Heart of the Woods is the first game from Studio Élan, a new studio primarily focused on yuri games, which obviously something I’m very excited about. The world of yuri VN can be varied but many still fall into the same tropes that sometimes makes yuri manga a little predictable. There’s nothing wrong with predictability, that can be a good way to escape for a few hours. I’m glad to see though that Studio Élan seems interested in reaching past those cliches into something more.
The game follows two friends/co-workers Tara and Maddie and their journey to a small European town where, as always seems to happen, their lives are changed forever. Their lives are already being changed when we meet them traveling on a train however. Maddie has just quit Tara’s paranormal internet show “Taranormal” and that’s caused a rift between the two best friends. Their comments to each other sometimes blunt, sometimes smiling trying to push the awkwardness away but mostly followed by silence.
Tara’s show is on that level of popularity that has afforded her the ability to make a business with her best friend and it’s easy to see why. Tara is personable, open and preformative in a way that calls to mind a lot of popular internet personalities but she doesn’t come across as fake or unlikable (except when she’s supposed to.) Maggie on the other hand is the behind the scenes wiz, shooting and editing all the videos, answering fan mail and basically doing all the parts Tara can’t or won’t do. Her personality wavers between level headed and, as she describes, “bitchy.” Along with being the skeptic of the team Maddie has been brought to her breaking point by the fact that she might have wasted her life chasing someone else's dream.
They’re traveling to the town of Eysenfield to meet a fan who has tipped them off on the possibility of a supernatural occurrence. Both make mention of the fact that it sounds like what a serial killer would do. The fan, named Morgan, isn’t a killer and promises big things for the show but hides deeper secrets from the duo. Eysenfield looks like it has not changed in a century, sometimes idyllic and sometimes the setting of a horror movie. As the two look deeper into the woods for footage the things they begin find are both terrifying and wondrous.
It would have been easy to turn the month long cabin retreat the two are forced into as a way to fix their friendship and have it bloom into romance. It’s a plot found in many fan fics and romance novels. Writers Josh Kaplan and Rachel Gruber have bigger plans for both their romance and characters arcs. When Maddie finds a girl named Abigail in the woods and Morgan’s mother begins making herself more known the game delves deeper both into the psyche of the characters and the world they inhabit.
Abigail is a ghost residing in the wood for over 200 years. Maddie begins visiting her daily after a large fight with Tara drives her to finally have something just for herself. The excitable girl becomes Maddie’s escape from a worsening friendship and Abigail connects with Maddie as a fellow outcast not knowing what will happen next. Their relationship grows over the course of the game in a ways that’s believable despite all the twists and turns they go through.
The game sometimes jump characters, mostly between Morgan and Maddie. Morgan’s story starts with her as a slightly off fan but after a one night stand with Tara her mother becomes more of a character. Morgan’s mother is rude to Maddie and Tara, but it seems understandable. That’s where abusers like her often reside, understandable to the outside world but cutting behind closed doors. Abusers manipulate their surroundings and their targets to make everyone think the abused is in the wrong.
The theme of abandonment goes through the entire game. Morgan is mostly abandoned by her mom, Abigail hides stories of her problems with her family, Tara talks about being abandoned by her friend group and Maddie feels abandoned by her closest friend. It’s actually Tara’s history that led to her and Maddie being such close friend. Heart of the Woods is a romance story but also nails the modern feeling of found family in the face of losing or throwing aside your “real” one.
Tara seems to be the most together at the offset but she is becoming depressed at was once her perfect life. She’s mentioned as having a series of one night stands but this isn’t treated as the cause of her depression or a moral failing. Neither does her romance fix all her problems. Actual heart to heart talks help her re-evaluate how she acts and how she wants to go forward. Her frustration at Maddie is understandable, just as Maddie’s need to break free is.
I admit I did end up liking Morgan and Tara’s story more. Aside from personal reasons that connected me more with those characters I sometimes found that Maddie and Abigail often carried the weight of the world being created, which is interesting but results in a lot of balls being up in the air. It didn’t lead me to worry about the characters, more worry that if the writers were going to pull everything off. They mostly do but it did take me out of the game for a bit.
The art in the game is good, the backgrounds in particular are beautiful. The chapter images that give the look of a fairy tale storybook are another highlight. The music is good at creating the mood but if you click through at the wrong time it might awkwardly change. One thing I was happy to see is a vast array of accessibility options from disables screenshake to descriptions of pictures that can be read out loud. The general feel and UI surrounding the game are all great.
Heart of the Woods is a great yuri visual novel that is interested in friendship and growing as it is romance. It does a lot with it’s cast of characters, making you able to extrapolate further on the lives and futures of these people. It took me around seven hours to finish the game and in that time I grew to love all four of the main characters and their quirks. It’s nice to see a new studio already so sure in who they are and what they want to do. It makes me excited to see what journey they’ll take me on next.