Leaves are changing, temperatures droping, and the days are getting shorter. Fall is a time of change, a time of decay. This makes it the perfect backdrop for coming-of-age mysteries. A lineage of games from Oxenfree to Life is Strange are etched into Beacon Pines‘ autumn-tinged identity. There are secrets in this idyllic small town. Despite the old familiar ideas, Beacon Pines has a few new ones to add to the mix; time travel or multiple endings, but not in the way you might think.
“Beacon Pines, at its heart, is a visual novel adventure game with the twist being how you progress.”
As the perennial harvest celebration and a new school year approach, Luka tries to put back the pieces of his life after his mother’s recent disappearance. After losing his father several years back, he is left with an estranged grandmother to raise him. Though with his pal Rollo he’s making do. Since the foul harvest and collapse of the local fertilizer plant, even the town has been struggling. But things start to get strange when Rollo and Luka explore the abandoned factory, which now looks to be active. Or was it just Luka exploring?
Beacon Pines, at its heart, is a visual novel adventure game with the twist being how you progress. As you interact with the environment, talk to townspeople, or experience events, you occasionally receive charms that can be used at various events. These might be actions and verbs, like “flee”, or adjectives or nouns like “malice”. At crisis moments and major events, you are taken out of the normal, top-down look to a 3D book where you must fill in Luka’s reaction to the event with one of these charms. These lead to branches in the storyline, like in the event described above. Does Luka explore the factory by himself or with Rollo? It all depends on which charms you used to get there.
A wrinkle to this system is that unless you are content to end the game where the narrator indicates is an unsatisfactory ending, you must collect charms from later branches to use on earlier ones. To complete the game, you must collect all the charms scattered across the game to reach the true ending of the right branching path.
“This design choice worked for the first half of the six-hour game. The cracks only exist because the idea and narrative layering weren’t complex enough to justify its length.”
While it is an interesting take on choices matter design, I found the charms system to be too restrictive in its implementation to function as a puzzle. Charm choices are limited to several per event. There is nothing to solve in this way, only a linear path to follow. In the same way, the lack of true multiple endings or paths takes away from player agency, which is one of the main draws of this type of game. Forcing the player to repeat similar branches also revealed big twists to the game far too early and ended up overexplaining the secrets of the town of Beacon Pines.
This design choice worked for the first half of the six-hour game. It only starts to crack because the idea and narrative layering aren’t complex enough to justify its length. But despite this dip in the experience, Beacon Pines manages to keep you interested through the quality of its angsty characters and rewarding system of using charms to unlock new branches.
It is not the most compelling character writing and dialogue I’ve ever seen in games, but it’s good enough to make you care, which is no small accomplishment. Luka’s relaxed yet vulnerable persona matches Rollo’s goofball energy and, later, the earnest edge of Beck. They all have wants and needs and a past to draw upon. Characters are given big moments of growth, they fight, and most importantly, it’s clear what they are searching for. Whether it is answers or just new friends.
“But ultimately, I am a sucker for this kind of game and theme, and as the leaves were changing around me, I could not help myself as I sped through Beacon Pines.”
The branching system, however flawed it might be, facilitates character growth and allows a lot to happen in a short period of time. It is also a bit of a missed opportunity. Though the player experiences all of the events, it is not clear that Luka does, meaning that a lot of these character moments lose some weight knowing that Luka never experienced them in the right branch.
But while the distance between player knowledge and what Luka knows is narratively fraught, the excellent storybook-voiced narration helps bridge that gap, along with some pleasant bassy synth-driven music. The narrator is with you through ups and downs and helps close that gap between branches.
The presentation overall works together to not only connect the narrative but also establish a constant; the locations of Beacon Pines. The world is displayed in the richly detailed digital painted backgrounds and dialogue uses intricate anthropomorphized character portraits. However, despite the quality of the character portraits, it doesn’t carry over to the character sprites which have a cheap clip art look.
But ultimately, I am a sucker for this kind of game and theme, and as the leaves were changing around me, I could not help myself as I sped through Beacon Pines. It is the perfect game for this time of year, and with interesting twists on the usual formula for the genre, decent characterization, and fun mystery, it satisfies the scratch it was made to.
*Disclaimer: Reviewed on PC; code was provided by the Publisher.