It doesn’t take long to realize how truly haunting Sons of the Forest can be. In just a few hours exploring its island, I came across an array of strange sightings. Shadows rattled amid nearby bushes when I approached them, creatures letting out spine-chilling gutturals as they fled. A woman with multiple limbs watched me in fear from afar, only to cautiously begin to retrace my steps after our first encounter. At the deepest end of a dark cavern, the dim light of a lantern revealed a creature made out of flesh and teeth.
Developer Endnight Games already set this eerie foundation in The Forest, a first-person survival game released in 2018 after a lengthy early access period. The Forest stood out among a crowded genre thanks to its primary antagonists: It pitted you against groups of cannibals eager to examine your movements before tearing you and your base apart.
The ambiance and presentation of The Forest, alongside its snappy crafting mechanics, are merely embellished in the sequel. The focus of Sons of the Forest, a sequel out now on PC via Steam Early Access, seems to lie in elevating the inherent horror of its setting. The new creatures on the island, as well as the options at your disposal to defend yourself from its inhabitants, reinforce that. And the result has quickly lured me in.
This time around, the premise doesn’t revolve around rescuing your kid, but a billionaire and his family instead. As unappealing as the task sounds in our current times, Sons of the Forest slowly reveals far more pressing matters to worry about. The transportation helicopter that you’re in crashes. Upon hard landing on the ground, you’re immediately greeted by a strange individual who knocks you unconscious. Later on, you find one of your teammates hanging from a rope tied to a cliff. Another one is buried underground, his GPS tracker beeping a signal from six feet under like “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
You’re free to encounter these mysteries at your own pace, following as much or as little of the main story as you trek along. During my five hours exploring the island thus far, I’ve been following these objectives loosely as points of reference thanks to a handy GPS device, which has the map of the island available from the get-go, often going off the beaten path to see what I could find. So far, I haven’t encountered many problems in keeping my hunger and thirst levels up, thanks to a generous amount of vegetation with fruit seeds and supply cases scattered around, although this could easily change once winter rolls around (thanks to a new dynamic seasonal system set to affect the environment).
I spent my first night setting things up in my inventory while listening to music from an abandoned boombox — a brief respite from the tension caused by visitors constantly scouting the camp as I waited for the sunrise to grant me clarity. Facing the people of the island is inevitable, however, and Sons of the Forest is eager to provide you with multiple tools to do so. I managed to gather two axes fairly quickly, while also crafting a spear, a bow, and some armor made out of leaves to prepare for the long travels ahead.
But even on normal difficulty — there are both easier and harder settings to choose from, as well as a custom option to tweak elements individually — enemies can put up a fight. They tend to be quick, gaining elevation by hopping on rocks and jumping at you, or trying to circle around you for a backstab. Eating an energy bar to heal yourself on the fly is hardly the safest option.
While the combat itself could benefit from some tweaks to deliver a more tangible impact upon hit, the new mechanics mark a difference from Sons of the Forest’s predecessor, doubling down on your reactiveness toward the island’s hostility. You can still chop enemies’ heads off, but you can now hold them in your hand and show them to others to scare them away, as well as place them on spikes for similar effects. Oftentimes enemies will crawl back in fear upon being injured, asking you for mercy using hand signals. You can let them go and risk the possibility of a group returning to your location, seeking retaliation. Or you can collect another head, giving into the game’s weirdness.
It’s too early to say whether Sons of the Forest’s new flavors will be enough for the experience to stand out from its predecessor in the long run. So far, it’s less of a puzzle box I want to unravel, and more of a pit that I’ve fallen into. But I’m not desperately trying to crawl my way out just yet. I’m eager to continue learning more about this world. Even if it means losing a piece of my own humanity each time I abide by its rules.
Sons of the Forest was released on Feb. 23 via Steam Early Access. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.