The First Tree
For Fox Sake
When I first started my play through of The First Tree, I was ready to love it. Everything about it seemed right up my alley. I was promised a visually gorgeous walking simulator, a passion project with an emotional story that would leave me in awe by the end of its relatively short running time. And while there is no doubt in my mind that this is a passion project, while I truly believe the one-man team that created this game had nothing but the best intentions. It doesn’t save The First Tree from being the worst game I have played this year.
The first thing I noticed were the controls. They’re not good. In fact, they’re bad. The camera is janky and unwieldy, always moving either slightly faster or slower than the player character and drifting on even after you’ve stopped moving it. I got used to it after a while but it never stops feeling just a bit uncomfortable. The same goes for the movement. Clunky animations make basic movement and the mechanics designed for light platforming this game has (including a double jump) feel stilted and awkward. I regularly found myself getting stuck on scenery if the game decided it didn’t like the angle I was at and input for things like jumping and running would sometimes register too late or not at all. At no point does moving through The First Tree’s world feel good, and seeing as that is what you’ll be doing for the majority of the game, this creates a major issue. Aside from the occasional platforming puzzle that more often ends in frustration instead of satisfaction, there are other attempts at gameplay. Collectible stars are scattered throughout the world, which really serve no purpose other than providing busywork for the player and giving you achievements once you’ve collected certain amounts. It’s collection for collection’s sake and it adds nothing of value.
Now of course, as with many walking simulators, the focus is not necessarily on gameplay. It’s on the story and the way that story is told, and there is a decent set up here. A man named Joseph tells his significant other, Rachel, about a dream he had. In this dream a fox goes on an adventure to find her 3 lost cubs. The player takes control of this fox, as she moves to a colourful dream world scattered with various objects that represent Joseph’s past. Because that’s what the story is really about, Joseph’s past and the relationship he had with his father. However, the execution fails miserably here. Both writing and voice acting range from stilted and awkward to laughably bad. No seriously, I actually laughed at some of the game’s dialogue. It has as much forced melodrama as edgy teen poetry. It attempts to create hidden meaning and symbolism where there is none and when Joseph started talking about how it’s not the journey but the destination that matters, I gave up on expecting any of this to improve later on (which it didn’t). It’s quite obvious there were certain points where the game wanted me to feel something, points were I was supposed to turn on the waterworks. But all I felt was boredom and contempt, as this 2 hour game managed the incredible feat of feeling like it dragged on too long.
That’s not so say there is nothing good here, because the presentation is rather nice. One of the first things you’ll notice, for example, are the gorgeous visuals. With colourful low poly environments and characters that, for the most part, are a treat to look at. Seeing as this game was made by a single person, it does use some store bought assets. Which is of course not an inherently bad thing and the developer manages to fit them together rather well. However, some of the objects that are supposed to represent Joseph’s past feel a bit out of place. Both their style and often their size do not mesh well with the rest of the environment or the fox you play as. Sometimes they don’t even mesh well with each other, with a sleeping bag that’s about as big as a tent or a table that matches the height of a police car. Which make them stick out like a sore thumb in what is otherwise a very pretty game world.
The only aspect that fully delivers here is the licensed soundtrack. With a great selection of songs that fit both their individual scenes and form a cohesive whole. This, along with the visuals, even manged to create a genuinely charming moment where I discovered a field full of elk frolicking around and was greeted with some beautiful music. I stayed in that field for a while, being both happy that I at least found something worthwhile, but also dreading the next piece of dialogue or platforming puzzle that would ruin it again.
“All I felt was boredom and contempt, as this 2 hour game managed the incredible feat of feeling like it dragged on too long.”
In the end these small glimmers of hope could not save The First Tree from being everything a walking simulator is not supposed to be. In fact, it made the disappointment worse in some ways. Because I could see something here, something halfway decent. Buried beneath all the arbitrary gameplay and cringe worthy dialogue, there’s an interesting experience with pleasant looks and a killer soundtrack. But that’s not what we got in the end. The First Tree is bad and it genuinely pains me to say that. But when the only part of a game that truly fulfils its purpose is better experienced through a Spotify playlist, I’m afraid something’s gone horribly wrong.