Changing fate and becoming a master of one’s own story is something everyone longs to be able to do. Indie developer Hiding Spot Games puts this front and centre with a blend of childlike inquisitiveness and dark, complex machinations only the adult mind can comprehend. Enter Beacon Pines.
A BRANCHING TALE
While visual novels aren’t a big draw, adventure and choose-your-own-adventure games are soft spots for me. Beacon Pines is both. Being one of my Steam Next Fest highlights, I feverishly kept up with all updates on it. So like the art-loving, narrative-absorbing bibliophile I am, I was ready to get lost in the pages of a good book!
Beacon Pines tells the story of… well… a story! You are both the reader of a self-narrating book and its protagonist, young jackalope Luka VanHorn. After losing his father at a young age and his mother disappearing a few months earlier, Luka is slowly trying to get used to a new normal in the sleepy little town of Beacon Pines. That is until strange happenings begin to occur. Something very odd is going on at the old warehouse and Luka and his friends are determined to get to the bottom of it. But the ink of this tale is not yet dry. Stories can be rewritten, fate can be altered.
The adventure begins with a weighty and sentient leather-bound tome opening its pages to you. The book—narrated by the excellent Kirsten Mize—invites you to partake in the story of Luka VanHorn and shape its telling. Almost the only speaking voice in the whole game, Mize’s voice was made for narration. She masterfully conveys moments of intensity, emotion and humour with both gusto and subtlety. After a cutscene, you’re into the action and in control of Luka. First order of business: to meet best friend Rolo at the treehouse—I mean, “Mission Control”.
Exploration is paramount in Beacon Pines. Searching each location will uncover little places to investigate more thoroughly or characters to chat to with a simple button press. Sometimes this will earn you one of the most important aspects of the game: Charms. Instead of items like in traditional adventure games, Charms are pictures representing a single word. Using a section of the book called The Chronicle, they can be used at certain pivotal moments to change the course of the story. Some decisions can lead to uncovering more of the story, some can lead to a harrowing end for Luka and friends. And some can be downright hilarious! But with every path, new Charms can be found to rewrite a past choice. This is very well executed; The Chronicle is assigned to a button and can be accessed at any time. So as soon as a new Charm is found, you can refer back to The Chronicle and use it (if you can).
Here lies a couple of minor niggles. There are a great many Charms to collect and you assume all of them can be used somewhere. But search as I might, I couldn’t find the key places to use a couple of Charms. Pivotal choices and areas were revisited several times, but there didn’t appear to be a scenario for them. That’s not to say they don’t have a use, mind, but my searching skills turned up zilch. This is amplified somewhat by the inability to travel to points beyond the pivotal choices. Some Charms can only be used while out exploring and, being only able to go back to the choices, you’ll often have to go over long story sections again before regaining control.
But aside from grisly ends and story twists, some Charm choices show the player some very poignant and human moments. The release of shouting at the universe to dispel the crushing feeling of despair, friends saying harsh words but not knowing quite how to make amends. Some of these moments had me reaching for the tissues!
Indeed, Beacon Pines’ writing overall is exceptional. The three young leads, Luka, Rolo and Beck, are extremely likeable and relatable – their interactions are a joy. The story is so intricate and revealed in both subtle and heart-racing ways. It’s also expertly worked around the regular day-to-day mischief of three young kids in a small town. Snippets of hushed conversation are heard while sneaking around the grounds of a mansion. Digging through the trash of an abandoned fertiliser warehouse makes for a gruesome discovery. It’s almost impossible not to be hooked!
Graphics & Audio
There’s always something about drawn or painted graphics that exude an air of magic and intricacy. Beacon Pines has this in spades and then some. Beautiful watercolour backdrops with locales displayed in small contained illustrations perfectly capture the storybook feel and losing oneself in a good book. You can almost tangibly feel the care that has been taken with every scene. The character art is equally impressive; every animal character is unique and memorable with articulate features. No Beacon Pines resident is easily forgotten. I quickly found favourites in the bookworm crocodile Ms Hatch reading evocative passages aloud and the adorable penguin Kado watching over the library. And the cameo-style artwork for the different Charms is indeed charming with a slightly more cartoonish look.
No less care has been taken with audio either. The placement and editing of Mize’s narration, combined with her performance, manage to mimic someone sitting beside you and telling you a bedtime story. Nothing too elaborate, just close and personal at the optimal volume. Close your eyes and immediately you’re a young ‘un with the duvet pulled up to your chin! Sound effects travel from ear to ear as you move between scenes and the mini-clips of sound representing speech are varied and distinctive. Kado’s little chirps are adorable! The soundtrack too is simple but very effective. Using only a handful of instruments, each scene reflects the outward feel and the subtle undertones of the overarching story. Some tracks contain purely piano and soft bass. But playing with tempo and tone, they are often the most effective and evocative.
As replayability is a core mechanic, there is complete freedom to go back and deploy a different charm. The true ending can be found in a single playthrough. Uncovering all of the branches on the story tree took just over 5 hours. Finding a use for those rogue Charms I mentioned might set you back more time and a certain memory is definitely worth revisiting the more Charms you find. But the story is so compelling and complex that you’ll find yourself returning for another journey regardless, just to take it all in again.
Sometimes less is most definitely more and Beacon Pines is a magnificent example of how much more. Keeping gameplay simple and letting the story lead the way, it has a way of thoroughly enveloping the player without even realising it. You’ll be compelled to find every little nuance, every aspect of what makes the leading trio who they are. Every facet of a great conspiracy.
A glorious Gold Award for the not-so-sleepy town of Beacon Pines and its branching, all-encompassing tale!
Disclaimer: A code was received in order to write this review.