If you go down in the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise – it’s not a teddy bear’s picnic, but it’s twice as sweet, and far more terrifying. This is the world of Beacon Pines, where the forests blossom in shades of green and pink, even as a deadly secret festers beneath the trees. You enter this tale as a quiet observer, a reader of a magical storybook with a cloudy ending, and plenty of story branches to uncover. Each has a common narrative thread – the game follows a young deer named Luka on a wild adventure – but the road diverges as you make new choices, guiding Luka to brighter (or more deadly) futures.
Beacon Pines plays out as an ever-shifting narrative adventure game – you begin in Luka’s home, as he leaves flowers for his father, and follow as he joins his best friend Rolo in summertime hijinks, plotted out in a treehouse home base. The opening is quick to settle you into a quiet rhythm as you guide Luka through peaceful locales, a bustling town, and a forest clearing – all of which are picturesque and idyllic. Beacon Pines is seemingly the perfect town, filled with hard-working locals and thriving businesses.
But it isn’t long before the cracks begin to show – and Luka unravels the devastation at the heart of Beacon Pines, a town brought to its knees by a poor crop harvest that poisoned the land, and forced the township to regather and rebuild its strength. What initially seems like a dark, faraway chapter in town history soon comes for Luka and Rolo, as they uncover a mysterious warehouse that seems to be tied to these events.
It’s here where the meta-reality of Beacon Pines breaks up – and where the game’s innovative storytelling mechanics leap to life. At the conclusion of the warehouse vignette – which includes the appearance of a mysterious figure, you’re tasked with making a simple choice – inserting a single ‘action’ word into a storybook sentence.
This determines the flow of the events, and the knock-on impact of Luka’s choice. At first, you only have access to a single action – struggle – but the further you travel along the game’s storytelling branches, the more words you’ll pick up, enabling you to return to each narrative beat and re-play events, with alternate outcomes.
In one sequence of events, Rolo is kidnapped at the warehouse and disappears. In another, he never makes it to the warehouse, after a fight with Luka. Each story branch can be followed, and needs to be explored to gain new action verbs to reshape and revisit the future – so that multiple branching narratives form within Beacon Pines, all leading you towards the ‘true’ ending of the game.
Stumble or fall along the way, and you’ll have the chance to redo your quest, inserting fresh action words to create new pathways along a branch.
The narrative of Beacon Pines appears straightforward at first, but ultimately evolves into a butterfly effect of chain reactions – insert the wrong action token, and you’ll wind up in an offshoot reality where your friends struggle to survive in a harsh world. You may even end up in a reality frozen in time, a result of the strange happenings in town – but no matter how many dead ends you encounter, there are always new pathways that open up in their stead.
Each contains a plethora of horrifying circumstances, and while some of these are ultimately rearranged by the game’s timeline tinkering, there is a fair amount of horror that lingers as you dive deep into each narrative offshoot. Not everyone can escape Beacon Pines unchanged, and the true reality remains a mystery until you conquer the final story curveballs.
Read: Embrace the strange: Why video games should be weirder
The depths that Beacon Pines dives with its horror was surprising, for a game that looks as cutesy and colourful as this. While it’s been described as a combination of Winnie the Pooh and Twin Peaks, it’s fair to say it’s far more Lynchian than it is like A.A. Milne’s work. The denizens of the game may be colourful and cute, but this is a game that oozes with strange menace around every corner.
Luka, as a young, innocent foil is forced to deal with genuinely traumatic events throughout the course of the game, even as you find the final reality and work your way through the game’s central mystery. Don’t let the game’s gorgeous, illustrative art style fool you – the woods of the game are truly hideous, and their secrets are ugly.
It’s the horror that fascinated and repulsed me as I walked in Luka’s shoes, and the primary reason I found myself feverishly working to find new action words to change the future of the game, diving deeper for better outcomes, and working my way along the scattered and evolving narrative path.
The common tropes Beacon Pines leans into – body horror, primarily – feel so disconnected from its idyllic and charming world that it creates a fascinating sense of tonal dissonance. The story creeps forward at a horrifying and unexpected pace, revealing new and weirder realities with every action chosen. This surprise works to the game’s advantage, creating a genuine and unsettling sense of mystery with every beat.
While the narrative is far more linear than it first seems – there’s only one true ending to the game – the branching pathways illuminate more of Luka’s world, and help to lather a sense of dread that builds slowly, with each chapter. Every mistake reveals the potential consequences of your actions, including gruesome and shocking deaths – with each misstep forcing you further into strange and uncanny worlds.
Coupled with the cutesy art and delightful characters who, really, deserve nothing of what’s happening to them, Beacon Pines expertly crafts a horrifying, memorable tale that gets its hooks in early, and twists and twists until the final reveal. Occasionally stomach churning and skin-crawlingly creepy, it knows a lot about fostering uncomfortable tension, and plays this off with deft storytelling and smartly-wound secrets.
Beacon Pines is an unexpected horror-filled romp – one that’ll keep you locked in suspense for as long as loveable protagonist Luka is in danger. Keep your mind on the branching paths, and eventually you’ll discover a way out of this strange, body horror-infused nightmare. But be wary – the paths off the beaten tracks will stay with you long after the game is over.
Four stars: ★★★★
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S
Developer: Hiding Spot
Publisher: Fellow Traveller
Release Date: 23 September 2022
The Nintendo Switch version of Beacon Pines was provided and played for the purposes of this review.