(Review code provided by Studio Élan)
The wait for this game was a long with lots of hype going into it for it is the debut title of Studio Élan. Join me as we venture forth into a world full of wonder and a mystery solve as we find out whether it is worth taking the journey or we are better off staying home. This is Heart of the Woods, published by Sekai Project and Denpasoft.
Genres: Drama, Romance, Supernatural, Visual Novel, Yuri
Platforms: PC (Steam, Denpasoft, itch.io, GOG,), Nintendo Switch
Themes: Ghosts, Spirits
Length: 7-14 hours (Depends on personal reading speed)
Plot Summary: Madison Raines is the editor and manager of her best friend Tara Bryck’ (Hopefully to be voiced by Tara Bryck in the future) popular vlog “Taranormal”, going around investigating any and all supernatural sightings from ghosts to cryptids.
One day they got a call to investigate an unusual sighting in a remote village called Eysenfeld, located in Germany. Madison (or Maddie), being a skeptic by nature, did not think they would find anything but went along with Tara anyway to commemorate what may be their last trip together. What they found however, was beyond anything either woman could have imagined…and I am not just referring to the woman who called them over, Morgan.
As described in the HotW page this is a fairy tale genre inspired story that has romance and betrayal, magic and villains, and questionable moral decisions. It’s a sort of love letter to the kinds of stories that we grew up on, and to the kinds of stories we wish we’d had.
It is a very well told story about friends struggling with personal issues as they travel to a mysterious place where so much happens that their whole outlook on life is forever changed. The setup of a “life changing adventure/journey” is familiar but what is more important is what the writers and developers do with said setup and HotW is an example of excellent narrative. Patience rewards the patient. Besides an incredible journey our heroines go through personal obstacles such as thinking about the future, life changing decisions that may affect their friendship, difficulty accepting change, and of course sexuality to name a few of them. The sexuality one has nothing to do with “I’m gay and I’m having a hard time because of it” but more so “What kind of relationship do we have/want?”. There are other areas of sexuality explored but I will leave that for the interested to discover themselves. All of it was handled quite well from the personal to the supernatural.
Moving on to the presentation all the locales, even Eysenfeld with its “middle ages” (best way I can put it. Retro works too) appearance and dreary denizens is nice to look at along with sections of the snowy, sometimes scary but sometimes beautiful forest. It is all visually appealing. The same can be said of the soundtrack. There are some tunes that suck to my heard such as Abigail’s theme and the tune normally used for…let us call it “Special Place”. I do not know how else to describe the presentation other than wonderful.
Continuing with the presentation before briefly going to the gameplay we have the Options. It may not seem like much but the extra Audio options shown in the screen are quite nice. Aduio Cues refer to signaling background sound effects or which song from the soundtrack is about to play. Screenshake is self-explanatory and Self-Voicing is a really cool one for “plreaders” (play-read) like me who often enjoy role-playing in Visual/Kinetic Novels voices by guiding us in how the characters would say their lines if there were voice acting (Yes. My throat often runs the risk of getting sore. It is not easy but I enjoy it nevertheless). Again not much but still nice touches.
As for the gameplay it is the standard multiple choice VN fare. What is interesting this time around is who the one is always given the choice of what to do. It fits with the story of this character being the one having to make the tough decisions and in a way altering the course of the story…so be careful not to run into “Bad Ends”.
By the time I write this review the only hiccups I came across involve minor typos and one moment where the personal perspective was supposed to switch from Morgan (Orange color) to Maddie (yellow) but it continued being Morgan’s color until the scene change. There were patches that addressed this along with a reported crash for some. Luckily I did not experience any crashes. Everything should be okay by now.
Next up are the two main couples. First up are Tara X Morgan. They are the complicated one of the two for various reasons. Personality wise I could compare them to Yuuji X Shouko from Baka and Test (minus the slave driving and tasering), meaning Tara’s the “cool babe” and Morgan the “enigmatic monotone beauty” with a poker face most of the time but much more to her behind her cute X sexy (and unusual) exterior.
And then there is the main/poster couple of the game, Maddie X Abby. I am certain to not be the only who pointed out the following similarity. This couple have a similar chemistry to Amber X Marina from Highway Blossoms. Convenient as the head writer of HotW was also the head writer of HB. What I mean by similar is this couple being another “Grumpy cynic/skeptic falling in love with a lovely bubblegum haired cutie”. However, that similarity is only surface level stuff. Other than my description the two couples have a different road to love and face completely different personal obstacles from Maddie’s life back home and her friendship with Tara along with Abigail’s…circumstances. Let us just say there is very good reason why their meeting is the best thing that happened for both women. Two words, relationship goals. Maddie X Abby are FREAKIN’ RELATIONSHIP GOALS! So beautiful, so precious. Yamada X Kase-san precious.
As for the rest of the cast they do their job. Expect some surprises is all I will say.
Overall Heart of the Woods was worth the wait. The story has familiar elements but executes them splendidly in its own way with some cool surprises, the presentation is wonderful, the main cast lovable and the yuri cute (and steamy with the 18+ patch). Highly recommended to most yuri fans.
Joshy (and friends), you did it again.
- PS: The demo includes a prologue not found in the main game.
- PS #2: A bonus Taranormal (canon?) free episode HERE.