The Forest Cathedral has some very good ideas. I’ll put that out there first. It’s also very weird, and even after completing it I can’t quite make up my mind what to think about it.
And that makes the art of writing a review for The Forest Cathedral rather tricky. It has its uniqueness going for it, for sure: I’ve never played anything quite like this, and I probably never will again.
Essentially, it’s a story-driven adventure about a scientist who makes a discovery about how harmful a pesticide known as DDT is on the local environment. It’s grounded in reality, actually: the protagonist is an environmental scientist called Rachel Carson. She’s a real person, born in 1907, whose influential book – Silent Spring – led to a nationwide ban on the use of DDT in agriculture.
“I’ve never played anything quite like The Forest Cathedral, and I probably never will again.”
Now, its Steam description calls The Forest Cathedral a “dramatic reimagining of Silent Spring”. Hmm. While it has introduced me to Carson, I can’t imagine that her work revolved around controlling a 2D platforming character she lovingly referred to as “little man”. Oh yes: the main mechanic here sees you solve puzzles in the environment by switching to a small screen and making your way through short twitch-platforming levels.
Personally, I ‘lovingly’ referred to these sections as “haemorrhage Mario” on account of how many swear words came out of my face as I played (I’m not great at twitch platforming, alright?). It’s a neat enough idea, if not a little disjointed from the serious reality that The Forest Cathedral is trying to deal with. Should you need to open a gate or restore power to a mechanism, for example, you’ll do so by switching to “little man”. Making your way through levels of increasing difficulty will eventually see you reach your goal.
Thankfully, there are some accessibility options to be found in the main menu to make these levels more bearable if you, too, find them a little frustrating. By disabling spikes and making your character ‘float’ when he jumps, it removes pretty much any modicum of difficulty. It’s a bit of a catch-22 though: these platforming levels are about the only substance to be found in The Forest Cathedral, and without any real challenge, there’s little else to truly hold your attention.
You’ll occasionally hear a conversation between Rachel and either her boss or her partner, depicted via pixel art representations of each character. It’s from these, and Rachel’s strange monologues, that you’ll piece together most of The Forest Cathedral’s story. There’s a very small amount of exploration, but you’re more-or-less shepherded from one area to the next. Don’t expect to go wandering off, making discoveries by yourself.
The Forest Cathedral is very short: I was done with it in less than 90 minutes, and that included many (many) unnecessary deaths during the platforming sections. Sail through those – or turn on the accessibility options from the beginning – and I doubt it’ll even take an hour to see this through.
Does its brevity make it a bad game? Not at all. But I do feel like The Forest Cathedral wants you to care more about its protagonist and its world than you possibly have time to do. I felt like its ending wanted me to feel emotional (when in reality I was just glad to see the back of haemorrhage Mario), and we’re of course supposed to feel something in relation to the seriousness of the environmental matter the game deals with.
“Am I glad I played it, though? Absolutely, even if it has still left me scratching my head.”
It’s hard to, though, when The Forest Cathedral’s presentation carries with it a lightness, an ironic take on reality. The mash-up of realistic 3D visuals and retro 2D platforming might be original, but it doesn’t do any justice to Carson’s story. Kudos where they’re deserved: The Forest Cathedral has been developed by a very small team, led by Brian Wilson, and I’ll always take my hat off to solo devs and small teams, particularly when they come up with ideas that really stand out. But here, it seems like they’ve tried too hard to make an “artistic” experience rather than focus on the intended subject matter. The story gets somewhat diluted as a result.
Despite being based on an important scientific figure, any weight behind The Forest Cathedral’s story is lost in its gimmicky presentation. It has some good ideas, sure, but what should be a powerful gut-punch of a narrative is instead diluted down to nonsensical dialogue and a hodge-podge of visual ideas that don’t really go together as well as they should. Am I glad I played it, though? Absolutely, even if it has still left me scratching my head.