There is definitely a niche for a game like Among Trees. I’m no stranger to survival games having logged plenty of hours on such titles as The Long Dark, Starsand, 7 Days To Die, The Forest and Dysmantle and the thing about those sorts of games is that they are all pretty stressful. Whether you’re afraid to turn your back in case multi-legged mutants come spilling out of the trees or just suffering under the crushing inevitability that you won’t survive another night in the cold they all take it out of you.
In that regard, Among Trees feels like a breath of fresh air. With a beautiful aesthetic reminiscent of a dreamland version of Firewatch there is plenty of joy to be taken in the game from just wandering the verdant woodland, enjoying the colours and the vistas and collecting flowers for the lovely stew you’ve got simmering away back at your cabin. It’s clear that developer FJRD Interactive had a very clear goal in mind for what they wanted the ambience and environment of Among Trees to look like and they absolutely nailed it.
Survival elements in the game are fairly light but hit all the expected targets. You have to manage your food and water and there are a few bears around the place that will absolutely mash you up if they spot you. They are the only actual danger in the game as far as I can tell and there is a zen game mode that doesn’t have them if you don’t want to deal with them. I’m not sure I’d recommend that approach though as those moments of jeopardy that the bears provide are one of the few things that actually shake up the sedate pace of the game in any way.
Bears are easy enough to avoid (although they do guard good loot) so much of the time in Among Trees will be spent handling your food and water levels. Neither is particularly onerous. There are plenty of water sources about and, once you’ve got a cooking station up and running, making nutritious meals out of the forest’s rich natural bounty is simple enough. All of which means that there really isn’t a huge amount of actual game to Among Trees. There are some elements of exploration, with clues leading to areas of potential interest being marked on your map, and there are caves to explore and to mine for natural resources, but without any real existential threat it can all feel a bit listless.
The primary motivation for doing anything other than wandering about and eating nuts and seeds is to upgrade your cabin. Unlike many survival games there is no freedom of choosing your home or ability to customize or free build. At the start of the game you will have a small cabin with a little storage and a bunch of points that will let you build extra rooms and floors by feeding materials to them. Kitchens, greenhouses and crafting rooms can all be yours for a bit of wood, some nuts and some wire. The interiors of the cabin are extremely cozy and building the extra rooms is very pleasing, they’re all nice environments to be in and offer some extra gameplay elements in terms of the things they let you craft.
It can be frustrating, however. These extensions almost all involve ingredients that do not occur in nature which means trekking across the landscape looking for the ruins of civilization to find crates and boxes that may have what you’re looking for. This, more than survival, is the core gameplay loop of the game. Set out to explore the map and find these caches of man-made items that will let you build out your cabin so you can craft things that let you explore better and get more man-made items to build more of your cabin. It is somewhat churlish of me to criticize this repetitive gameplay loop as it is, frankly, at the core of basically every survival game, but the problem with Among Trees is that with most other elements stripped away it really lays bare the pointlessness of that loop and it is demotivating to play.
That sparseness of gameplay really adds to the feeling that this game is not complete. It says it is on the Steam page but what Among Trees feels like, more than anything, is an excellent foundation on which to build a game. Mechanics and core elements are in place and the game is ready to be populated with additional systems and gameplay loops to really get buy-in from the player. Sadly, as it is, it’s all too easy to load up, play for a few hours enjoying the beautiful visuals, shut down and never think about it again as there’s nothing to pull you back in. I’m sure there are some who would find that the calming pace and ambience of the game along with the light-touch gameplay is very appealing but I think most will just find Among Trees to be an attractive but ultimately disappointing experience.