Deep in the Forest is the most recently announced visual novel by Ertal Games, an indie solo developer who produces BL games in both English and Spanish. Their other games include Exes Assault!!! (currently up for preorder) and Night and Day, which otome and BL fans may be familiar with due to the controversy that popped up after some tweets were made about it by Blerdy Otome earlier this year.
But back to Deep in the Forest—the game follows Jan, a twenty-three year old man still looking for his passion in life. In a quest to get his uncle to agree to hand over his apothecary shop to him once he retires, Jan makes the trek to the rural village of Lanvallec, where he’ll become his uncle’s apprentice. As he settles into his new home, he runs across a variety of handsome men, as well as some strange creatures in the forest where he has to gather herbs for his uncle’s shop. Something supernatural just might be afoot…
I’m a little late to the party on playing this particular demo, as it recieved its final update back on April 6th. According to this post though, Ertal Games plans on launching a kickstarter for Deep in the Forest in November, so this is a good chance for readers to figure out if they’re interested in contributing or not!
A quick note on my demo review philosophy: For many indie titles, getting extensive feedback is a difficult task. Thus, in my reviews of demos for games currently in development, I take a very thorough approach, tackling both positives and negatives for every aspect of the game. At times, this may come off as nitpicking, but the ultimate goal here is to give the devs the constructive criticism they need to make the best game possible. All critiques are made with love.
One of the reasons I was so excited to check out this demo was the art. Both the CGs and the sprites are done by freelance digital illustrator Pandrea, and are absolutely drop-dead gorgeous, particularly when it comes to the character work.
You’ll be able to see some more examples once we get to the love interest section, but I included the main character’s uncle above to give you a general idea of the skill we’re working with!
Beyond the character sprites, the backgrounds, and the CGs—which I had no issue with and actually quite enjoyed—I came across quite a few problems with the construction of the game’s UI. I’ll be saving that discussion for the end, however, since I know that’s not what most readers are here for.
When I first clicked play and found myself in Deep in the Forest’s start menu, the music was the very first thing I noticed. The track for this screen is…interesting? Look, I don’t want to be too harsh here, because the track itself isn’t at all bad. It just feels completely disonnected from the game’s setting—in fact, it’d be more at home in a scifi or technopunk VN. It’s actually the song used in Ertal Games’ advertising for the game as well, so I’ve included the game trailer below so you can check it out for yourself.
This left me a bit concerned for the rest of the music to come, but the mismatch for the setting thankfully ends here. I found the rest of the tracks quite enjoyable, though I could see how some of them could get grating after a while. The tavern song in particular was so frantic and irritating I had to mute it after a while.
My favorite would probably be the track that plays in the apothecary, which features a really fun bell-like tone at the base of the track, like someone is softly tapping metal against a glass jar. I enjoyed the general store track as well, but it felt a bit out of place—normally, you’d expect a public space like that to have welcoming, cheerful music, but the score here feels decidely ominous. It’s desolate and a bit mournful; it seriously gave me pre-final-battle RPG vibes.
As for who composed the tracks in the game…I have no idea, actually. There’s no mention of a composer anywhere, and the game doesn’t have the credits implemented yet. I’m assuming the songs are royalty free, but this is still bad form. Always give credit to your artists, please!
Part of what drew me to Deep in the Forest was the medieval setting, but I knew from the second I decided to cover it that I could be setting myself up to run into one of my writing pet peeves—spoiler alert, run into it I did indeed. In the first line, no less.
To be clear, I don’t think the game’s writing is bad—there’s just no (or very little) attempt to adapt the tone to the time period in question. You could plop the majority of what I read into a modern setting and have to change absolutely nothing. It’s an odd choice to make when the game’s description specifically says “medieval-like fantasy.” There’s a certain commitment to theme there that wouldn’t be present with “rustic fantasy,” “a fantasy set in a feudal society,” etc., since the word “medieval” speaks more to an exact time in history instead of a general world setting.
Now, that doesn’t mean I’m saying the game’s writing needs to be littered with “haths” and “doth thous,” but if you’re not going to use the setting to give the text some flavor and character, why have a medieval setting at all? If this game was billed under a more generic type of fantasy, I wouldn’t have batted an eye. Instead, I couldn’t help but cringe at Jan, our main character, casually dropping some lines that were entirely out of place. One of the many being pictured below.
Slips like this certainly took me out of my medieval immersion, as I suspect it will many others. That said, if this sort of thing isn’t a dealbreaker for you, the writing in Deep in the Forest shouldn’t bother you too much. There is, however, one more considerable problem with the script, which I will discuss in the following section.
