Marchen Forest: Mylne and the Forest Gift starts out as the rather innocent, if a little surreal, story of a young apprentice alchemist. Living and training with her grandfather, her life is a mostly carefree one; gathering ingredients for potion-mixing is about the extent of her responsibilities, which mostly involves hanging out with the strange creatures that live in the forest outside her house. Creatures like a forest sprite that’s trying to take revenge on a river by emptying it of water, one bucket at a time, or a pair of flowers who constantly argue over which one is prettier, or a penguin who needs your help getting buff so he can impress his crush.
For the first couple of hours, this is Marchen Forest: a surreal slice-of-life adventure game, revolving around point-and-click-style puzzles as you try to get all the ingredients you need to become a full-fledged alchemist. It’s all humorous interactions with characters that wouldn’t look out of place in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and light puzzle solving, with no real stakes and nothing much to worry about. There’s a laidback quality reminiscent of Atelier (a deliberate influence, if the way Mylne shouts “Barrel!” any time she sees one has anything to say about it).
And then you accidentally uncover the entrance to an old dungeon beneath the forest, and everything changes. Suddenly, Marchen Forest becomes a dungeon crawler, as you delve through these undead-filled catacombs in search of treasure and experience points. That carefree story gives way to something much more sinister, as Mylne resolves to search for her mother, who went into that dungeon many years ago and never came out again. It’s a place full of grim secrets; suffice to say that alchemy can be used for good or for evil.
Exploring the dungeon’s many rooms means looking for keys to open locked doors and chests, avoiding traps, activating switches, managing your food level so that you don’t starve, and so on—classic dungeon crawler stuff. Random encounters pit you against foes in one-on-one battles that play out in real-time, putting particular emphasis on well-timed dodges and parries that knock foes off-balance so you can unleash your strongest attacks. There’s a light roguelike touch in that death means you lose any unidentified items you’ve found and have to restart from the beginning or mid-level checkpoint of the current floor, but you keep any experience, levels, alchemy ingredients, keys, and so on, so it’s far from brutal.
But for all its charm and neat ideas, Marchen Forest struggles in execution. Mylne’s slow walk speed and the frequency of random encounters make exploration tedious, even though that’s one of the key aspects of the dungeon crawl. It also means that, even though you don’t lose much when you die, just having to replay half a floor can feel like a frustrating waste of time.
The combat system, while good in concept, is shallow in practice. It doesn’t take more than one or two encounters with a new foe to learn the right timing to dodge or parry anything they throw at you, and the window for doing so is generous. But the only way to do any real damage is with the special attacks that you can only use after a parry—your basic attack does minimal damage of its own, and leaves you vulnerable if poorly timed—and each enemy only has one parriable attack in their moveset.
What this all amounts to is combat that mostly involves standing around, easily dodging all the dodgeable attacks, and waiting for the enemy to use the one attack you can actually parry and create an opening to do some damage. You can try to squeeze a little bit of extra damage in here and there with well-timed basic attacks, but not enough to really make much of a difference. Bosses are a particular nuisance, with huge HP totals and proportionately fewer parryable attacks, mean less-frequent opportunities to actually do damage.
After completing the first dungeon, there’s a second one that adds a few extra layers—a weapon upgrade system, more varied combat abilities, more interesting level design—but it’s not enough to address the shortcomings at the core of the combat design in Marchen Forest. They’re also things that would probably feel more worthwhile if introduced earlier; you won’t get to the second dungeon until at least 10 hours into the game, and it’s not until then that you feel like you’re playing the real game. (For context, the Switch release is a remake of a game from a few years ago, and the second dungeon was DLC for that game. Having extra features tied to this section makes sense from that perspective, but a remake would have been the perfect opportunity to better integrate those things into the “base” game, too.)
The Switch version, in particular, also suffers a little bit from performance troubles—namely, sudden framerate drops that can completely throw off timing in a battle system built entirely around precise reactions. In a regular fight, it’s annoying to take a hit that you rightly would have dodged if frames didn’t drop at just the wrong moment; in a boss fight, it usually means instant death, and losing upwards of half an hour of progress between the slow dungeon progression and marathon nature of the boss fight itself.
Marchen Forest: Mylne and the Forest Gift is a diamond in the rough, and as long as you’re prepared to put up with a bit of frustration, there’s something special here. It’s a surreal twist on the “Alchemist in training” tale popularised by Atelier, full of cute, sometimes creepy characters, quirky humour, and a story that is, by turns, both bizarre and grounded in humanity. If you can look past its rough edges, there’s a lot to like about Marchen Forest.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.