Review – Beacon Pines

A great story lives not just on the words of the author, but on the ears of the audience. There are hundreds of wonderful and exciting tales woven every day, and, for the fortunate few who hear them, they can decide how this new information will change their lives. There are people who shape their world views and personal narration after experiences with select literature, films and music, and it becomes a brand new cornerstone in who they are and what they think. Yet not every creation is going to resonate with all who bear witness. Personally, I have never been able to get into Dune despite multiple attempts. The overlong story of Final Fantasy XV couldn’t hold my attention. And the albums of Daft Punk are clearly laborious, loving art projects that I simply feel are, well, fine. 

But there is always a bit of something in this universe that seems to find a person and get a hold on them in spite of what others may feel or think. Sure, my love for Earthbound is hardly unique, but I think I’m one of the few who sings the praises of the early crafting RPG Robotrek. When a game taps into an aspect of your soul that you can’t fully comprehend, it leaves an indelible mark that you carry with you as you move forward, something that maybe can’t be easily articulated.

If anyone were to ask me to give a compelling argument why Defenders of Oasis is one of my favorite handheld games, I’d shrug and mutter something about Game Gear and batteries. So it was important, critically important, that I stop, breathe, and look at Beacon Pines with the most earnest approach possible to get my words out. To make myself heard and to convey to you and anyone reading this that this is, hands down, my favorite game of 2022.

The City of Townsville!

Beacon Pines is a combination of a 3rd person walking simulator and visual novel with very, very mild puzzle elements, and that’s using conventional categories to earmark this game. In truth, the game is something otherworldly in terms of storytelling and expansion.

You play the main character, Luka, an orphan whose father has died and his mother has disappeared unexpectedly. Raised by his grandmother, Luka is as happy-go-lucky as you can be in these situations, and spends the last days of summer with his best friend, Rolo, and their wonderful tree house (Mission Control, if you will). Luka and Rolo both recognize there’s something strange happening in their little town, which is kept afloat only by the grace of a bizarre company with an unhealthy interest in the inner workings of everyone’s lives. It takes very little time for the boys to discover something unsettling that results in Luka’s own kidnapping, and he’s gone forever. The End.

Luka emulating a moment that we’ve all had at one point or another.

Or, at least, that’s one ending. Multiple times throughout your journey, Beacon Pines defers to the omniscient narrator (impeccably voiced by Kristen Mize) to both give insight into what characters are thinking and also to help follow the ever branching, twisting and convoluted developments of the story. As you play, Luka’s inquisitive nature will unlock Charms, which are a series of key words that help give you mastery over the direction the story takes.

There are multiple Turning Points, where Luka and company must decide upon a single word to help guide what happens next. Sometimes it’s what someone will say or do, sometimes it’s how something looks or feels. By changing that single word, the tone and direction of the entire realm shifts, and what happens next can be illuminating or damning. More than once, that single choice results in the end of the game, and there are very, very few happy endings in Beacon Pines

Wait a minute, that’s a different chapter…

A very easy parallel to draw with another game might be Night in the Woods, where animal characters with excessively human attributes go on a journey to uncover a mystery and really delve into a lot of incredibly dark (but refreshingly honest) elements of personality and mental health. By contrast, Beacon Pines flirts with dark ideas in very subtle means, giving players an opportunity to empathize as moments occur instead of hitting you over the head with them.

While Luka is a deer, Rolo is a tabby, and several other characters are bats, dogs, raccoons and others, you never lose their “human” element in the unveiling of the story. Instead, the animalistic nature of things plays into their personalities well. Luka is a bit shy and lilting, but he wants to be brave and also wants to do the right thing at all costs. Beck, another important character (portrayed by a black cat), strives for the facade of indifference and independence, but secretly wants a home that stays her home, and to be accepted and find continuity. All of these moments and sensations are carefully parsed out and spread over multiple incarnations and retreads that are a bit different each time.

Luka getting to the core of the problems of people everywhere.

Mechanically, Beacon Pines is a triumph in alternative storytelling. The best way I can describe it is that the creators had this fantastic start and finish point, but, in trying to weave their way from point A to B, they kept getting lost on different tangent. Rather than scrap those wayward paths, they incorporated them into the overall story in a way that only video games can. Each trip down a new Turning Point path gives you an opportunity, through very mild exploration, to find new Charms that come about through interactions and natural curiosity.

Only a couple of Charms felt out-of-the-way, but I was still able to find them without actually searching for them. A natural rhythm of investigation became part of Beacon Pines’ gameplay, which is exactly what the developers wanted. It was natural to make sure I talked to everybody before moving onto the next room or screen. Attempting to view the Valentine History Movie was a wasted endeavor, and even more so the second and third time I went back (hey, maybe repetition was key to a new Charm?). There are a couple of moments where there are truly pointless interactions, but those serve more for atmospheric content than anything else, so it can be forgiven.

Don’t be like me. Stop actions once you realize they’re doing nothing.

By taking this story and putting you behind the wheel instead of just allowing you to view it, Hiding Spot Games rode an incredibly thin line of interaction and exposition that works on a truly engaging level. There’s enough action to make sure that you’re engaged and not disconnected as the saga winds on, but there’s also plenty of exposition and moments of just taking in information that you’re not perpetually running about.