While I standby my statement that the writing in Deep in the Forest isn’t bad, a serious editing pass is still needed before I’d say it’s up to par. Surprisingly, the issue here isn’t punctuation or spelling—areas in which I found few errors—but instead the phrasing of a good number of sentences, the worst example of which can be found below.
As a freelance editor myself, it seems pretty clear to me that the majority of these issues stem from the writer speaking English as a second language. As I haven’t played any other visual novels from Ertal Games, I’m not sure if this is an ongoing issue, but I think with the deft hand of a line editor things could be smoothed out considerably. They could even (*hint* *hint*) add in some medieval flavor…
Beyond that, I’d actually be curious to know how the Spanish version of the script reads, but as I can only speak Japanese and English, that’s a mystery I can’t plumb. If you’ve read the Spanish version, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
I don’t want to get too heavily into details here, since part of the fun of playing the demo is meeting the love interests for yourself. Instead, here’s a quick little summary of my thoughts about each character, plus some musings on what character beats each of their routes might involve.
First up is Sorin, a soft-spoken boy who’s the son of the general store’s owner. There’s a thirst for the unknown and adventure that boils off him, but despite that, he seems very sheltered and naive. The reason for that becomes clear pretty quickly—his verbally (and perhaps physically as well) abusive father.
Of all the characters, Sorin was the one that most caught at my heart. As someone who grew up in a very verbally abusive household, I almost immediately clocked the effects it’s had on him—the chronic lack of self-confidence, the need for reassurance, and the intense desire to escape and experience the world freely, without the pressure of an imminent explosion. Seeing him break out of that shell and grow into himself would honestly be very therapeutic, and I hope that’s the direction his story takes.
I will note here, however, that I’ve kind of lost faith in the writer to handle Sorin’s story with the delicacy it deserves. There is one scene where Jan is talking to Eoin about Sorin’s abusive father, and Jan asks why the man is so awful to his son. Eoin responds, no joke, with: “Only because he is close to him, and because Sorin lets him.” Emphasis mine.
My mouth literally dropped open when I read that line. The level of victim-blaming is completely and utterly disgusting, and entirely skips over the situational dynamics that allows abuse to continue taking place in a home and that may be stopping Sorin from confronting his abuser. Not to mention that in some cases, such a confrontation could result in violence or even death.
There’s no indication in the text that Eoin’s statement is an issue either—Jan’s response is merely to think that it’s unlikely Sorin will be standing up to his father anytime soon, and then the conversation moves on. There’s also an option earlier on in this scene where you can choose not to defend Sorin from Eoin’s nasty comments, and Jan thinks: “Sorin is a big boy, and he should learn to stand up for himself.” Eoin then gaslights Sorin into thinking his comments were just a joke, all while Jan silently watches on.
It’s just…really, really gross. This is not how you treat people. Which leads me to say: if you are someone experiencing emotional abuse, by a family member, friend, romantic partner, or someone else in your life, I’ve included a link to a website with resources and a crisis textline here. Your pain and experiences are valid, and you don’t have to fight back for that to be true. The fault for abuse always lies at the feet of the abuser, regardless of how their victims react.
Our next love interest is Daimo, Lanvallec’s sullen, introverted blacksmith. This is perhaps not the most flattering of descriptions, but he’s actually one of Deep in the Forest’s characters that I found myself geniunely liking.
While Daimo comes off pretty rude in your initial interactions with him, it’s clear his taciturn demeanor doesn’t come from any mean-spiritedness—he just doesn’t like talking with strangers, or sharing personal details about himself. I can’t fault him for such an outlook, and the light-hearted joking that we overhear in his scene with a little girl and her pet cat shows he’s capable of playfulness and affection.
Personally, I love characters like Daimo, who you can slowly romance and see come out of their shell, and I don’t think I’m the only one. I’d like to see his route be fleshed out further than this familiar trope though, to add something new and fresh to the storyline. Likely the supernatural beast subplot will be carrying the weight there.
Senan is the new archdeacon of Lanvellec; a quiet, mysterious figure who runs both the village’s school and hospital, as well as takes care of the village’s poor. Rumors have popped up about him due to his eternal lack of a smile and the fact that he talks to literally no one in the village, to the point that a group of children tells Jan they think he could be a vampire.
I’m intrigued with Senan, but can’t really say much about his character since we never actually get a scene in the demo where Jan speaks with him. From Uncle Odran’s description of him, he seems like a responsible guy who takes his duties toward Lanvallec seriously, so I’d enjoy seeing more of him.
For the same reasons, I’m not sure what sort of story his route would take, but I’d enjoy perhaps getting to know the people of Lanvellec better, and perhaps assisting him in helping them out.
