Waking up to a world that seems completely changed from the one we lived in yesterday is an experience many of us have grown accustomed to in recent years. Once in a while, we may get the feeling that it’s time to start our lives over completely. In Woodsalt, you wake up to discover you’re on another planet and the only life you have ever known is gone. Now it’s up to you to decide the best way to put together the pieces of a new life.
What could conceivably be the last of the human race has landed on another world, which they’ve uncreatively dubbed “Nu-Terra,” after fleeing the planet they’d always known as home because of a vague catastrophe that threatened all life there. Despite living inside a biosphere 1,000 years post-exodus, humans have built a life that seems largely similar to the status quo of our reality today. In that time, the colony — whose population of about 1 million people resembles an average-sized Earth city — has set up a functioning government, scientific research labs, public transportation, and most of the other general amenities we currently enjoy, like bars and restaurants. By the time you come in to the picture, every aspect of this new society is already in place. But there’s an odd feeling of artificiality to it all, as if Nu-Terra is a mere copy of the Earth that once was.
Emcy, the member of this new world whom you control, has been woken out of stasis. His only tie to the old Earth is his younger sister, Gi, who has been out of stasis so long that she’s now older than him biologically. The government generally only brings people out of stasis when there’s a specific job for them to do, because it’d be rude to force someone out of bed early if the situation isn’t urgent. But in this case, no one seems to know why Emcy has been brought back to waking life, and no one gives him a job besides continuing to be conscious. As he doesn’t have any tasks assigned to him at the moment, he’s left to his own devices when it comes to deciding what to do with the time he has. So you’ll meet a colorful cast of characters as you steer Emcy aimlessly about town. Eventually, he begins to have some disturbing and violent dreams as well as hallucinations, but he has little understanding as to what they mean. And though these people seem to have set up sort of an idealistic utopian society, if you poke at it even gently in your explorations, you start to get a dark, creeping sense that all is not quite what it seems in this new world.
Woodsalt functionally operates like a JRPG, but without combat, somewhat resembling another sci-fi narrative game, To the Moon. Much of the story plays out like a visual novel, where you simply watch the action unfold and occasionally have a choice of responses to other characters’ questions. There are also Free Roam segments, where you have control of Emcy’s movement as he explores the town and can talk to the NPCs milling about, all of whom have little stories of their own that progress over time. You can also get into optional, more involved story beats, which allow you to spend time with the game’s major side characters. But you ought to think carefully when choosing whom you hang out with, as the company you keep determines your character’s story, and you have a limited amount of time each day before Emcy decides he wants to go home and go to bed (I mean, same). The game is very relaxing and calming to play though, especially when real life can be hectic.
The characters are rendered in a charming chibi style that evokes PS1-era RPGs, back when games were just discovering their polygons. When in conversation, the characters’ avatars are more like hand-drawn cartoon portraits. The buildings and scenery are all pretty simple looking, but some of the little details — like plates and placemats set up on a dinner table — just raise the cuteness factor. The audio is also simple, but the music and sound effects are a good fit for the game’s various moods. There’s not much to say about the simple controls, but all of the face buttons on the Switch controller are the “OK” button, and there’s no “cancel” button. Sometimes I mistakenly quit the game from the pause screen when I instinctively pressed B on the Switch controller in a vain attempt to back out of the menu and resume the game.
The concept of having to rebuild on another planet in completely new circumstances makes for a profound exploration on what it means to be human. The constraints and responsibilities our lives are filled with here on Earth melt away, replaced by the freeing yet terrifying opportunity of beginning anew, with the only responsibility being everyone’s survival. It’s kind of humorous, then, that with the chance to reshape their way of life, the people in Woodsalt have simply recreated society much like it was on Earth. Like we often do in the face of life-altering world events, people simply return to the same old things they’ve always done and behave in the same ways they always have because they don’t know any other way to be human.
And it’s all adorable in the game because of the endearing graphics style. The story eventually goes the “we live in a society and always will” route, but when you’re just wandering around talking to people, it feels nice to live in a society for a little while, even if it’s “fake.” It’s actually kind of comforting to see that there’s still that dude standing out in public blandly playing an acoustic guitar, because it gives a feeling of familiarity, and it’s just the kind of thing people do. Watching these little, plucky characters behave just as humans would do is cute, much like admiring pet animals or children, and you hope they pull through. But even though they may look innocent, sometimes they aren’t, and the mood becomes extra creepy when these cute little people decide to be bad. Whose bright idea was it to bring handguns along to the new planet, anyway?
It’s easy to draw parallels between the situation the people of Nu-Terra find themselves in and our current COVID crisis, especially in terms of facing a global reality shift. Such events call attention to some of the elements of normalcy that we all miss but maybe never gave much thought to before, like simply going to a bar or looking at pointless monuments. For many of us who are stuck in various levels of self-isolation during this time, it’s a reminder of how we miss some of those stupid things that were familiar to us in our previous, more public lives that we took for granted or maybe even hated. Woodsalt is not the first piece of entertainment to do so, but in a trend that’s bound to continue, it does make a small reference to COVID in an indirect, throwaway joke about hoarding toilet paper — a sign that the story’s similarities to our current predicament in the real world are not at all lost on the developers.
The game’s generally snarky sense of humor didn’t really hit for me, though others may enjoy it. There are a number of silly meta, fourth-wall breaking jokes that recall common video game tutorial hand-holding tropes, since you are, after all, playing a video game (in case you forgot). But the pop culture references are pretty on point. In one instance, Emcy wonders if that “dragons and zombies show” back on Earth ever finally ended.
One important lesson: always pet the cat. When you see the mysterious cat show up in random places in Woodsalt, make sure you pet it every time. Trust me, it’s worth it.
While the story Woodsalt offers is fascinating, it’s also on the short side, especially if you’re a fast reader. And it feels like the game hits its climax just as it’s finding its legs, which left me wishing it was a bit longer. Of course, you can play through it a few times, as it’s impossible to see all of the content in one go; this is nice if you’re interested in unraveling the game’s many mysteries because there’s much to explore. But the major events occur in mostly the same fashion each time, so the number of playthroughs you’ll want to commit to may be limited. The developers say there are three endings to the game. Though the potential conclusions are very different, the game makes it clear that there is a “right” ending. While the “good” ending may offer a small ray of hope and holds true to the game’s themes, it is quite bleak and may be off-putting to some.
That being said, even one playthrough of Woodsalt is easy to recommend. The story concept isn’t the most original, but the way it’s handled in this case is refreshingly charming, and it offers up some profound observations on humanity. The plot feels as if it could be tailored for the pandemic world we find ourselves in, but it would be strong in more “normal” times too. I was interested to see where the story of Nu Terra would go throughout my entire playthrough. If the last year has made you want to escape Earth, you might want to check out Woodsalt; it isn’t a literal ticket for a journey across the stars, but it does at least give you a virtual one.