Heart of the Woods is a fantasy romance yuri visual novel developed by Studio Élan. The game follows Tara and Maddie, a pair of paranormal investigation vloggers as they embark on a journey to the isolated snowbound village of Eysenfeld in hopes of unlocking its many secrets. They soon discover that they may have found more than they bargained for in the sleepy town as the pair stumble upon an ancient curse that will change their lives forever. Ancient mysteries, adventure, and romance await…
- Yuri | Romance | Fantasy | Story-Based
- Available on Windows, Mac, & Linux | Steam | Nintendo Switch
- Price: $14.99
- 10 – 20 hours of gameplay
- Fully Voiced
Those of you that have been with me for awhile know that I am a sucker for anything supernatural or fantasy and Heart of the Woods more than delivers! But, if like me and you’re not a diehard yuri fan, the romance can be a bit hit or miss. I’m pretty meh towards yuri romance in general—A Summer’s End, being one of the few exceptions, but I couldn’t help but feel like the romance was a bit unnecessary storywise.
The story follows besties Maddie Raines and Tara Bryck, hosts of the popular paranormal vlog, Taranormal. After years of serving as the series’s manager/editor, Maddie is ready to call it quits and move on with her life, but before she leaves she agrees to take one last trip with Tara.
The pair are invited to the mysterious village of Eysenfeld, by a strange young woman named Morgan, who promises to show them “real life” supernatural phenomena. Maddie is initially skeptical of Morgan’s claims, but Tara is eager to jump at the chance for another supernatural adventure. Soon it becomes apparent that there are much more sinister machinations at work in Eysenfeld.
While exploring the woods, Maddie encounters the spirit of a beautiful young woman, who was the unwitting victim of a centuries-old injustice and is now bound to the forests of Eysenfeld. After 200 years of isolation, the woman, Abigail is drawn to Maddie and the two strike up an unlikely friendship that develops into a bond that transcends the boundaries between life and death. Meanwhile, Tara and Morgan investigate the mysteries of the village and find themselves caught in the crosshairs of an ancient curse that very well may threaten their lives…
The game switches between the perspectives of all four girls, and I love that aspect of the story since it gives players a chance to experience different sides of the story—that would have otherwise been missed in a single protagonist narrative. Each of the female leads have their own unique personalities and quirks and I really like the dynamic between the girls: ever pragmatic, Maddie is the Skully to Tara’s Mulder; Tara is brash, but well meaning; Morgan is a bit hard to read at times, but I love how brutally honest she can be; Abigail, despite being dead for over 200 years is the group’s genki gal. They each bring their own perspective to the events of the game and there are certain aspects of the story that can only be explored when you are in a specific POV; so, by the time you get to the end of the story it feels more complete.
The mystery is well paced and each twist and turn feels like a natural progression for the story, this was a game I WANTED to keep playing, because I needed to know how it all ended. Each new revelation had me on the edge of my seat and there were quite a few emotional moments. While the game is billed as a visual novel, there are only really 3 choices that you make in the story and they are all during Morgan’s POV. So, I would say Heart in the Wood has more in common with a kinetic novel than an actual visual novel. But, there are three obtainable endings that range from sugary sweet, happily ever after to gut-wrenching heartbreak…
Heart of the Woods deals with some pretty heavy themes such as life, death, and acceptance, but the writers do a great job of balancing some of the more heavier moments with humor and fun banter between the characters—usually courtesy of Tara, who is always a delight when she’s on screen. But, all of the characters are great and they go a long way towards making some of the more emotional moments more impactful. You feel their emotions more strongly, because the story takes the time to fully develop them as people and not just set pieces. Even characters I wasn’t especially sold on at the start of the game quickly became my favorites by the end.
Honestly, if Heart in the Woods had just stuck to the supernatural mystery, I wouldn’t have had anything to really complain about—the premise is great and the pacing is really well done, revealing just enough of the story to keep you on the edge of your seat. But, just wasn’t as invested in the romance. The emotions are there and I don’t doubt there is genuine love between the main pairs and I love that the game doesn’t fetishize the relationships the way I have seen in boys love media. There is a tenderness to the relationships and you can really see that in the way the characters interact with one another, BUT there were times when the romance supersedes the actual plot; especially towards the end of the game.
Towards the end of the game “I love you” or some variation was in just about every other line of dialogue and while I enjoy romance as much as the next person, it got to be a bit too much. Oh my God and then there were the pet names, like I get it… y’all are in love…
Maddie and Abigail’s relationship was much more intimate and emotionally driven, since they had the added barrier of not being able to initiate a physical relationship until later on in the game. While Tara and Morgan’s relationship starts off physical and develops into something more emotional as the story progresses. There is an 18+ patch for folks who want to see a bit more of the sexy times, buuuuut, since sex isn’t an integral part of the story, I don’t imagine you’re missing much without it. I do want to mention that Tara is transgender and outside of the One Night Hot Spring series, this is one of the few times I’ve seen transgender representation in the game. I have to give kudos to the writers for including Tara in the game, while not making her gender identity her defining character trait (also, I love that they got Stephanie “Teffi” Arata as her VA).
I was more invested in the platonic relationships, like the friendship between Maddie and Tara, mostly because I feel like it had the most clear cut story arc and the most solid foundation. But, I will admit that there is a lot of great chemistry between all the characters and while I wasn’t over the moon about the romance, it didn’t feel forced in that context.
The art is gorgeous and I love the character designs, though they favor a more cute anime girl style. The characters pretty much stay in the same outfits throughout the game (though Tara’s moon tee does change to match the phases of the moon cycle) and the CGs are gorgeous!! Each new chapter has a title card that reminds me of mangaka, Nagabe’s style, which gives the narrative a storybook quality ( I almost wish the whole game was done in this style).
Despite actually playing an instrument and spending my school years in band, I am woefully bad at talking about music. However, even with that said I LOVED the music in this game! The whole OST is beautiful, light with just a hint of otherworldly charm, which is perfect for a story that exists somewhere between fantasy. There were times when I just left the game running so I could listen to the music (which is partially why my Steam playtime is so high). The voice cast was spot on and despite the cutesy character designs, I was pleasantly surprised by more realistic vocal performances.
All in all, I really enjoyed Heart of the Woods. It’s an emotionally driven story with great characters full of wit and charm, that doesn’t overstay its welcome. While the romance was a bit so/so for me I will readily admit that Studio Élan went to great pains to portray the relationships as respectfully and realistically as possible. So, if you are looking for a captivating mystery, I highly recommend giving Heart of the Woods a try.
Thank you to Studio Élan for providing me with a review copy of the game!