Yuri Visual Novel Review: Heart of the Woods

Heart of the Woods is a self-described “modern-day
fairy tale”. With a little bit of trimming and the removal
of sexual references, it could easily fit alongside any book that your mother read to
you as a child. As a genre, the fairy tale occupies a special
place and duplicating its unique qualities is not an easy task. While belief in supernatural beings is still
common in our society, fairy tales play a special role as the remnant of a more local
mysticality, a belief that magic could be found right outside your door. At the same time, while more medieval societies
believed in the existence of dwarves, elves, and magic wholeheartedly, the contemporary
fairy tale is a fable, containing a broader truth but couched in the knowledge that none
of its events could actually take place. But while elves may not be real, they certainly
stand in for something that is. Heart of the Woods may not be aimed at children
but it certainly understands the genre whose lineage it borrows from. It tells the story of two friends, Maddie
and Tara, the latter of whom hosts a supernatural-investigation show on Youtube called Taranormal. They travel to the remote village of Eysenfeld,
as Maddie declares that this will be her last project as part of the show, something which
creates a rift between them. There, she meets a ghost named Abigail, while
Tara finds herself drawn towards the one who invited them, Morgan, whose mother, Evelyn,
seems to hold a dark secret which appears to hold the entire town in its grasp. This is a game of monsters and magic, a melancholic
story set in a constantly snowed-over village bordered by, you guessed it, the perilous
yet serene woods. Like the fairy tales we grew up hearing from
our parents and teachers, the Hansel and Gretels, the Little Red Riding Hoods, this game understands
that fear is an essential element in any moral narrative. As they say, a monster is never just a monster,
it stands in for other fears that can not be so easily discussed. The town of Eysenfeld’s inhospitality even
to those who come from it reflects a broader anxiety towards small towns and society as
a whole, worries about a state wherein anything you do will quickly spread to everyone you
know, terror at the prospect of being in a position where you have little control over
how people will interpret you. Evelyn is the quintessential controlling mother
and mayor, narcissistically using others for her own ends with little concern for how anyone
else will end up. She’s a literal monster as well, yes, but
real Evelyns hurt their Morgans and Abigails every day without any magic. This is where the game’s queerness comes
in. While Hansel and Gretel may foreground the
fear of being abandoned by your parents, going hungry, and being abused by terrifying strangers,
Heart of the Woods focuses on the fear of being unaccepted, hurt by those who are all
too close. In this game, the village is far more dangerous
than the forest. Past fairy tales had little chance to focus
on queerness; at best, you could read that into the monsters, as the witch in the aforementioned
story lives alone in the forest, eating other humans. In this game, however, it’s the protagonists
who are queer. If crafting a modern-day tale of this sort
is your goal, then focusing on the groups who have reason to fear society is not a bad
approach to take. Queerness, something which is simultaneously
hideable and visible, is a perfect vessel for exploring historical and local trauma. That the game ties this into ecological and
spiritual preservation is just a testament to how smart it is. But don’t be confused: the queerness in
this game goes far deeper than being the symbolic cause of the girls’ ostracization and hardship. As with any good yuri visual novel, Heart
of the Woods spends plenty of time building up its relationships. By the time the characters finally get around
to kissing, the reader will have been begging for them to do so for an hour. Maddie finds Abigail while off by herself
and quickly becomes fond of the young woman who’s a scant 223 years old though their
relationship starts off without much progress since Maddie can’t hear what Abigail’s
saying. Tara, on the other hand, manages to do-the-dirty
with Morgan quite quickly, but with both of them hesitant about commitment, it takes longer
to go further. These two relationships don’t begin in the
same way most queer couples get together, though I’d be down to date a ghost if I
didn’t have a girlfriend, but the way their personalities are weaved into their relationship
dynamics is perfect. And did I say that one of the girls is trans? Yeah, that’s another element which ties
into the broader focus on social ostracization in the game. The writing is absolutely fantastic on this
and other topics, far better than in most VNs on the market and while part of that may
be due to the fact that it’s not a translation, it’d give most Japanese works a run for
their money. When the game needs to focus on Morgan’s
fear of Evelyn, the anxiety she feels at having lived for 20+ years with a monster who’s
systematically gaslit her with the eventual aim of killing her, you feel it to your core. At the same time, when the game needs to convey
the sheer elation felt by Abigail and Maddie after their first kiss, it’s absolutely
able to do so, in large part due to the great art and absolutely stellar music. (Seriously, I could listen to the soundtrack
for hours). Perhaps most interesting is how the game progresses
in terms of play. While I’ll leave spoilers to the side for
this review, I will say that the game is not kinetic, there are a number of choices to
be made and they will influence which ending you get. What’s curious is that these decisions are
made by Morgan, a member of what could be considered the “side-couple”. This is an important move as it gives agency
to the one who’s been trapped for the last two decades, in a worse state than any other
character, including the dead girl. What that agency means to the other themes
is up to you to find out as the game progresses, though I can promise it’ll wrap up with
a satisfying conclusion, even if it is a bit overly neat. The only significant problem with the game
is its performance; for a visual novel, there’s an awful lot of lag, and one of my computers
was unable to get through a particular section without crashing. It’s a major issue, though not one that
should deter you. Heart of the Woods does an exceptional job
at tying its diverse elements together, recognizing that it had to engage with changes in society
if it was going to be a contemporary fairy tale. At the same time, it feels right at home with
your Little Red Riding Hoods, its use of magic serving to emphasize what is, at the heart
of things, a sweet story of newfound romance paired with a fight against letting past pain
keep you immobile. It’s a narrative which deserves to be spoken
of alongside those it was influenced by and a must-play for any yuri fan. Thank you to Studio Elan for my copy of the
game. It can be found on Steam or on itch.io. Hey, if you noticed that my Kaguya-sama vid
is down, that’s because it got a copyright strike, which I will deal with as soon as
I possibly can. Also, I’m posting on my blog again, so check
that out in the pinned comment if you’re interested. Thank you to my patrons who make this possible,
especially my $10 patrons, Alice
Vey Annalisa König
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A Huge Pair Of Cats Who Are Friends With Anime Characters
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You can also give me a one-time donation with the Ko-fi link listed below, find where else
I’m at in the description, and I will see you next time. Byeeeeeee.

