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The Forest Cathedral Review

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I could probably have listed out the things I knew about DDT on one hand. It was a chemical used to kill mosquitoes that ended up killing a lot of other wildlife. I’m ashamed to say, that’s pretty much the limit of it.

It’s a strong argument for why more games should rifle through the history books. Having played The Forest Cathedral, I now know so much more. I know that DDT is dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (just don’t expect me to spell it without some crib sheets), an insecticide that was discovered by Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Müller, and quickly sprayed onto mosquitoes, reducing the spread of malaria and typhus. But true to my scrappy knowledge of it, it soon made its way up the food web, killing fish and birds, before eventually triggering cancer in humans. 

All of this was uncovered and exposed by Rachel Carson, a marine biologist, in her book Silent Spring. She identified the environmental and health effects of the insecticide, and the publishing of her findings eventually led to a worldwide ban on the stuff. 

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I know all of this because I was Rachel Carson. In The Forest Cathedral I stepped into her shoes, as I followed the clues from mosquitoes to fish to eagles. Through the careful step-by-step deduction of the game, I was able to follow – roughly – the thoughts that led Rachel Carson to her book, Silent Spring. 

The complication with The Forest Cathedral is that a huge amount of it is patently, clearly fiction. We had to cross-reference a lot of the above with Wikipedia, because we were eager to know what actually happened. That’s not a criticism of it: it just shouldn’t be treated as a factual document that you can trust. Bring critical faculties and you should be okay. 

In this version of the story, Rachel Carson is directly employed by Paul Hermann Müller to come and stay at his ‘Science Island’. Like the main character of Firewatch, you are given sole conservatorship of the stretch of land for many months, looking after it, protecting it, and occasionally observing the animals. As far as Wikipedia tells us, Rachel Carson and Paul Hermann Müller never met, and Science Island doesn’t exist, so chalk that up to Flight of Fancy #1 and #2.

Those months pass by as smaller scenes, with Rachel working through menial tasks and beginning to observe what’s wrong on Science Island. Using an iRGB scanner (Flight of Fancy #3, as it’s a kind of Aliens-like scanner that can spot, well, everything), she finds out that mosquitoes are developing resistance to DDT, yet are carrying a lot of the chemical in their tiny bodies. That chemical then gets eaten by fish, the fish die, the fish get eaten by other animals, and so on and so forth. 

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Firewatch is very much the touchstone here. Walking simulator shenanigans happen, as you follow tracks on your iRGB scanner and delve further into the island. And much like Firewatch, you wonder where the story is heading. Will it be a true-to-life recreation, or will it deviate into horror, science-fiction or surrealism? The Forest Cathedral feels like it’s very capable of any one of them (even a comedy, as a tutorial sequence has you completing a Call of Duty-style shooting range – hilariously, without combat). 

This is The Forest Cathedral’s strength. As long as you can sidestep any issues that you might have with the fudging of history (and it’s a sensitive period of history at that, with people likely still alive who lost loved ones to cancer), then there is a burgeoning sense that The Forest Cathedral is messing with you. Its inability to stick to the facts becomes a blessing, as the guide-rails come off and the narrative could head anywhere. It makes for a particularly tense and on-edge last third. 

That’s made even more off-kilter by the sheer David Lynch-ness of the direction. Conversations stop mid-sentence so the cameras can wander away to look at something innocuous. Discordant, horrible noise can suddenly interrupt your pleasant ramble. Characters say things and do things that are only barely human. We started by wondering if it was all a product of bugs or slipshod craftsmanship, but no – The Forest Cathedral means all of it, and we increasingly fell in love with its goofy, gonzo approach to storytelling. It’s SWERY does Erin Brockovich, Deadly Premonition with a conscience.

Gosh, I wish I could leave it there. I’d happily give the short-lived but bizarro narrative stuff a 4 out of 5 and walk away. But The Forest Cathedral is determined to introduce gameplay, and that’s where ‘Little Man’ comes in. Prepare for Flight of Fancy #4. 

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To complete experiments and actions in the environment, Rachel often needs to use terminals: Pip-Boy-style computers that litter the environment. Paul Hermann Müller is clearly a sociopath, as he doesn’t just let you turn things on or off. No, you have to complete small platforming sequences using ‘Little Man’. By controlling Little Man, you can push blocks onto switches, grab keys to doors, and generally complete tasks in a virtual platforming game which will correspond to a physical action in the real world. 

Oh gods, the sheer horror of these sections. We dreaded the moment a terminal came into view, and the platforming feats we would have to achieve for the sake of some narrative dog-treats at the end of them. Because the Little Man sections are absolutely awful. Without uttering a single superlative, they are some of the worst platforming sections we have encountered in any game, and we’ve played a bajillion of them.

Little Man is almost impossible to control. He stops, stock-still, for no reason, bashing up against invisible walls. He jumps up when he should jump sideways. He employs a wall climb where you don’t press ‘away’ to jump: you press towards the wall to jump. His collision-detection is abominable. His inability to climb a ladder like a normal human being is impressive, and the sheer slowness of his melee attack is something to behold. We’d have preferred to complete the platforming sequences as a Super Monkey Ball or Octodad. It’s that ungainly, horrible and masochistic to play as flipping Little Man. 

We have spent roughly three-quarters of The Forest Cathedral playing these sequences, even though they should – by rights – only be about a quarter of the play-time. Because they are trials, sent from the devil himself. If the narrative half of The Forest Cathedral is a 4, the platforming is a risible 1, and we’re being kind. It’s unplayable to the point of being broken, and only dumb-luck and persistence got us over the line. 

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We’re twitching as we say it, but we’re happy we played The Forest Cathedral. There’s very little like it’s Lynchian, historically inaccurate approach to the debunking of DDT. It’s the Inglourious Basterds of walking simulators: stupendously in love with its topic, yet joyously rewriting it. 

But in the corner of our eye is Little Man, the 2D platforming sections of The Forest Cathedral. He rampages through The Forest Cathedral ruining as much as he can, to the point that we dreaded the moment he ever appeared on the screen. Curse you, Little Man.

If you are willing to work for some glorious moments, then The Forest Cathedral is a walking sim that delivers. But oof: it demands some extreme patience when the walking starts straying into platforming. 

You can buy The Forest Cathedral from the Xbox Store

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