Beacon Pines is one of the best adventure games of 2022

Pins Tags is the tragic story of a pair of young children (animals) who clash with nefarious characters working in an old abandoned factory. It is also the story of these same children who try to investigate these strange events, until they discover secrets that lead to their untimely demise. And it’s also the story of those kids taking action that accidentally injures one of their rivals, and a tragic sacrifice. But it’s not about those incidents either. Because this adventure-visual novel is the most extraordinary fusion of overlapping versions of a reality, in which your storybook choices redefine the unfolding of its narrative.

Luka is a really cute young deer. The sad death of his father, then the sudden disappearance of his mother, means that he finds himself raised by an unknown but very loving grandmother. Along with his best friend (and fox – literal fox) Rolo, Luka faces heartbreak, but wants adventure. Together they explore the woods, work on their treehouse, and uncover ancient conspiracy mysteries that challenge the very reality of the small wooded town they live in.

Beacon Pines – Release Date Trailer

It all plays out like a third-person adventure, set in a storybook. An omnipresent (and wonderfully acted) narrator delivers the story with her melodious tones, setting the scene and then letting you play. When you chat with the locals, shop for groceries, read comic books in the library, and discover an ugly glistening, gelatinous goo in the woods, you’ll sometimes be asked to make an important choice. Do you react to a dangerous situation by “Hide”, “Chill” or “Think”? Each new option comes with what the game calls a “charm,” added to your collection when someone says a keyword in encounters, some essential, some just for fun entertainment. Whichever you choose opens up a new (literal) branch in the storybook, which could lead to a (literal) dead end, or move the story forward in a unique direction, or a combination of both. (It’s a very literal game.)

Luka meets the cool kids hanging out outside the local cafe.

Screenshot: Hideout / Kotaku

Each scene is just the most beautifully rich illustration, the kind that would have had you looking and searching for detail as a child with such a book in your bed. It’s gloriously drawn, and the close-ups of the characters are yet another layer of rich, stunning art. I kept taking screenshots not to illustrate this article, but because I just wanted to capture the beauty.

Indeed, the transitions between the game and when it pauses and retreats to reveal what you see as artwork in the book never seem less special, no matter how often they occur.

The sweet-faced presentation, along with the silky-smooth storytelling, belies a particularly sinister game, in which danger and death are never far from these cute besties and their growing gang of companions. What looks a lot like a kid-friendly game will quickly turn out to be different, not only with its use of the curse (indeed, “Shit” is one of those charms that can be used in a few situations), but also with the predominant presentiment that pervades everything. Stunning hand-drawn art adds to that fairy-tale safety tackle, making the plot twists all the more delightfully jarring.

Beacon Pines storybook, offering a choice of three words to advance the story.

Screenshot: Hideout / Kotaku

At each point where a charm can be used, the game gives you a very limited choice, sometimes only two. However, picking up later charms sometimes allows you to return to the book tree and apply them at an earlier point, to create a whole new path through the tale. Or indeed, to meet another dark end. At that point the game declares “The End”, before the narrator protests this (differently each time, unlike too many other games that have used this gimmick), and lets you try another charm at another time.

The joy of these false endings and flashbacks to earlier moments is the change of mood. Where the story may have gone dark, ominous, or even miserable, it allows things to suddenly spring back to joyous life, where characters who had previously found themselves emotionally broken or physically hurt are now back to their old me more lively. It also develops this extraordinary way of telling a story, where multiple parallel realities fill in more and more detail for you, if not for the characters.

The most obvious concern for anyone playing is trying to remember all the potential versions of history that have happened, and here Pins Tags misses an obvious trick. The tree from which you can return to all previous decision points does not indicate which previously chosen options lead where. It is sometimes a question of choosing between two charms, one of which leads to an “End”, the other leading the story further on another branch. But remembering which was which is not straightforward, and becomes even more confusing when there are three options.

A village scene, with people setting up for the festival, stalls and a tent being prepared.

Screenshot: Hideout / Kotaku

To add to this potential confusion, try to remember what knowledge the characters possess in a given path and what events preceded the situation you currently find yourself in. The game does a good job of reminding you of the most important ones and will also use the omniscient narrator to nudge when a character you’re chatting with is unaware of something you’ve learned in a different timeline, but it’s the little details that get lost. Luka and Rolo may be investigating a situation at the treehouse, but is that in the timeline where they got into a fight, or is that the one where they both caught at the factory? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter for the scene, but it’s still a shame there’s no effective way to check. All of this could have been handled by the tree, if it gave little summaries of the consequences of a choice you fully played.

Oh, and be careful, because it won’t recheck before switching to another path if you make a wrong selection on the tree. I recommend quitting immediately if this happens, then the game will restart at the start of the chapter you just started. Of course, even that isn’t straightforward, given that I think I’ve seen at least four different versions of Chapter 6…

In a panic, Rolo tells Luka, "I DON'T PANIC."

Screenshot: Hideout / Kotaku

Yet despite these possible improvements, what’s here works so incredibly well. This may not be quite the insanely complicated version suggested by the demo, but that would have been cumbersome and unpleasant. Instead, the way you experience entirely different versions of history, through competing realities, makes a previous version feel like a dream you once had while you experience the next. It really is the most extraordinary way to tell a story, no matter how completely silly its details can possibly get.

It is a splendid creation, superbly written, with spellbinding art and a unique approach to telling a story. It’s also a fascinating exploration of grief, loss and, most of all, how we respond to change. That and secret underground organizations and their diabolical plans to control cities through fertilizer production.

Beacon Pines is now available Xbox, To change, Steam and Itch.