I have an on-off relationship with narrative adventures, which makes me doubly impressed with Hiding Spot Games’ Beacon Pines. Despite not playing many similar titles recently, I was intrigued by its premise and it swiftly hooked me thanks to an engrossing story, great atmosphere, and brisk pacing. It also helps the gameplay mechanics were both not what I expected and smarter than I expected.
What lies below
Beacon Pines’ premise perfectly blends narrative with gameplay so it’s hard to talk about each element individually. You, the reader, work with the writer – who’s also the narrator – to complete an unfinished story. By filling in missing words, you influence the outcome of key moments along a branching path, working towards the “true” ending.
The story plays out within the titular Beacon Pines – once a prosperous fertilizer-producing town that is still recovering from an industrial accident, the “Foul Harvest”, that claimed the lives of several townsfolk, shuttered industry, and contaminated the land. Six years later, plans are afoot to celebrate the rejuvenation of the town by a corporation called “Perennial Harvest”, but protagonist Luka and his young companions – longtime friend Rola and newcomer Beck – discover all is not as it seems. Luka’s father died during the accident, his mother disappeared months back while looking into the incident, several children and adults are acting strangely, and the staff of Perennial Harvest seem almost fanatical in their promise of a “rebirth” for the town.
It’s a strong setup that takes time to delve into troubled childhoods while unravelling the present mystery. The young protagonists are clearly out of their depth and at the mercy of adults, keeping the stakes high and forcing them to maintain a low profile while investigating. The result is one part serious coming-of-age tale, one part whodunit, and one part thriller – with some light horror elements. Perhaps most impressively, Beacon Pines is a bit of everything all at once.
That said – and despite the premise – the story is not as divergent as it first seems, nor is it designed to be replayed in the traditional sense. There are multiple “turning points” – laid out on a branching tree – that can lead to significant changes across multiple chapters; however, the game is designed so you’ll witness all of these paths while searching for the true ending.
It can feel intimidating at first, trying to simultaneously follow divergent branches with radically different events, but there’s little narrative fluff to distract you between the major story beats. Of course, many “wrong” decisions divert you along new branches that may lead to narrative dead ends. Some stay that way, but many are only temporary, offering more scenes once you discover a way to progress. It’s like a classic choose-your-own-adventure novel with a few paths forward and many premature endings.
As a testament to how well the intertwined story is written, Beacon Pines never wastes your time. Even the dead-end paths are entertaining, provide insight into the history of the town, the true scale of the conspiracy, and the motivations of several important characters. They also ensure each member of the large cast is given a chance to shine.
When it comes to gameplay, Beacon Pines is as straightforward as you might expect for a narrative-focused experience. You roam the town, tap a button to interact with townsfolk or objects, and you can jump for no obvious reason. During a few mini-game activities, you might even have to mash a button repeatedly! The core gameplay mechanic is to make major narrative choices and you can keep track of those choices with a quest log and the “The Chronicle” – a visual timeline of key decisions.
Exploration and interactions are encouraged and essential as you discover “charms” that function as selectable keywords and trigger (mostly) logical responses during turning point events. They can also be used during a few optional interactions that simply exist to eke out more backstories.
Before I understood the clever narrative setup, I was annoyed at the prospect of replaying lengthy dialogue sequences if essential charms first required a trip down the “wrong” path. However, Beacon Pines ensures narrative backtracking is a breeze. If you find a new charm, you can immediately check The Chronicle and choose to use it to open a new path forward without losing progress on your current path – assuming you’ve not hit the natural narrative dead-end yet. Any progress along each path is saved so you can swap between them at any time to continue. As a result, Beacon Pines rarely forces you to repeat scenes despite its premise.
If there’s one downside to this focus on exploring turning point events, it’s that there’s no other form of dialogue interaction. During several lengthy encounters with villainous characters or deep dives into the cast’s troubled past, you’re simply tapping through line after line of text-based dialogue for several minutes at a time – maybe listening to the odd narrative interjection.
Charming yet chilling
The developers describe Beacon Pines as “cute and creepy” and it’s a good fit for both the story and visual style. The backdrops – which function as a series of interconnected sketches on discrete pages – are often vibrant and charming but there are plenty of sinister locations that look cartoonishly evil and unsettling. The anthropomorphic cast is presented as lightly-animated 2D figures – during dialogue sequences and while exploring – that have a range of basic animations and exaggerated expressions. To reinforce the premise, every time you trigger a turning point, begin and end a chapter, or interact with The Chronicle, the screen pulls back to show your interactions playing out on the pages of a book.
On the audio front, the narrator is excellent, even if it takes two chapters to demonstrate her range. Her growing frustration as you hit more and more narrative dead-ends felt both believable and tangible. The soundtrack is another highlight and generates the perfect atmosphere for each exploration scene. During the dialogue sequences, it ramps up with increasing suspense or tension.
Unfortunately, there are two issues that impact the delivery of both the narration and text. The most significant is how you have to manually advance each sentence of narrated text, which can lead to inconsistent and unnatural delivery. Simply progressing paragraph by paragraph would make more sense and sound a lot better. The second issue, which you can fix by dropping the “text” volume level in the menu, is the weird beeping used to represent NPC voices. It changes tone to match the character – think high pitched for a small girl and low pitched for an older man – but it’s equal parts irritating and distracting.
I think what I enjoyed most about Beacon Pines is how little downtime there is between major narrative beats and the lack of filler content to distract the player and ruin the pacing. It’s a dense and interconnected narrative, but also smartly and thoughtfully laid out. I would, however, suggest you play it to completion over a few sessions and not interspersed with other games so as to better keep track of the simultaneous narratives.
If you’re already a narrative-adventure fan, consider Beacon Pines a must-play as it’s one of the more engaging and novel choice-driven games in the genre. If you just find the premise interesting, just make sure you’re in the mood to sit back and listen to a story for a few hours as while the turning point mechanic is fantastic, the minute-to-minute gameplay is fairly mundane and involves a lot of reading.
A review code for Beacon Pines was provided to gameblur by the publisher.
Beacon Pines (Xbox Series) ReviewBeacon Pines (Xbox Series) Review
Visuals8/10 Very Good
- Engrossing, branching, simultaneous narrative with brisk pacing
- Simple but smart choice-based mechanics
- Cute and creepy visuals
- Great narration and music
- No dialogue input outside of turning point events
- Manually advancing lines of narrated text can lead to inconsistent, unnatural delivery