More Than a Yuri Story: Thoughts on Heart of the Woods
Heart of the Woods looks like a nice interesting love story about 2 girls, one human, one ghost. It’s homo, so it’s just what I needed to escape from the real world. Although it appears to involve love across the living and the dead, which is a concept that’s been done to literal death. But hey, the game is well-received, it’s on sale, the artstyle is new to me, and most importantly, it doesn’t appear to be too long. So I guessed it’s going to be a nice fit for the spare time I currently have.
Boy was I wrong. It does not use the old plot device of "one grows old and die while the other stay for eternity" or "the border between life and death is unbreakable so we can’t be together" that human-ghost relationship stories tend to have, which I imagined to also be a leading aspect of this one, too. Heart of the Woods has so much more than that.
The premise of the story involves a YouTuber that talks about paranormal events, Tara, and the assistant, Maddie. The two travels to a supposedly-haunted town to investigate for their show, because a local of the town as well as a viewer of the show, Morgan, invited them. The ghost appears much later in the story, and is named Abigail (feels pretty unimaginative for a ghost name, to be honest).
At this point, even though none of the interesting things have surfaced. I was quickly drawn in by the sheer beautiful writing. Maddie’s opening monologue very effectively introduced a realistic situation: Maddie has been a long-time friend to Tara, and an assistant to her paranormal events show, but Maddie was going to quit and chase different life goals after this trip to the haunted town. Her guilt, her internal struggles and worry for Tara and all the complex emotions was very expressively shown. I felt I could be in Maddie’s shoes. Through her interactions with Tara, I could feel the awkwardness between them. Tara is salty, Maddie is guilty, but they also know they should keep their cool, but at the same time it’s also really hard to get over their emotions, however they still have a final episode to make… This kept going for a long time, it felt real.
It felt funny that I came to this game because of the official pair of Maddie and Abigail, but before that main course came, I was already fascinated by the relationship of Maddie and Tara. I was already worried about them. As Morgan teased them with paranormal phenomena, Tara was hyped and ready to believe, while Maddie was skeptical. Maddie thought Morgan was maniac for claiming crazy things but can’t prove them, and for her infame among townspeople. I actually shared Maddie’s opinion for a while, even though as a reader, I know for a fact that there’s a ghost and so Morgan is at least partially right.
Throughout the former half of the story, the situation keeps getting more complex, and the stakes keeps getting higher. Even without half of the official pair (Abigail) appearing, the 3 characters already seem so interesting. I was just expecting a sweet yuri story, but as I read it, it becomes full-on suspenseful. The suspense peaked at the end of the first chapter, but it did not just decline after that. Things keeps changing, and there is little to no filler texts, no boring segments about "daily lives".
I really liked the romantic parts of the story as well, they complement with the suspenseful parts perfectly. With such good writing, the characters are fleshed out, and their thoughts feels grounded. Their relationships feels human. It’s lovely. With no spoilers, allow me to say that there are lots of hugs, cuddles, and kisses. I felt them, embarrassingly. Even though I’m usually not a fan of erotic scenes in visual novels, I would probably sit through them if this game had any. (There is actually an R18 patch, I didn’t know about it.)
An interesting thing I liked about the character settings is about Tara. The first thing I noticed about her is the voice acting. Her voice sounds unexpectedly deep, almost like… the voice a transgender person could make. I thought "it can’t be", but I looked at the credits, and apparently Studio Élan did find a transgender voice actor, and Tara did mention in one line of dialogue that she is trans. The impressive thing is that nobody in the game ever cared about Tara’s voice, even ones that are unfriendly. Tara being trans is not part of the plot and only briefly mentioned. I think this is a massive "trans rights!" shout of how they are just regular people being themselves and we don’t make dramas on their gender. I’m behaving worse than the characters in the game because I’m making a drama about it in this paragraph.
Let me hope that this article has made you give some interest to the visual novel. It is sold on itch.io and Steam. Ultimately, I think my experience with Heart of the Woods proves the point in my previous article, how good a story feels comes from subverting expectations. This novel has subverted mine a lot, and hopefully I have not spoiled it too much to let it also subvert yours.