Next up is Eoin. He’s a minstrel, and the first character you meet upon entering your uncle’s home town of Lanvallec. And frankly…he’s my least favorite character of the bunch.
I’ve stumbled over plenty of minstrels in my years of reading fantasy that come across as cruel or malicious in their joking, and Eoin certainly appears to be one of their number. He seems intent on inconveniencing and humiliating Jan—both in public and in private—and shows no interest in respecting anyone’s boundaries but his own. The supposedly funny story he told in one of the tavern scenes also really put a bad taste in my mouth, not to mention his repeated poking at Sorin, who he clearly knows has an abusive home life.
My supposition here is that something has occured to make Eoin hold some level of acrimony toward Jan, but there are no hints dropped about this during the demo; he’s nasty from the very beginning. He also seems to like it when you make choices as Jan to call him out, so perhaps being a dick is his way of flirting? Ick.
Personally, in a route for a character like this, I’d want to see them put in their place, or come to a realization about how they’re hurting the ones they care about with their antics. People that behave like Eoin are often hiding behind pointed humor to make themselves feel superior to others in order to soothe an inferiority complex, and I wouldn’t mind exploring a story that went in that direction either. Otherwise, I’d probably pass on this one.
Dilian is a nobleman—specifically, the earl’s younger brother. From Uncle Odran’s opinion of him, he seems to be a bit of a wastrel, known for frittering away his time among the village and its shops when he grows bored.
Whereas Eoin came off as a playful jerk during his first encounter with Jan, Dilian gives off complete and total asshole vibes. He’s condescending and uppity, and seems to relish in the fact that his status as a nobleman gives him authority over Jan. It’s a jarring conversation, especially since the power dynamic on display would feel more at home with a large age gap instead of a kid only two years older than our MC. I mean, the guy literally calls Jan “boy.”
Perhaps Dilian’s route reveals he’s secretly got a heart of gold, but all I got from his scenes was that he was an out of touch noble who looks down on everyone. I think we’re supposed to feel bad for him since he has no talents and there’s nothing for him to do but host parties but…yeah, that’s not working on me. There is literally nothing about this character I liked other than his design, so unless he gets a serious comeuppance during his route, I think I’m good missing out on his storyline.
Ganter is a flirty heartthrob of a knight who serves Earl Widarn, the lord of the castle near Lanvallec. He’s shameless and a bit of a tease, and doesn’t even flinch at messing with Jan upon their first meeting.
Unlike Eoin and Dilian, Ganter’s joking feels good-natured and friendly. I liked his back-and-forths with Jan, and their first scene together made me laugh. Outside of his flirtiness, Ganter also seems to genuinely care about the people he protects, which is always an attractive quality in a knight. Add to this the fact that he has my favorite character design, and I have to admit his route had me intrigued.
With Ganter’s status as a trained fighter, I’m sure his route will have to do in some way with fighting against the beings attacking villagers in the woods around Lanvallec. We don’t know much about that part of the plot yet, but I’d be interested to see in how that unfolded, as well as seeing this cheeky rogue of a knight taken down a peg by love.
Finally, we have Ronan, the barkeep of Lanvellec’s tavern. He’s friendly, charismatic, and all around a breath of fresh air when contrasted against some of Deep in the Forest’s other love interests.
I love Ronan. Besides Ganter and Daimo, he’s the one route I could see myself playing without hesitation. He just feels like a genuinely good guy, and while I didn’t notice anything about him that would point toward one type of a route over another, the lack of snarky assholeness is a good enough reason to go beelining in his direction.
Unfortunately, Ronan is the character we see the least in the demo beyond Senan, and we only get to speak with him while he’s in barkeeper-mode. I’m definitely interested in seeing him more though!
Lastly, I wanted to briefly mention Jan, our main character. Unlike most MCs in visual novels, he’s got quite the personality, though I have to admit he rubs me the wrong way a little.
I couldn’t help be put off by Jan’s inner thoughts, which reveal him to be a bit of a slacker when it comes to work, and at times ridiculously horny. The thirst is real, though it’s primarily directed toward Daimo. Beyond those things, however, Jan’s thankfully pretty fun to be around. He’s got a brash, cheerful, confident personality, and doesn’t seem to have a mean bone in his body (despite some cranky rain thoughts and some pissiness toward Eoin, which is frankly deserved).
If you’re a fan of chaos gays, Jan’ll be your vibe.
Deep in the Forest has two minigames—an herb-picking minigame, and an unfinished-as-of-now minigame which involves making potions. Let’s start of with the initial, completed one.