35 Replies to “Yuri Visual Novel Review: Heart of the Woods

  1. On steam: https://store.steampowered.com/app/844660/Heart_of_the_Woods/
    On itch.io: https://vnstudioelan.itch.io/heart-of-the-woods

    My blog post: https://floatingintobliss.wordpress.com/2019/02/20/the-rules-of-the-game-and-complacency-on-the-brink-of-death/

  2. i'm adding the game to my wishlist on steam and hopefully i'll be able to treat myself with it next month!
    thank you for reviewing the game!

  3. I love this so much becuase you know times are changing things are different now etc etc people need to have more open minds and how else to do that with a fairytale that reminds you of your childhood

  4. I'm sorry but I'm kinda baffled right now, how does a visual novel lag and crash? We've had these kinds of games running on computers from the early 80s! What could possibly be so CPU-intensive about displaying a slideshow and text on-screen?
    Yeah maybe I shouldn't be focusing on these relatively off-topic things, but I'm an aspiring game developer myself, and these kinds of things are kinda my bread-and-butter know what I mean?

  5. Pretty nice video, dude 👌I have heard of this game for a while and thought I should check it out because I love yuri and paranormal stuff. Though, now I'm worried about the lag you mentioned.
    Btw, if you're going to make an another review of yuri vn, check out Flowers. Only 2 out of 4 games are out in English though.

  6. Oh! I played the demo for this a while back, it kinda fell off my radar though! Cool to see it came out, I'll definitely have to get it!

  7. On the other hand, instead of trimming the sexual references, we could get the 18+ patch they've released and get a heartwarming story and a bit more on top of that? :p

  8. Not to be an asshat but the description of the dating sim vaguely reminded me of this: https://twitter.com/lostboy/status/801587355752812544?lang=es

  9. You are a lifesaver. I've been on the lookout for a good quality Yuri VN recently. The itch shall be scratched!

  10. Fantastic in every way, i thoroughly enjoyed all five hours i got out of this game

  11. Welp, I had to stop your review partway through because I was sold and didn't want to risk any more spoilers. Buckled and bought it off-sale and now I'm a complete Tara/Morgan stan. Currently dealing with the temptation to join the studio's Patreon for the bonus HotW content (like the Tara/Morgan lewds) now instead of at the start of next month.

    I rate the quality of the writing in this VN as "so good that it took me like three days to realize that it's just 21st-century lesbian Wayne's World fanfic with paranormal activity instead of buttrock / 10."

  12. My experience with the yuri genre is honestly very limited but I absolutely adored this game. I related to both Maddie and Morgan a lot and there were a lot of moments that really tingled all of the feels and made me tear up.

  13. Kool video, I have a visual novel to sell, hope you can review it when it comes out mean time can you tell me what other sites besides Steam I can upload and sell my visual novels? Thanks.

  14. Kool video, I have a visual novel to sell, hope you can review it when it comes out mean time can you tell me what other sites besides Steam I can upload and sell my visual novels? Thanks.

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