One of life’s great fantasies is to chuck it all and live at one with nature, peacefully and quietly taking in the beauty of the wilderness while life slows down to a simple rhythm of eat, forage, sleep. No WiFi, no other people, no cars or news or connection to anything but the daily rhythm of sunrise to sunset. It’s obviously a terrible idea for any number of reasons, whether that be forgetting that ticks are a thing, people need other people to not go insane, life needs to be about more than just survival, etc., but it’s still nice to dream. Among Trees is a fantasy of life in the forest, beautiful and peaceful in ways that actually being in the woods wouldn’t be, despite being limited in scope plus weighed down by a completely inadequate inventory system.
The basic plot is that civilization is back thataway somewhere, and far away from everything waits a dilapidated shack in the middle of a pine forest. It’s run down enough to be completely unlivable, in fact, but an easy day’s scrounging for materials turns up a handful of boards and other useful items to convert the ruin into a shelter. There’s a river with clean water down the hill to the north, and peeking out from the trees to the south is the ruins of what looks to be an old electrical tower. Mushrooms are just common enough that hunger won’t be an issue, growing free on the forest floor, and all the necessary components to turn the shack into a functioning home are scattered throughout the woods. Every day is a foraging expedition for supplies, but what kind of supplies is dependent on the day’s goals.
While it would be possible to merely survive in the woods in the shack, there’s a lot of room for improvement. The shack starts with a bed to sleep in, a chest to hold things, and a desk with a notebook that acts as a save point, and that’s everything. Points on the shack wall are marked with icons that, when approached, show the necessary materials for expansion, and the materials for the crafting room are different from those of the kitchen or storage attic. The reason this is important is because for the bulk of Among Trees inventory space is limited to twelve items, and once you’ve got the crafting bench three of those slots will probably get taken up by a selection of tools. I decided that the axe, fishing pole and lockpick were going to come with me wherever I sent, but a canteen for water could easily replace any of them. There’s also a compass, but seeing as the cabin is always marked no matter how far away from home you may be, it feels redundant.
The forest paradise of Among Trees is always an early summer, and that means there’s a lot of different items growing in the woods. Most are food items, such as a huge variety of mushrooms (some with a percentage chance of poison if eaten raw), berries and roots, plus other plants best used to create stat-protecting brews. There are also fish in the pond, plus more mechanical scrap to be found at the sites of the ruined electrical towers. What this means to a day’s wander is that the inventory fills up quickly, and all of it may be something you’ll want to store away in the chests back at home base. A dozen slots isn’t much, and while there are bigger backpacks available, those are upgrades for the latter half of the game and even then only bump up the storage capacity by four slots. Not only that, items can only stack so deep, leading to far too many instances of leaving behind a valuable find or taking a pass on a nice afternoon’s fishing. It’s frustrating and annoying, and easily the biggest reason I ended up bouncing off Among Trees despite its tranquil beauty.
As pretty as the game is, though, it’s not without its dangers. Technically there are bears in the woods but they’re rare, wander around in a small area, and Among Trees pops up a warning when you’re about to walk into one’s territory. Crouching in tall grass turns you invisible, so it’s possible to sneak into the bear’s domain to grab the resources there, but other than a blueprint for crafting a new item, there’s nothing that you can’t get much more easily somewhere else. The real threats come from the thirst, hunger and cold meters, because when they drop to zero it’s instant death and back to the last save-point no matter how close to the cabin’s front door you may have been. Even so, it’s easy to avoid the worst consequences if you’re even slightly careful. A drink at the stream every time you cross it will fill up the thirst meter, and it only needs to be topped off twice a day. Assuming you haven’t packed the inventory full of inedible scrap, wood or other plants, hunger is just as easy to avoid seeing as mushrooms are common. Even cold is only an issue at night, and once you’ve got a tent that means camping outdoors is an option. It takes a bit of planning, but when you get the rhythm of forest life death becomes unlikely and you can just enjoy being there.
Among Trees is a game that ends up being more pretty than good, but then again it’s incredibly pretty so that’s a high bar to clear. For every element there’s something that doesn’t quite work, such as a good fishing system that’s let down by lack of inventory to fully store the day’s haul, or a fire pit that for the life of me I never could figure out how to re-light once it burned down. At least the pet fox is cute and the need to keep it fed made me get to grips with the fishing mini-game. Even so, things like the crafting (why does it take stump moss to craft a watering can?) or certain resources (Sticks!? There’s a dead pine tree right here and I’m combing the ground for sticks!?) are utterly mystifying. Among Trees is a beautiful, peaceful, serene trip into a fantasy woodland, and if you can just enjoy being there without worrying about the game aspect too much, it’s a lovely escape from the stresses of civilization.