The first minigame is revealed shortly after Jan meets his uncle, Odran. He asks Jan to go into the forest and gather some herbs for him the morning after you arrive at his home, and Jan grudgingly complies.
The image above shows the minigame once it has already begun—the goal is for the player to click on the herbs spread across the screen in order to gather them. Every handful of seconds the herbs will shift to different spots, until a certain amount of time has passed and the minigame ends. I can see what the dev was going for with this minigame; it’s meant to make the player feel as if they are expending a certain amount of time so it seems natural for night to fall by the time Jan completes his work. This is all well and good, but could definitely be improved on.
The first time I played the minigame, it went on so long I began to feel confused. I’d clicked a bunch of herbs, but it didn’t seem to be ending. I started to wonder, Is there a specific number of herbs I have to collect for it to complete? and Maybe I have to collect a certain amount of each type? By the time I was really starting to get irritated, the minigame finally ended, and I was left with no answers.
The second time I played the minigame, however, I discovered the truth—turns out, the clicking portion is completely meaningless. How do I know? Well, I tested it by just sitting and staring at the screen, and the game ended a short while later with no input from me whatsoever.
This…obviously sucks. The endless click-clicking is incredibly bland and unsatisfying, and once others players (just like me) figure out they don’t have to do it, they just won’t. In its current state, I honestly see no need for this minigame to even exist—it could just as easily be a few sentences that describe Jan working hard for a handful of hours, and the effect would be the same. Not to mention that would be much less work for the dev.
What I’d like to see here is a shift into an activity that is more mentally stimulating. Make me click a certain number of each herb, which I can see adding up on the top of the screen. Or perhaps make me click on an herb and then do a combination of button presses to pull it from the ground and then put it into Jan’s satchel. Something that makes my brain work, and not out of confusion over what I should be doing.
Deep in the Forest’s second minigame revolves around potion-making, and comes into play once you return to Uncle Odran with the herbs you gathered during your foray into the forest. Basically, the goal is to make ten potions, which you can do by clicking all three herbs present on the screen, as shown below.
Now, I’m not going to spend too much time critiquing this minigame, as the developer says on their itch.io page it’s only a placeholder, but I do want to mention a couple things here, as well as talk a bit about what I’d like to see in a final version.
The typical goal of a placeholder is to show conceptually what you’re going for while not leaving a portion of the game totally unfinished, diminishing a player’s experience. This one accomplishes that just fine, but it overstays its welcome. The gameplay is, just like the first minigame, made up entirely of just clicking things. If you had to make three potions, or even five, I don’t think I would have found it such a slog, but you have to make ten. It’s monotonous and boring, and honestly unnecessary.
That said, the issue with the placeholder is an easy fix. Cut the amount of potions the player has to make in half and the repetitiveness would fade down to an acceptable level.
As for the future, completed version of the minigame, I’d really like to see an element added that isn’t just clicking. Perhaps something similar to what I suggested above with the first minigame, where you have to hit certain combinations of keys to grind the herbs into powder, mix the herbs together, and strain the potion. I also think personalized graphics and sounds would really elevate things here, although I know that can be expensive. At present, all the herbs and the mortar and pestle seem to be taken from photographs, which looks really odd against the rest of the game’s art style. Beyond that, there’s no visual indication that this is a multi-stage process, only a grinding noise to show that something happened. It takes a lot of the fun and satisfaction out of the whole exercise, which is what I’m looking for out of this type of minigame.
Overall, my biggest desire here is for Ertal Games to go big or go home. The cardinal rules of minigames are to:
- Give them meaning in-universe.
- Make them an experience you can’t replicate through text.
I think the first requirement is fully satisfied here, so that isn’t a problem. It’s the second requirement I’d really like the developer to focus on, particularly with the first minigame.
Before we get into a list of critiques, both small and large, I just want to say that I can see the thought that went into the game’s UI as a whole. There is a consistent theme here, with persistent coloring and an attempt to match a medieval aesthetic. I have zero complaints with that portion of the UI; in fact, all of my grievances center on a single overall issue—it’s just not functional.
UI is a portion of game dev where ease of use has to always take presidence over style, and here that just isn’t happening. From the stylized font, which is a bit hard on my eyes and probably quite difficult for those with disabilities to read, to the navigation buttons at the bottom of the text box, which are difficult to make out and lack tooltips, there are a lot of inconveniences players will have to look over. I’ve included a number of examples below, which I’ll go into in greater detail.
From the very first time I looked at the save menu, something just felt off to me. I wasn’t completely sure as to what the source was initially, but when I looked closer, my practiced QA eyes revealed the truth—the text on each of the save menu buttons looks oddly stretched, and isn’t quite centered. Honestly, I think the text is too large in general for the brackets it’s contained in, which contributes to the uncanny feeling.
