a genuinely good game that, while not challenging in terms of gameplay, doesn’t hold your hand to reach the conclusion. It felt rewarding to finally crack the case, as it wasn’t given to me, I had to earn it, Sherlock Holmes style.
CSI meets a walking simulator in Forest Grove, proving to be a compelling – if flawed – detective puzzler. The futuristic setting and web of personal intrigue make cracking the case a fun and engaging exercise, even if the process of gathering the evidence fails to ignite your detective excitement. The Kunstimatigaard holds an intriguing mystery to solve, should you decide to jump into the future.
Forest Grove is available November 29th on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5 (review platform), Xbox Series S|X, Xbox One and PC.
Developer: Miga Games
Publisher: Blowfish Studios
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy from the publisher.