Fox n Forests Review
Sony PlayStation 4Also available on Nintendo Switch, PC and Microsoft Xbox One
Fox n Forests transports us back to the 16-bit pastures of SNES and Amiga platforming, as we explore the frozen lakes and canopies of a doomed forest in search of the only items that can save it. Rick the Fox is our reluctant hero. His weapon: a magic crossbow enchanted with the power to change seasons.
Funded by Kickstarter and intended as a love-letter to the classics (Super Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts, Wonderboy, Zelda), this sprite-shooting, pixel-perfect adventure sows all the right seeds. But does it fulfill its promise of an evergreen retro paradise?
Rick the Fox is more interested in swiping coins than saving trees. From the outset he seems to care less about what’s going on in the forest than we do, but with a little persuasion from a partridge (who he’s planning to swallow when the adventure’s over) he’s roped into a quest to return four pieces of magic bark to the Guardian Tree, this being the only hope of preventing the onset of a fabled and apparently evil fifth season.
To help him out, the fox is endowed with a powerful crossbow that’s not only an effective melee and projectile-firing weapon but can also change the seasons, a skill that’s required frequently in the game to solve environmental puzzles and reveal hidden areas.
This simple ability showcases the gorgeous environments on offer throughout the game's eight main stages. Leaves are stripped from trees in autumn to reveal veiled ledges, some even float in mid-air to be used as platforms themselves; gusts of wind are stemmed to stop the cogwheels turning in a windmill; cascading waterfalls are frozen in winter and allow you to walk on water whilst the surrounding wilderness is enveloped in snow.
As beautiful as they are, some of these areas can get repetitive quite quickly. Levels are fairly long, and the game forces you to replay them even quite early on in order to progress. Defeating a season's boss and returning their piece of the magic bark rewards you with an upgrade to your bow, but it doesn't necessarily unlock the next season. You have to return to completed stages, use your upgrades to find areas that were inaccessible before and collect enough seeds to move on.
Exploration of this sort works well in a game like Castlevania or Metroid due to the vast areas uncovered by your new found abilities. As alluring as the mystic woods are in Fox n Forests, you often have to replay long stretches of a relatively linear level to uncover a single treasure chest.
Thankfully the action in Fox n Forests is tight and well-balanced. But it only really reveals itself to be so precise as you start to acquire new skills. These can be found in the Forest Plaza and until you hoard enough coins to purchase them, combat feels limited, as if you don't quite have enough ammunition in your arsenal to get by with. I guess this is a refreshing change from games of this sort where you can often become overpowered all too quickly. If combat feels a little clumsy at first, persist and you will soon blossom into an acrobatic fox.
The forest floor is crawling with possessed insects and haunted shrubs. With respawning enemies and small margins for error, you’ll have to master roundhouse slashes, downward thrusts and spin attacks, timing them perfectly to succeed. Finding the right move to make a bug explode in mid-air or to decompose a walking tree becomes compulsive very quickly once you’ve expanded your skills, and this exhilaration offsets the frustration of repetition.
Towards the end of the game, the deathless persistence of respawning enemies became annoying, but for the most part I appreciated the difficulty. It only felt unfair in the flying stages, when you hop onto the wings of Patty the Partridge and shoot your way through waves of enemies. Though a welcome interlude between stages of traditional platforming, it's a harsh twist to have only one heart, and a gentle brush with a gnat will put an end to you.
Fox n Forests is lovingly crafted for a generation who grew up alongside characters with names like Brian the Lion and Superfrog, and the vein of nostalgia runs strong throughout the game. The purple fruits that grow in the forest’s gorge are reminiscent of the giant plums from Rayman’s Pink Plant Woods. Zipwires of vines glide Rick above familiar toadstools in Fungus Forests. The most apparent homage, to Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts, appears in Foggy Fable, a cemetery stage terraced with barbed stones and shrieking spirits.
Maybe in part because Fox n Forests is cloaked in an authentic 16-bit aesthetic, it feels more like a hidden gem of the era than wholly derivative of its influences, stitched as they are into its dense canopy of pixels. Frustrations aside with the structure and system of progression, it's hard not to fall in love with its vibrant glades and addictive gameplay. And despite its flaws, I went back again and again to hunt for the final seeds.