In an effort to sell you on my point, I’ve adjusted the sizing through editing below.
So, what did I change here? Basically, I reduced the overall size of the text so that it fit under the top portion of the brackets on each side and centered it between those brackets. The odd stretched effect is also gone (I have a feeling this has to do with something in the coding, but that’s frankly over my head). To be entirely transparent, the font is slightly different, but I think this approximation is close enough to make my point.
I will note that I’m aware this is a very nitpicky issue to focus on, but looking at it was frankly driving me nuts. If only for my own sanity, I feel obligated to mention it.
Now, I actually like the styling here. The shiny golden buttons fit the theme, and they look good with the rest of the UI. The problem is the dark shading on the left side, which makes it difficult to fully make out the images on the buttons. The inventory button (the one with the chest on it) was the one I found most difficult to see at a distance.
Granted, I could see the buttons well enough to make them out if I examined them closely, but I have perfect 20/20 vision. Those with various visual impairments may find themselves running up against more serious accessibility issues than me.
Compounding upon this issue, if you hover over a button, there is no tooltip that pops up to let you know what it does. This means you kind of have to just click one and deduce its function from the results.
The game has an inventory screen that can be reached through the rightmost button of the navigation bar. This is where you can look at the herbs you’ve gathered, and the potions you eventually make with them. Theres’s…well, a lot to say about it.
Nothing about this screen looks finished to me except for the cute little chest on the right. The text is difficult to read and looks out of place, there are odd boxes all over the screen but the actual items aren’t centered inside them at all, and instead of the name of an item appearing as a tooltip when you hover over it, the name appears all the way on the lower left side of the screen.
Frankly, this entire screen needs a complete overhaul. There’s so much to change I’m not going to offer in-depth advice here, as I think the developer needs to do their research on other VN inventory screens and start working from there. At the very least, the text needs to be adjusted so it’s readable.
An ongoing theme in this section has been how difficult it is to comfortably make out different portions of the UI, but it’s the readability of the text (as seen in the inventory section above) that is the most egregious problem here. There are numerous bits of text that are completely unreadable, with even the initial screen falling prey to this issue.
As seen above, there aren’t any borders around the start menu to make it easier to read, and the thickness of the black outline around the text just doesn’t cut it. It fades into the background, forcing players to squint in order to read it. There are similar problems throughout the game’s UI, particularly in the save menu. I’ve included a gallery below of a number of different examples.
The first image in the gallery shows the options screen, pulled up in the midst of a conversation with Uncle Odran. As you can see, the options menu is treated as an overlay, which causes all the text to mix with the background.
This is also an issue in the save and load screens, as shown in the next image. The text below different saves is white, making it virtually disappear, and if you can read it, you’ll notice it actually got skipped over in the localization process. There’s also the navigation bar at the bottom of the screen, which has pretty much vanished in this particular screenshot since it is made up of orange and white text.
I’ve included an image of the functioning version of the save and load screen (with a black background) as the third slide, so you can get a better idea of what it should look like. Even then, the white text below the different save spots is positioned too high, making it feel cramped, and the grey “empty” text beneath unused save spots is difficult to see.
While Deep in the Forest is not without its merits, there is a hell of a lot of polishing that needs to be done before this visual novel is ready to ship. Personally, I could grit my teeth and bear through the problems with the minigames and the UI, but the issues with the writing itself are bad enough that I wouldn’t be willing to pay for the full game if left in this state.
Admittedly, I’m a bit of a stickler when it comes to grammar, so some readers may be able to look over a portion of what bothers me. But what really has turned me off the game is the way Sorin is spoken about, which frankly both disgusted me and pissed me off, and made me not want to support a developer who wrote those sorts of things. Beyond that, I also just really didn’t like spending time with Dilian or Eoin. It’s a pity, because I actually quite enjoyed some of the other characters, like Ganter, Daimo, and Ronan, and I’d be curious to see how the supernatural portion of the plot plays out.
I also can’t close this review without saying that I’m genuinely disappointed in the quality of this demo from a developer that has released so many games now, and who plans to put this up for kickstarter soon with this demo as a selling point. The writing issues (beyond my personal pet peeves) can be excused by the author’s potential ESL status, and wouldn’t take too much work for an editor to fix, but the UI is atrociously unpolished, and again, the way Sorin’s abuse is spoken about is just flat-out gross.
But that’s just my opinion. Interested in checking out the game for yourself? The full demo is available on itch.io! There’s also a playable version of the demo available through Steam, but this seems to be an older version, without Dilian, Ganter, Ronan, or Senan included.