FOX n FORESTS is a platforming game in the style of the good old 16-bit days. There’s a lot of love for retro-style games these days (the recent Owlboy set a tremendous bar in that regard) but even that was a touch too pristine to really pass as a game of the era. FOX n FORESTS however; well, if you’d stuck a Mega Drive pad in my hand I’d easily have believed it was running off of a dusty old cart, dug out of someone’s long forgotten collection. Great, authentic visuals, typically low-fi but melodic music and some great level design takes me back to my youth. So, too, does wonky hit detection, slow character movement and replaying whole sections of a level because you got hit by something you simply couldn’t have avoided.
However, the positives here far outweigh the negatives. It all starts with some excellent title music, instantly sending me back to my youth, loading up the likes of Streets of Rage or Golden Axe. While I don’t imagine, like them, it’ll still be on my playlist in years to come, it continues the games commitment to the time period. Throughout the game the music keeps up the pace, with only the first stage of Summer letting this side down, seemingly half an octave off key and not really fitting the aesthetic. The visuals too are wonderful, with great character designs and variety. Animation is a little stiff, but again, perfectly accurate of the era and it doesn’t detract much at all. Into the game proper then, and it follow Rick the Fox who, as the game so delightfully puts it, “was about to commit a terrible crime”.
A partridge, Patty, is seen sitting on a rock singing. The crime; dinner time. Patty convinces Rick to spare her in exchange for an adventure and riches, to which he agrees. And we’re off. The dialogue is somewhat simple, and the puns are almost unforgivable (example: the Season Tree informs you that “Patty alone cannot fox…I mean….fix this tragic situation”) but it keeps a brisk pace and there are only a few places where they pop up. Annoyingly, before each boss fight is one such place, with no option to quickly skip it should you fail. Text can fast scroll, but it is one trait of the era that could’ve been cut out without issue. You are bestowed with a crossbow bayonet and asked to retrieve 4 parts of Sacred Bark, so that the Season Tree may unfreeze the forest that has been sectioned off into the 4 seasons, and sent on your way.
Combat is a mixed bag. Using the crossbow bayonet you can engage foes both near and far, but you cannot move while attacking, nor can you aim your shot. You’ll likely die many times initially due to the slow fire rate and the fact that soon enemies require several hits and will reach you to inflict damage before you can take them down. Get into the swing of it and you’ll soon be dispatching enemies easily enough, upgrading your weapons via various collectibles and currency scattered throughout, purchased at a base camp shop. Collecting these often requires unlocking lower skills before returning to the level to access new areas. Not quite a hardcore metroidvania, though, it does mean repeated playthroughs of levels if you want to see everything.
The later levels make this especially difficult, as it’s not always very clear where things are hidden, with some Seeds (of which you need increasing amounts to actually progress through the game) literally invisible until you walk over the spot where they are. Unlock a few skills though, and going back through earlier levels becomes a breeze, enabling you to find more bits and pieces to upgrade and progress. Four kinds of magic arrow (1 per piece of bark returned) and potions help you along the way too, each offering differing trajectories and damage. There’s enough variety here to keep things interesting over the short run-time, and situations call for specific types so players can’t just rely on one type to get through.
Enemies are simple folk too. While they get physically tougher as you progress, they will blindly charge at you no matter where you are. An old favorite trick used to be to stand on a slight ledge, crouch and hit them until they died and in yet more accurate-to-the-era this tactic works here too. Some sections seem designed with that in mind, throwing lots of tough foes at you with just the right height ledge to attack safely from. Distance and aerial attacks keep you on your toes, though oftentimes I found these to be nearly unavoidable due to what felt like a massive hit box on Rick, his meager jump not providing enough height to get in the clear. The real stand out USP here is the ability to change the season of a level with a button press. As mentioned above, the forest has been segmented up into 4 seasons.
The first season you’ll play is Spring, and it looks lovely, but press the trigger and everything glosses over into a frozen Winter. It’s a neat visual effect but also has a massive effect on the actual gameplay. Previously huge leaves that you could use to climb trees have now wilted away. Deadly water pits now become frozen patches, allowing you to walk along them. You have a mana meter which determines how long the alternate season can be activated for, oftentimes you’ll find yourselves flicking between them in relatively quick succession. Gems dotted around can be used to extend this time period, but once it’s depleted you must wait for it to recharge, which can be an agonizingly slow wait, especially as your magic arrows also deplete this bar. Upgrades again allow the meter to be extended, though thankfully only really well-hidden items really require a substantial upgrade.
But there are some wonderful uses of the idea, a later one being dropping icicles onto an enemy, changing to warm weather so it melts and then back to Winter so they freeze in place. Each subsequent season alternates into its opposite, and all are beautifully designed and implement the idea well, without repeating too many tricks. I hope, should there be a sequel, the idea is expanded upon, perhaps allowing several seasons in one level (though I appreciate the extra work that would entail). This extends to the boss fights as well, each one having a weakness related to the seasons. Fights can be tough, with them dealing pretty hefty damage resulting in a restart, but, as it should be obvious by now, this keeps in with the aim and feel of the game and the pattern is figuring out that it’s all about execution. And at least a modern concession, saves, prevents having to start the entire game over!
While my rose tinted nostalgia glasses may be firmly pressed against my nose, FOX n FORESTS is a wonderfully accurate reminder of the good and bad times of the 16-bit era. Younger players may balk at its simplicity given that things certainly have come a long way since, but the game pulls off its aim so well that it’s hard not to be impressed. If anything, FOX n FORESTS showcases that, thankfully, they do make ‘em just like they used to.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.