As a child, the concept of a summer camp was very foreign to me. Hanging out with strangers, roasting marshmallows, telling spooky stories by a campfire and earning badges for picking flowers is not something I spent my summers doing. Instead, I watched Buffy The Vampire Slayer until 6am while eating straight out of a jar of peanut butter. I’m 24 now, bedridden with injured hands and crippled with the insecurities and anxieties of adulthood. Nevertheless, I’ve always wanted to experience the summer camp life, even if it means doing so digitally. Fortunately, Camp Canyonwood from developer Deli Interactive LLC allows me to do just that. Well, sort of.
“What initially intrigued me about Camp Canyonwood was the perspective from which the player experiences it.”
In Camp Canyonwood you take on the role of a camp counsellor – which, alas, does not mean you’ll be the Frasier Crane of the camp. It’s your job to look after the several children you’re assigned and ensure they have a great time. Or else. If you fail to do so, their parents will complain, your rating will go down and the camp will be forever closed. So basically, everything is riding on you. No pressure. None at all.
What initially intrigued me about Camp Canyonwood was the perspective from which the player experiences it. You’re not one of the children, galavanting around the camp catching bugs. Rather, you’ve got to maintain the safety, joy and energy of the children. It’s fascinating as it both invites innovation and complications, both of which greatly elevate and damage the game respectively.
“While it successfully creates a comforting atmosphere, it sometimes struggles to make its gameplay coherent or even fun.”
Simply put, managing a band of children in Camp Canyonwood has its pros and cons. Once you settle into a routine, the game’s occasionally satisfying gameplay loop can become rather soothing. Waking my group up at 7am to go fishing, bug catching and flower picking was serene. The swaying trees, bountiful butterflies and quirky campmates all add to this relaxing and rather peaceful atmosphere that permeates throughout the camp.
Unfortunately, while Camp Canyonwood successfully creates a comforting atmosphere from which to manage your camp, it sometimes struggles to make its gameplay coherent or even fun. This largely stems from a lack of tutorials and control over the children in your care. Each child has their own unique needs, likes and dislikes that need to be attended to. However, the game does an exceptionally poor job of explaining how you’re supposed to meet them.
“The lack of control over each camper makes it nigh on impossible to properly address each of their needs.”
For example, I had one camper named Ida. They hated fishing and water, something that was both evident from their character sheet and my conversations with them. They enjoyed being idle – whatever that means – and something else, although the game would not disclose it to me. However, if you have the whole group following you, there is no way to assign each individual task to a specific camper. If I were to ask a camper to go fishing, any one of the campers in my command would do so. That almost always meant Ida went fishing, even if she didn’t want to.
This lack of control over each camper makes it nigh on impossible to properly address each of their needs. That is, of course, if you can discern what their needs are in the first place. I couldn’t find a way of making Ida happy, as being idle with her still resulted in her joy decreasing. Moving around and exploring also made her unhappy. Simply put, there is no real correlation between your camper’s happiness and the activities you make them do. It seems wholly random whether or not they’ll be entertained.
There were other instances in which a lack of control meant that I was left unsure of how to react. Your campers can bully one another by picking them up and carrying them around. While the game warns you this is happening, there’s no way of resolving it other than by picking the campers up yourself. You can’t then talk to the camper in question to get them to stop, or prevent the bullying from happening in the first place. You can’t even punish a camper for bullying. This then begs the question, what is the point of this mechanic if it only nets in an unpreventable negative?
“The game never really makes you feel like you’re succeeding.”
This lack of control also applies to the overall purpose of Camp Canyonwood. I found that even if the campers were having a terrible time, their star rating – which is supposed to increase or decrease at the end of the day – improved regardless. I was left scratching my head and wondering how on earth I was succeeding. By the time the first summer was over, the camp rating had gone from 17% to 57%, and I had either four or five stars from each camper.
All of this culminated in a complete and utter lack of sense or purpose while playing. Of course, I understood that getting more badges and doing my best to improve their happiness would result in a positive outcome. But the game never really makes you feel like you’re succeeding. Campers would get badges for activities they didn’t enjoy, would constantly complain, be bitten by snakes, attacked by bears, and bully one another. And yet, they still had a fantastic time. Why? Seriously, please tell me. I thought I was a terrible camp counsellor.
“Whenever I was able to truly immerse myself within the camp, I had a great time.”
There are objectives, outside of simply helping the kids have fun. Each member of staff that you’ll work with will have various items they’ll want you to fetch. One character wants twenty pieces of cooked fish, another wants you to collect eighty pieces of garbage. You get the idea. This isn’t inherently a negative thing, as it gives you and the campers purpose as you explore. You’ll also unlock new items to construct and use by doing so. However, it does necessitate the employment of your campers as using them to collect resources is often quicker than you doing it yourself. That is, in my opinion, a negative thing.
Which brings me back to my original point. The point of view of the player feels a little skewed. You have to manage the camp and the campers, and to do both you’ll essentially have to turn the campers into enslaved people. You stop caring about their happiness and their energy if it means getting more wood so you can later build a telescope to appease their interests. It’s a fairly cynical gameplay loop and one that isn’t always enjoyable.
Whenever I was able to just explore with my troop, get to know their personalities through the game’s fantastic and witty writing, and truly immerse myself within the camp, I had a great time. However, whenever I had to adhere to the gameplay loop, feed the camp more and more resources and desperately attempt to tackle the game’s incomprehensible management systems, I felt a sense of tedium wash over me.
“If these aspects were to be improved, then I am certain Camp Canyonwood can become an excellent game.”
I worry that I am being overly critical. The game is in Early Access, after all. However, I feel it is necessary, as there really is something quite novel about Camp Canyonwood. For example, one aspect I’ve not mentioned is the game’s visuals, writing and eerie atmosphere which are beautifully unique and often quite exceptional. They coalesce with its brightest and most enjoyable moments to offer a glimmer of hope and ingenuity. Truly, Camp Canyonwood has the potential to be a special game.
However, in its current state, Camp Canyonwood suffers. The inability to direct each camper individually while in a group is frustrating. The nonsensical likes and dislikes of your campers feel impossible to maintain and it’s never quite clear why you’re succeeding or indeed failing whenever it happens. I’ve not even mentioned the slow progression of unlocks which are tied directly to the demanding fetch quests. If these aspects were to be improved, the pacing hastened, the management clarified and more detail added, then I am certain that Camp Canyonwood can become an excellent game. However, until then I simply cannot recommend this game. Especially not at its current price point.
Camp Canyonwood is available via Steam Early Access. It costs $19.99/£15.49.
*Disclaimer: Reviewed on PC, code was provided by the Publisher.