Studio Élan, a company founded by Josh Kaplan, one of the authors of the highly-appreciated yuri VN Highway Blossoms (check out my review of it here), gathered an unusually large and enthusiastic following since its formation in early 2018. Engaging high-profile artists for their projects, utilizing Kaplan’s renown within the VN community and brilliantly spreading its message through social media, the relatively small team managed to become of the most high-profile actors on the EVN scene before releasing even a single title (not counting demos and prologues, which, of course, also had a large role of building the studio’s profile). With follower counts and Patreon support that could make many veterans of the scene jealous, the company spent the last year working on two interesting and well-marketed projects, both of them gorgeously-looking yuri VNs, while seemingly only getting more and more attention.
Considering the hype building up at insane rates, it was that much more crucial for Studio Élan’s debut title, Heart of the Woods, to deliver a compelling and memorable experience. While few people could doubt its stunning aesthetic – the demo and plenty of promotional material made that part perfectly clear – it was still a question whether it could create characters and story able to at least rival those of Highway Blossoms, to which the new game would be inevitably compared. Thankfully, I can quite confidently say that the full release, which showed up on Steam mid-February 2019, was pretty much everything fans could hope for – and maybe even more than that.
The game impresses with its visual quality and aesthetic from the very first moments and delivers more eye candy at pretty much every opportunity
I usually leave the discussion of visuals for the end on the review, but here it’s pretty much impossible to not address it right away. The visual aspect of Heart of the Woods is amazing and features a very consistent, detailed stylisation on a level that I genuinely haven’t seen in EVNs, apart maybe from Dicesuki’s otome games. The VN used art by three different authors (not counting the numerous background and UI artists), but all the assets fit the “modern fairytale” climate superbly, stay faithful to the character designs and, maybe most importantly, are simply a joy to look at. The sprites just ooze personality and even though they’re not as expressive or varied as I’ve seen in some other EVNs (most of the girls could probably use a few extra poses and sets of clothing), their level of detail and aesthetic qualities compensate for that quite well. The CGs are not extremely numerous (there’s around 20 for the 6-8 hours-long experience, including the H-scene ones), but similarly impressive in their quality and the game utilizes interesting visual tricks which should feel familiar to those that played Highway Blossoms. Even the small details in the UI and transition screens underline just how much thought and effort was put into the visual side of the experience and the end effect is nothing short of fantastic. The atmospheric soundtrack complements the art extremely well, giving the game a very consistent and compelling climate.
The story side of the experience, in my opinion, doesn’t fall far behind the visuals and utilizes a very interesting mix of modern-setting drama and fantasy. The beginning, featuring Tara and Maddie, two friends who run a YouTube show about paranormal phenomena, riding a train to a remote location to which they were invited by a fan, is pretty tense and down-to-Earth. After Maddie decided to quit the show and return to school after years of helping the charismatic, but irresponsible Tara in her internet-celebrity career, things are extremely tense between them and the introduction of Morgan, their strange and apparently mythomaniac host, only makes things worse. These opening moments establish the characters as believable and flawed individuals, dealing with relatable, every-day problems and while the game gradually introduces more and more fantastical developments (including the addition of the fourth main character, the ghost of the forest – Abigail), it never forgets about its cast being more or less regular people, struggling to cope with the unusual circumstances they found themselves in. They all grow significantly during the story, which is shown especially well thanks to the frequent switches in perspective, but also never lose their relatable qualities. While Maddie, at least initially, serves the role of the primary protagonist (later on the scales tip slightly to the side of Morgan, who also makes all the choices that affect the story), all of the girls are occasionally given a leading role and thanks to that we can learn about their thoughts and the events happening while members of the group are separated from each other. All of this adds quite a lot of variety and depth to the overall narrative and differentiate HotW from most stories of this kind.
The genuinely-interesting mystery elements and surprising plot twists make Heart of the Woods a more dynamic and refreshing experience than your standard, SoL-focused yuri VNs
While the writing for the game is generally very solid (I only have minor gripes with how certain crucial plot developments were dealt with later on and how the pacing got slightly weaker after the first half of the story), what is especially worth complementing is its prose. Heart of the Woods reads better than the vast majority of EVNs and reminded me how rare titles with real literary qualities are within the genre. The writing is not overly fancy in its language and structure, but extremely polished, have a very good flow to it and greatly articulates the different personalities of each heroine. The plot itself managed to positively surprise me a few times, with some pretty bold and dark twists saving the game from ever becoming overly-schematic. The final chapters maybe didn’t fully live up to the awesome build-up of the first three, but they still kept me engaged enough to never let me feel truly disappointed.
The excellent quality of the writing also extends to what some could expect to be the “main point” of the game, that is the yuri romance. As the plot here is mostly linear, the couples are pre-determined and your choices (there are four in the whole game) only determine the ending you’ll get. The romantic arcs are compelling and emerge in a rather “organic” way throughout the story, while never overshadowing the supernatural thriller that is at the core of it. The game never forgets about the life-and-death threat looming in the background, balancing between the slice-of-life moments and moving the plot forward in a consistent manner. The chemistry between the girls is also very well-done, with them gradually opening to each other and finding a connection through their shared hardships. Admittedly, all of this culminates in a rather cheesy “love conquers all” message and an extremely optimistic true ending, but for this reason I also very much enjoyed the two, alternative “bad” endings – those are not really fully negative, but rather bittersweet and are a bit more in line with the general tone of the story and the nature of the threat the girls faced.
Heart of the Woods’ romance is heavily-intertwined with other aspects of its story and develops rather organically throughout the plot, without ever dominating the narrative
The h-scenes (featuring exclusively Maddie and Abigail), which were probably also anticipated by many fans considering the game’s beautiful art, are in many ways similar to those from Highway Blossoms – relatively vanilla and showing up in places where it makes sense, without disturbing the story. They also offer a little bit of character development for Abigail, probably to the point I would recommend reading them even to people that normally skip on hentai, especially as they’re not long or explicit enough to get really uncomfortable. On the other hand, their absence is practically invisible in the “clean” version of the game and while the scenes themselves were definitely nice-looking and well-written, they’re in no way a necessary part of the experience.
In summary, I think Heart of the Woods is a fantastic debut by Studio Élan and an appropriate choice for the first 5/5 rating on my blog. It’s not a perfect game by any means (even to the degree that creating one is reasonably possible), but one that had a very high bar set out for it and still managed to surpass expectations in a spectacular manner. While Highway Blossoms was, at its core, a very conventional romance story, this VN managed to surprise and charm me in ways that I honestly did not anticipate. It should be able to satisfy not only yuri fans, but everyone interested in experiencing an interesting and emotional story, and I see it as a new standard by which all other EVN should be judged. It shows that the Western scene is by no means bound to mediocrity and iterative, forgettable titles as many VN fans make it out to be, while still being an indie and relatively low-budget title, just like every other commercial EVN. So, if you like visual novels at all and you’re not particularly averse to any of Heart of the Wood’s main themes, give it a chance – it’s really worth it.
Final Score: 5/5
+ Beautiful visual design
+ Interesting, well-developed characters
+ A well-paced, engaging main intrigue
+ Compelling romance that doesn’t overwhelm the “core” story
+ Superb prose
+ Great soundtrack
- Gets cheesy by the end
- Some plot developments are a bit too convenient
Buy Heart of the Woods on Steam or Itch.io