Rarely do original English visual novels measure up to their Japanese counterparts, but sometimes you get one that manages to do just that. So, for my first review of 2021 I thought I’d take a look at a visual novel I got quite a while back but did not get around to playing until just a week ago.

Let’s start with the obvious: the art, because honestly, that’s what originally drew me to the game. It’s not quite the style you would normally get from a Japanese visual novel, but it’s pretty close and I liked the touch of originality that it has to it. This is best seen in the character designs, which are detailed, colorful, and a perfect match to the game’s overall fantasy setting. The backgrounds and CGs aren’t that bad either and it’s even better in that they actually look good at 1440p without losing that detail that you normally do when blowing up low-res art. On the animation side though, there isn’t too much going on, so don’t be expecting Aokana-level visuals. It’s not bad in this department, just kinda basic.

Then you get the soundtrack, which is somehow even more fitting for the setting than the art. It’s like the perfect blend of whimsical fantasy tracks and more laidback piano stuff, exactly the kind of music you would want backing a winter-set story. I could easily see myself kicking back and listening to it while reading or even just working.

The voice acting is a bit more 50/50. It’s not like the acting itself is bad, although some characters are definitely better than others, but it’s more like the mastering felt off. Some voices are louder than others and it’s like they were recorded in differing room sizes. Tara’s voice, for example, was like twice as loud as any of the others and even when you decrease it in the settings, it still sounds off compared to the rest.

Heart of the Woods (3)

But of course, this is a visual novel we’re talking about, so the main draw is the story. And on that front, there’s quite a bit to say. Although I went into the game expecting a straightforward romance, I was surprised to find that it’s more of a blend of three genres: mystery, fantasy, AND romance. I was even more surprised to see just how well blended these three were. With the exception of the end of the game (which I’ll discuss shortly), you get a near-perfect balance.

It starts off relatively slow, but then you slowly get introduced to this wider mystery and the romance just kinda kicks in alongside it. Before you’ve noticed, it’s almost the end of the game – it’s one of the first VNs in a while that I was able to just power through, even if it is only seven or so hours long.

I particularly liked the romance aspects, which were quite unlike what we usually see in the medium. Yes, there’s the fact that it’s yuri, but I’m more so talking about the balance. Because the viewpoint you experience the story through changes throughout, you get not one, but TWO prominent romances. One is a bit more slow-paced and relaxed, fitting for the game’s setting. But then you have this other that develops quickly, more inline with the character’s personalities there, but also completely contrasting with the other romance. They kinda balance each other out in a way and it was really refreshing having the story flip between the two as you’re working through this bigger mystery.

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And on the topic of that mystery, I liked it as well, but only up to a point. As the game leans on the more fantasy side of things, the mystery starts off with some small stuff, like forest spirits and whatnot. However, by the end of the game, it felt like it went off the rails a bit, leaning too much on the fantasy side at the detriment of telling an interesting mystery. It’s hard to describe without spoiling anything, but it’s like the game wanted to quickly move into its dramatic finishes without giving them the proper buildup, so you end up with this climax that just feels half-baked.

And before I close out the review, I should give a mention to the settings. It’s got all the basics like fullscreen, text speed, auto mode speed, and volume sliders, but some neat accessibility options on top of that. You can make some minor adjustment to font size, color, and can even swap it for OpenDyslexic. There’s even self-voicing for the unvoiced scenes, audio cues for sound effects, and image descriptions for on-screen visuals and effects. Japanese visual novels usually skip out on some of these, so it was nice to see them included here.

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Overall though, Heart of the Woods is definitely worth the read. It is easily one of the best original English visual novels I have played, including an excellent blend of mystery, fantasy, and romance with some nice art and music to match. The ending does leave a bit to be desired, but the rest of the experience easily makes it worth it and I would recommend it to all fans of romance visual novels. The studio has earned a fan from me and I’m already looking forward to their next work coming out later this year.

Quote: Heart of the Woods is a solid visual novel blending mystery, romance, and fantasy all into one package. And it does this with some excellent art and music to match, worth a look for romance VN fans.

You can buy Heart of the Woods on Steam here. The game is all-ages, but has a patch to add in 18+ content for those that want it. A switch version is also planned for release.

I was provided a review copy of the game in order to write this review. Read more about how I do my game reviews here.