After two years of build-up and waiting, the highly anticipated Heart of the Woods was finally released last week. And frankly, it was all worth it.
For those of you who haven’t bothered keeping up with Heart of the Woods (Studio Élan, by the way, has been excellent at keeping fans excited about the visual novels with their very active Twitter presence), the visual novel is essentially about two friends (Tara and Maddie), who run an online series in which one films the other exploring and talking about spooky stuff, heeds a request from a fan named Morgan and visits her hometown. However, all isn’t quite as it first seems and the trip quickly spirals into a fantastical high-stakes game in which faeries, a ghost girl, and more are involved.
I’ll stop there since the point of this review is to remain spoiler-free~
First of all, let it be known that the aforementioned yuri visual novel, which also happens to be the first release for Studio Élan, features some rather witty writing. In regards to visual novels, which is a text-heavy medium, this is something to be noted and valued.
After all, visual novels more or less dictate players to read, which means the writing has to be interesting enough to grab and hold the player’s attention for an extended period of time
much like the passionate yuri couples in Heart of the Woods. Trust me, there are some visual novels which totally flub that (the writing, that is).
Fortunately, HotW doesn’t have to worry about that particular aspects as it knows how to maintain pacing, stir emotions, and deftly insert clever (and cute) jokes. Colour me impressed! Writers Josh Kaplan and Rachel Gruber clearly worked hard on this, along with editors Ally Kaye and minute (she also doubled as the progammer).
With that being said, much praise has to be directed towards the visuals of Heart of the Woods, as well. I can only describe the art as gorgeous. Then again, that’s to be expected of Rosuuri, who was the character artist and CG artist behind HotW. Grant Ferrell and Hui, however, also deserve their fair share of praise for such elaborate backgrounds. Emma Hugin also nailed it when it comes to creature designs.
The small details weren’t shirked, either. The GUI, which was designed by Adirosa, is beautiful and intuitive. I also love the intentionally different art style used for the chapter images, which look very similar to one that would be used for the covers of fairy tale picture books. We have Renée “sanglim” Park to thank for that.
Additionally, the way the player gets to see the character’s reaction when the player mouses over the different decisions the aforementioned character can make is also a nice touch that I haven’t seen in other visual novels (the names for the different scenes, which can only be seen when the player saves the game, isn’t too uncommon but I personally consider this to be a telltale sign of consideration and quality in regards to visual novels, much like how a tailor might evaluate one’s tailored suit jacket by the lapel buttonhole. Details matter a lot).
Speaking of choices, there are three choices to be made in Heart of the Woods and they are all made by Morgan, the fan who didn’t receive all that much promotion in the official description of the game. That’s quite interesting considering how the main character of visual novels are usually the ones making choices in visual novels. That’s not to say that the four main girls in the visual novel can’t all be the main characters, of course.
The soundtrack for HotW is surprisingly diverse and are fantastic at setting the mood, whether it be one of trepidation, or lightheartedness, etc. The two composers for most of the tracks, Kris “Astartus” Flacke and Sarah “esselfortium” Mancuso, did an excellent job with producing memorable tracks which never failed to add to the experience. Furthermore, you can purchase the tracks composed by these two so you can listen to these evocative pieces on the go, which is a big plus in my book!
Dell Kramer did a wonderful job on vocals for “Snowy Days” whereas
I can’t stress enough how I was pleasantly surprised by how adeptly Heart of the Woods explored LGBT issues. This, I find, is the defining difference between Western yuri visual novels and Japanese yuri visual novels. The former is more willing to be open about these themes whereas the latter seems content to just keep to the true yet tired homophobic / fear of rejection situation (i.e. the typical “a girl can’t date another girl” scenario /statement). HotW, on the other hand, goes beyond that by addressing additional sensitive topics and come across as being inclusive yet not excessive. A job very well done in this regard.
If I had to be nitpicky, then I would be forced to lament that some aspects of the supernatural did not feel properly fleshed out. Morgan’s relation to magic, in particular, lacks explanation. Of course, the player can come up with theories which might fill the void, but in the end that’s guesswork and it’s slightly disappointing. Still, this is just me whining.
Heart of the Woods, in short, should be recognized as a polished classic within the genre of yuri visual novels. Yuri fans would be amiss to not pay attention to Studio Élan after the studio’s very first release turned out to be this whimsical, stellar visual novel.