The segmentation of the town of Beacon Pines, including certain underground and mysterious areas, lets the game feel open but limited, allowing for you to focus on where you can go rather than where you can’t. The world is open and closed, and you get the sensation that you could venture out of here if Luka’s quest was complete, yet you are content to stay here and try to solve the mystery at hand.

This is how I learned to treat sadness with food.

The soundscape for Beacon Pines is, perhaps, the crowning achievement of a game that absolutely leveled me in terms of enjoyment and enthrallment. When you first begin and move into Luka’s home, the piano notes tempted me into labeling the whole as “cozy” and moving on from there. Yet it becomes so much more as a dynamic, ever changing score helps to shape the atmosphere from top to bottom.

Disquieting synth music during fearful moments, scintillating jazz vibes for a heist, and long, complex pieces that subtly change and swell as the story does. The final segment that I was lucky enough to hear during the epilogue is a masterpiece of change and enhancement, looping in on itself and then expanding right when Luka starts conversations with the correct NPCs. Instead of just being a great soundtrack, it’s a brilliant perfect soundtrack for this game. I couldn’t just listen to it anywhere: it needs to be in Beacon Pines.

Yes, this is as creepy as you might imagine it to be.

Additionally, the choice to have only the narrator speak and give filler sound effects to all other characters was a masterful move. The impression that I got from each voice substitute fit the personalities perfectly, from the sadness and heaviness of Mayor Valentine to the quick, flitting notes of Dawn the Bat. Luka doesn’t just look like a deer, he sounds like I would imagine a deer in a festive sweater to sound as he’s talking about a vast conspiracy. The menace of Mr. Kerr carries in the facial expressions, certainly, but also in the clipped, fake notes of a tone where you know the smile doesn’t carry into the eyes. I try to play most games with and without sound, but Beacon Pines is a tonally different journey if you don’t get to hear every small change that happens within.

Can you picture a chipmunk mom saying this to you? You should be able to.

Yet it is the story and the way it is told that cannot be lauded enough. To exist outside the timeline and see the plot unfold, refold and unfold again is so utterly engrossing that I was playing for hours at a time, trying to find out what would become of everyone next. I got to experience moments with characters that only existed for that moment, and then were gone when we had to travel back to another Turning Point to see what new Charm would lead us forward. It was powerful and informative and positively heartbreaking at times to see and to feel, and I was here for every single second of it.

I don’t believe it would have been the same if the developers had simply buffaloed through in a linear fashion, and moments of sacrifice that exist out of time would have never been appreciated and recognized. When Luka dreams and hints at knowing how this all connects together, it was a beautiful wink and a nod to the audience and the narrator, together on a twisting, winding road that would lead somewhere, even if we didn’t know where.

Are we talking about the game or life? Doesn’t matter, PREACH.

My only criticism comes in two small doses. First, like many stories that use autosave and checkpoints, Beacon Pines is not conducive to anyone who likes to play multiple games at once. A couple of times I needed to reboot my Switch and was reset to the beginning of a chapter, which took the wind out of my sails to need to replay certain sections. Thankfully this didn’t happen during any of the really pivotal or dramatic chapters, so it is, ironically, a “what if” sort of criticism because I can see how it could be troublesome, not that it was.

Secondly, the post credit “ending.” It’s unnecessary. Beacon Pines says everything it needs to say, and the post credit was just a bit too much. It could have been something else baked into the dream state of the fishing expeditions with your Father, but I don’t think it needed to be explicitly at the end of the game.

But that’s all I have to say that isn’t gushing adulation. I adored how this game looked, I loved how it played, and I was grateful, truly grateful, to have seen through the story of Beacon Pines from beginning to end. It takes so much nowadays for this writer to find a game that captures my attention unrelentingly. I spent so much of my youth wrapped up in epic RPGs, and then so much of my later years in clipped roguelites, and I began to think I wouldn’t be able to really enjoy a story the way that I did in my youth. But Beacon Pines hits the notes that made me feel young and excited to play a game.

It’s a feeling that can only come from this particular idea playing out as a video game, to be something that combines the best elements of a choose-your-own-adventure book, a 1980s coming of age movie and the moment-to-moment tension of Oxenfree. I cannot and will not stop praising this game, and I earnestly believe this is one of my favorite gaming moments in the past decade. Thank you.

Graphics: 9.0

Gorgeous art design combined with a solid layout for the town in all seasons, Beacon Pines‘ graphics are crisp, endearing and match the vibe of the game perfectly.

Gameplay: 9.5

Fantastic execution of exploration and storytelling, being able to move forward and knowing you can backtrack at any point works so well for a game so wrapped up in time.

Sound: 10

Easily one of the best soundtracks that I’ve heard in a long time, one that captures the beats of the story and the execution perfectly.

Fun Factor: 10

If I could Eternal Sunshine my brain to play this game fresh, I’d do it once a year.

Final Verdict: 9.5

Beacon Pines is available now on Xbox One, Switch and PC.

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.

A copy of Beacon Pines was provided by the publisher.