When I dive into a game that’s described as an adventure game, I expect just that, adventure. Sadly, The First Tree just doesn’t cut it as anything other than an overly simplistic exploration experience. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing particularly bad about that concept. In fact, there’s been some stellar games that adopt this approach (many refer to them as walking simulators), but here, The First Tree just doesn’t do enough with its few mechanics to enjoy a seat with the big hitters. Taking this from the top, The First Tree is centered around two stories.
These stories are intertwined, as such, making for two plots that run parallel and in unity, in a dreamscape setting. Players take on the role of a fox that’s desperately seeking out her missing cubs, whilst at the same time, the narrative depicts a couple that are suffering from tragedy. The idea here is that each story feeds into one another at certain beats, oftentimes lending resolution in moments of sadness. The problem here is that, although these design choices seem practical on paper, in practice, it just doesn’t fit. The issue comes from how each story is relayed throughout the game’s entirety.
Whilst playing as the fox and seeking high and low for her cubs, the young couple will narrate. The story of the fox is fairly self explanatory, whereas the story of the young couple leans more on the man’s torn relationship with his father. The way this connects is that throughout play, the fox will stumble upon digging mounds that unearth more of the couple’s backstory, and indeed, more information about the father’s and son’s history. The dynamic doesn’t make sense in itself, but as a conduit, it works. It’s a shame then, that much of the material within is so depressing.
I’m going to dance around as much of the plot as possible so that I’m not ruining it for those that have yet to dive in. I also feel pretty bad about criticizing this aspect of the game, knowing that it ties closely to the heart of its developer. That said, there’s just no overlooking how dejected The First Tree is. There’s nothing wrong with a game that wants to tackle sensitive matters, but there needs to be a meaningful connection to the player right from the get-go. Here, I just constantly felt as though I had accidentally stumbled into a group therapy session.
There’s moments of beauty to be found in the parallel stories, but much of this is lost in the midst of its abundance of heavy-handed sorrow. It doesn’t help matters that the payoff isn’t really as heavy-hitting as it could have been. Hell, I saw the ending coming a mile away, which says a lot when the game can be run through in less than two hours. Nevertheless, those that enjoy spiritual games will likely find a deeper meaning here, but for me, I just couldn’t see through the thick fog of despair long enough to tap into any actual fun. Now, let’s move onto the gameplay.
The moment you take control of the fox, you’ll have a good idea as to how the game functions. The fox can walk, run, jump, double jump, and dig. There’s really not much to it outside of that. You’ll traverse a collection of distinctly themed wide open areas, collecting stars and digging mounds along the way. There’s a range of objects and items thrown into the locations, most of which seems to be tied to the couple’s story, but it’s the digging mounds that will feed you much of the story’s meat. When you find one, you’ll simply interact with it to unearth a specific item.
Once you’ve done that, you’ll be rewarded with some more dialogue. The general crux play sees you unearthing these mounds, nabbing the stars (for achievements) and finding your way to the area’s exit point. The game will, at times, throw the occasional puzzle at you. Though, this typically consists of collecting groups of butterflies or standing on a few rocks. That’s the sum of the game’s innovation, which is a shame, because there’s plenty of potential here. The game handles well, despite some odd, floaty feedback and poor animation when it comes to jumping.
There’s a few poor design issues to contend with, mind, such as one with the aforementioned collection of butterflies. Later into the game you will come across a large boulder that you cant overcome with the use of your standard double jump. Here, you’ll need to collect three groups of butterflies to make your jump even higher. The problem, however, is that if you miss the jump (which is easy to do) the butterflies will scatter and you’ll need to collect them again. This wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t take forever and a day to cross the plains and re-obtain them.
That’s a small gripe, yes, but when I take into account that it’s a gripe about one of the few mechanics that the game encompasses, it makes it far less forgivable. As alluded to above, there’s roughly a two hour journey to take to here. You can throw another hour on top of that if you truly want to see, collect and experience every fine detail within. Just don’t expect much depth, because in honesty, The First Tree has barely any. The bottom line in all of this is that the game fails miserably to maintain its initial allure, and further fails to build on its foundation.
I’ll credit the game’s audio and visual design. I quite enjoyed the new and diverse environments that The First Tree consistently introduced. There’s a clear lack of polish and some very awkward object placement, but on the whole, I couldn’t knock the game for its visual variety. The soundtrack, on the other hand, is easily one of the game’s best assets: offering a soothing and tranquil pitch at the right moments. The voice acting is top notch too, although the game’s mood is constantly low, I thought the quality to the writing and dialogue was achieved well.
There’s moments of beauty to be found in the parallel stories here, but much of that is lost in the midst of its abundance of heavy-handed sorrow. It doesn’t help that The First Tree is far too basic for its own good. Whilst the game’s several worlds seem diverse and interesting at first glance, the lack of any padding makes for a very empty experience, one that, despite its few highs, ultimately succumbs to its many lows.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.