Xbox Game Pass is gearing up to add adventure game Beacon Pines at launch next week — check out what we thought of the game in our review!
One way in which Beacon Pines stands out is with its fusion of “cute and creepy” themes. We’ve had another game this year which mashes “cute and creepy” elements together — Cult of the Lamb — and both are excellent games, which approach this contrast in different ways. With Cult of the Lamb, we have some warning about the creepiness — it is a cult, after all, and we know going in that our adorable cult leader wouldn’t hesitate to bat its big Disney-cartoon eyes in feigned innocence while happily murdering its followers and destroying its enemies. Beacon Pines’ version of “cute and creepy” takes a different approach, and its initial cuteness lulls you into such a false sense of security that you’re even more floored when it then turns out to be as all-out crazy as it is. The “cute” part is there from the get-go — Beacon Pines surrounds you with the colourful landscapes of a charming rural town, and the depictions of each animal character look like something out of a fairytale. Its main character, Luka, is just about to begin his summer break with his best friend Rolo, and the pair are planning the best way to start the holiday. You’re starting to relax, bewitched by the nostalgia of Beacon Pine’s sense of childhood adventure, when – bam. What? Wait, what?! What just happened? What is going on?! All you can do is try to keep up as Beacon Pines’ plot races off at breakneck speed, delivering twists, turns, and gut punches, all mixed together with a healthy dose of unease.There’s hints of Stranger Things in the way the town of Beacon Pines is troubled by this unease, and the way its light-hearted childhood fun takes an eerie, sinister turn. The storytelling in Beacon Pines is wonderful, and this is where one of its key aspects comes into play: we play as both the main character of the story, Luka, and the reader of the book in which Luka’s story is told. The other key part of the game comes from the ability this duality gives us: as Luka, we can explore the town and talk to its inhabitants to gain charms; specific words which we as the book’s reader can then use to alter Luka’s story. This is all tracked in something called The Chronicle — a sort of story tree inside the book which charts major turning points in the narrative. So, for instance, a turning point in Luka’s story will see you pulled back to read the book’s text, and shown a sentence with a key word missing. Each charm we find represents a particular word that might be used at such turning points to complete the sentence and alter the story, at which point we’ll dive back into the action. As and when we discover new charms, we can return to The Chronicle and go back to major decisions we made to see how each new word could impact the story. This decision-making starts out slowly enough, giving you time to learn this mechanic — for instance, you can choose between “hide,” “chill,” or “ponder” when telling your gran what you and Rolo will be up to. That choice might not have a major impact, but the plot soon wildly picks up speed and the turning points start to offer drastic choices.
Beacon Pines has kept story details pretty close to its chest, and it is difficult to say too much without crossing into spoiler territory, especially since the story can differ in so many ways. Our character, Luka, has had a pretty tragic past and now lives with his grandmother, and his best friend Rolo takes it as his duty to keep Luka distracted with a summer spent sneaking out, dodging chores, and spending time at their treehouse. The town of Beacon Pines has been in decline ever since an accident with the fertiliser plant owned by the town’s leading family, the Valentines. When Rolo spots some strange goings-on in what should have been an abandoned part of town, the two are quickly swept up into a bizarre series of events full of secrets from the past and conspiracies about the future, which seem to threaten the entirety of Beacon Pines. The game does a good job of setting up the town as a peaceful place full of charming characters, but the second you realise there’s something wrong with Beacon Pines, you begin to distrust all of these seemingly friendly faces and become entirely invested in finding out the truth. You’re also left wanting to try out all of the game’s various routes. Sometimes, you’ll find you only have one word to use at a key point; a word that clearly doesn’t fit the situation and won’t send things the way you want them to go, meaning the second you find a more suitable word, you’re hurrying back to that decision to try again.
Beacon Pines doesn’t play around — Luka and Rolo might be schoolkids, but the game makes it clear that they’re no safer than anyone else, and this amps up the stress considerably when making certain decisions. Yet there’s also a clear vein of humour running through the game, and that keeps Beacon Pines feeling charming even when it veers into stranger territory. You might expect the repeated switching between playing as Luka to then reading his story to make the game feel disjointed, but it works surprisingly well and keeps you racing along to see what happens next. The story covers a lot of ground, and one minor downside of this is that it can be tricky, nearer the end when everything starts kicking off, to remember which version you’re playing through. This probably won’t be too much of an issue if you play through large chunks of the game at a time, but if you come back to it after a little while away, it could be more difficult to remember which character knows what in each version of the story. I’m still thinking about the various paths I explored — I think I’m mostly happy with the way things turned out, but there were parts that felt a little too over-the-top; the story doesn’t really need to be convoluted or far-fetched when its more down to earth themes work so well.
You come to care for Luka and his town — although Rolo might be my favourite character — and this is in no small part due to the expressive narrator of the book’s text, who deftly finds the humour or the heartache in each scene. The music of Beacon Pines also works well to build up the tension so that you’re on the edge of your seat, and the size of Beacon Pines as a town means that running back and forth between objectives doesn’t really have the same frustrations that backtracking usually offers. The achievements weren’t live at the time of writing this, but the ones I unlocked seemed to be quite spaced out. Some were tied into the side of Beacon Pines which focuses on childhood mischief — a tantalising sign next to a giant watermelon that read “no touching” of course led me to hit and kick it with such gusto that I unlocked an achievement. Others were definitely tied to the more melancholy, sinister side of the game. After finishing the game, I was still able to access my Chronicle story tree, so I could revisit and redo the decisions I made — this will likely come into handy in mopping up any last achievements after finishing with the story.
Overall, I enjoyed my time with Beacon Pines. Its eye-catching storybook art style catches your attention which is then held by the game’s fast-moving and suspenseful plot. There were times when this story felt too convoluted in some areas whilst a little lacking in explanation in others, but it’s still an easy recommendation. Just don’t trust its cutesy appearance too much — Beacon Pines might start out at the beginning of Summer, but that eerie undertone makes it a great contender to play in the run-up to Halloween.
* Heidi spent around nine or ten hours sneaking through Beacon Pines on Xbox Series X.