Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PC (tested), Nintendo Switch
At first glance, Beacon Pinesmay seem like another cutesy title worthy of the wholesome games moniker. But as any Twin Peaks fan will know, scratch beneath the surface and there’s something rotten in the underbelly of small-town America.
Set in the titular farming town, Beacon Pines tells the tale of Luca Van Horn, a 12-year-old anthropomorphic deer with big, doe eyes and an itch for adventure. Through the pages of an actual storybook, an unknown narrator first introduces us to Luca when visiting his Father’s grave.
After a period of quiet reflection, best friend Rolo arrives to cheer him up. The pair make reference to an event called ‘the foul harvest’ that occurred 6 years ago, around the time of Luca’s Father’s death. Since then, all crops in Beacon Pines suffer from blight; something that the townsfolk blame on the old fertiliser company and their wealthy owners.
In the run-up to the annual Harvest Festival, you and Rolo must uncover a string of secrets buried deeper than the rotting vegetables.
Beacon Pines review
In each chapter, you zoom into the pages of Beacon Pines and begin exploring the beautiful storybook vignettes as Luca himself. As you chat to the inhabitants and interact with the world you collect ‘charms’ in your backpack. Charms are essentially playing cards illustrating a specific action or emotion. For example, I’m walking through a field of dandelions just North of the town and I start sneezing as the seeds disperse into the wind. For my troubles, I’m rewarded with the ‘Tickle’ charm. Later on, as I slump back into Grandma’s fireside armchair, the ‘Chill’ charm appears in my inventory.
At first, the narrator deliberately holds back what the charms are for, but it’s not long before you face your first ‘turning point’. Turning points are important moments in conversations where you choose how you respond by playing a charm card. For example, after exploring the abandoned fertiliser factory, Iggy, the town bully confronts me. I’ve now got two options: I can play it chill or, yes, tickle him.
Each choice you make leads to a different story outcome which can be replayed at any time by opening up the Chronicle menu. The Chronicle is literally a branching tree that you can use to revisit and alter any key decisions in order to change the story. As you collect more charms throughout the game, it’s a real buzz trying to second-guess what will happen when you make a different choice.
The road not taken
After an hour or so, I reach my first ending and let’s just say it isn’t a happy one. The narrator, equally as distraught, employs you to carry on and find a happier ending. In this sense, the charm mechanic can feel a little limiting in that you don’t have the freedom to tell your own story. Instead, you’re piecing together the story that the game wants to tell through the trial and error of placing charms.
But Beacon Pines isn’t trying to be triple-A RPG with sprawling dialogue branches. Instead, the beauty of the charm mechanic is that as you explore the story in a non-linear fashion, you slowly uncover those who you cannot trust. Then, when revisiting a previous branch and interacting with those characters, your behaviour and feelings towards them change. However, it is only you, the player who knows these things as Luca cannot carry knowledge over between different timelines. It’s a delicious form of dramatic irony that’ll have you screaming ‘don’t go in there!’ at the screen.
A story is only as good as its characters, though. Thankfully, the townsfolk of Beacon Pines are charming, well-rounded little critters with a gentle sense of humour. But like the town, some have unexpectedly dark undertones which add a welcome depth to the storytelling. It makes for a truly gripping mystery with elements of horror and the supernatural, as well as parallels with Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.
Beacon Pines is a looker, for sure. The beautiful art-work comprises soft brush strokes and deep colours, giving you the feeling that you’re leafing through an old illustrated storybook from your childhood. There are numerous cozy settings to kick back a big chill in – Grandma’s house a particular favourite of mine – with deep, golden oak floors and a crackling fireplace.
Beacon Pines: Final thoughts
Beacon Pines is an engaging mystery that works best when you approach it as a piece of interactive fiction. The story does become a little convoluted towards the end but there are plenty of well-written twists and turns to keep you hooked. And while the game raises interesting questions about the identity of the narrator and who we are as a player, these are never fully explored. It plays it safe then, but I enjoyed my stay all the same.