Beacon Pines Review: Life is Change

Stories are living things. From the first seedling of what eventually becomes a story, they grow, they must be nurtured, and they evolve. The story that is told is rarely the exact story that was envisioned because, like all living things, stories change. And while not all change is good, for a story to be its best self, it must be able to adapt to it. Beacon Pines is a story about change and it’s also a story that changes.

Playing less like an adventure game and more like a visual novel with more interactivity, Beacon Pines presents itself to players as a storybook. A storybook that needs you to help complete it. To do that you will control protagonist Luka as he explores the town and interacts with people and things. Eventually, the story will reach moments where you have to make a choice that will determine the course it will take. The reason I say it’s more like a visual novel is that unlike adventure games there are no puzzles or dialogue options here. You aren’t searching for objects to combine with other objects. You aren’t choosing dialogue. There’s no prompts of “X character will remember that”. You’re controlling Luka yes and you are exploring on your own but much like a visual novel, the story is set and you are simply experiencing it. Controlling Luka as he wanders and interacts makes it less passive than most visual novels and combined with the story choices helps to give you more agency of what’s happening. At the end of the day though, this is very much a story being told to you, not a story you control but that’s not a bad thing.

As stories go, Beacon Pines is one of the best I’ve experienced in a video game since the original Life is Strange. While both feature young protagonists going on a suspenseful adventure while navigating life-altering events, Beacon Pines is a bit more Spielberg in its approach. The game follows Luka, a young anthropomorphic deer who is struggling to deal with unwelcome changes in his life. His father died six years earlier and his mother has just recently gone missing leaving him with a lot to process and no idea how. Luckily he has his best friend Rolo to support him and together they plan to start the summer off right by figuring out why the old abandoned factory has been glowing at night. From here begins a grand mysterious adventure that would make the kids of Hawkins proud.

As you guide Luka through working out the mysteries of what’s going on in Beacon Pines, you will be presented with turning points in the story. At these moments you will have to make a choice that will cause the story to branch out. This is visualized on a literal tree called the “Chronicle” which you can bring up at any time and use to return to any turning point. To make these choices you’ll use charms that you unlock from interacting with people and things. The genius part of the concept is that at some turning points you will only have a single charm to choose from. This means you have to explore every possible branch the story can take to unlock charms that you can use on previous turning points until you find the correct story path. It’s almost like a narrative metroidvania. You use what you have to progress at turning points and then you return with newly unlocked charms to progress down different paths.

These branches do drastically change the story. Not only will events play out differently but you’ll see entirely new situations play out. A lot of the branches lead to premature endings, some of which can get surprisingly dark. Some of the branches lead to long story sections before the next turning point. You’ll see chapters of the story that are titled differently and play out differently all because of which charm you picked. Despite all of the different branches the story can take, there is still only one true path and one true ending but in making you change the story over and over to see these different story paths, the game has brilliant moments of discovery and dramatic irony. Each branch will lead you to different clues and revelations and while Luka will not retain things from other branches, you will. You’ll look at characters differently when interacting with them, there will be moments of heightened tension because you know something about someone that Luka doesn’t. But it also allows you to piece things together on your own. You don’t have to wait for the story to get there, in fact piecing it together on your own with all clues you get from all the branches is as satisfying as guiding the story down the right branch for Luka and his friends to figure out.

A game whose sole focus is on story better have a good one and luckily Beacon Pines has a great one. I won’t go into any more plot details than I already have but this in essence is a story about change and how we deal with it. Luka’s life has and is going through changes that he has to learn how to process and deal with. He isn’t the only one though. Beck, the new kid in town also has to deal with change and the town of Beacon Pines is in a battle between accepting change or in remaining clinging to its past. Change permeates the whole story, even down to the mechanic of changing the story. It’s told in a very fun way, with echoes of other youth-led adventures like Stranger Things or The Goonies. But beyond that fun is a surprisingly deep story of how volatile change can be and how we must be able to accept it even when it isn’t good. Things change, time moves forward and it’s up to us to figure out how we want to continue when nothing is as it once was. There’s a character who says a few times that “Change is dangerous” which might not always be true, but Beacon Pines is about how it can be when you don’t deal with it properly.

It doesn’t matter how great a story is if the characters are lacking but luckily Beacon Pines is filled to the brim with interesting characters. Luka is an immediately likable protagonist with a plucky & inquisitive attitude. His best friend Rolo is an instant classic sidekick character full of spunk, total Jack Black energy & Samwise Gamgee’s level of care for his friend. Eventually, they’re joined by new kid Beck who is just looking for a sense of belonging and it’s a trio that you can’t help but want to succeed and get heartbroken when you see the endings where they don’t. Beacon Pines is a character itself. It might be a cliché this many decades after Twin Peaks first hit the airwaves to say that the eccentric, mysterious small town in the middle of nowhere is a character but it’s true. Not only does every resident have unique quirks that keep them distinct and engrossing but the town history is just dull enough to be plausible and just strange enough to be enthralling. The buildings and the various locations all have personality and flair, from Luka’s house to the boy’s treehouse to the town square. A lot of that of course is thanks to the beautiful art style.

Beacon Pines is presented as a storybook. It’s a book that opens up with pages that turn. On those pages is not only the words but illustrations and it’s in those illustrations that the actual gameplay takes place. It’s breathtaking. The colors pop and swirl like a handcrafted storybook come to life. All the environments exist as floating paintings in a void of nothingness to accurately capture their status as a picture in the middle of the page. The art style itself is one of the best I’ve ever seen but it’s that little detail that blew me away. It could have been so easy to just zoom in but it never really does because Beacon Pines is after all just a storybook you’re reading.

To sell its concept that this is a book that you’re reading and helping complete, the game often stops and zooms out of the scene back to the book pages where exposition and prose are presented on the page to transition to the next scene. There are even chapters. Even during gameplay dialogue, there are little bits of prose thrown in. Much of it is quite good in fact with legitimate literary techniques used to make it all come to life as if it was a story. The prose is delivered with the only voice acting in the game and the narrator does a wonderful job. She reads the prose with tender enthusiasm, like a teacher reading to her students. None of the dialogue is voiced though, either by the narrator or other voice actors. Some might find a problem with this but I had no problem with having to read, it is supposed to be a book after all. I also think it was smart to not have the narrator read the dialogue because she shows up just enough to be a nice presence and having all the dialogue read by her might have gotten grating.

Special mention should also go to the exquisite soundtrack. It’s never overbearing and like all great soundtracks you never really notice it until it wants you to. When you do notice it, you’ll find a mixture of calming serene piano tracks for more exploratory and quiet moments as well as some more intense tracks that heighten the drama of the more suspenseful story beats. The music never overpowers anything and works as a dynamic complement to the events of the story.

Beacon Pines is a story about change. It’s also a story that you change. As you work through the secrets of Beacon Pines and change events until the proper story reveals itself, you’ll witness characters, even a whole town trying to figure out how to deal with change. While change can be dangerous, it can also be wonderful. It offers us a chance to grow and discover who we are but also who we want to be. Life is full of change and it happens whether we want it to or not. Beacon Pines might not be the most interactive narrative game out there but what it lacks in interactivity, it makes up for with a deeply engrossing story about how we choose to handle change.

Rating: Cruise Standard

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Published by Matt Fresh

30% Water, 70% James Bond movies. Matt is a writer, gamer, film enthusiast & silly person. The winner of various fictitious awards, he's fluent in English & pop culture references.

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