Studio Elan, and I refuse to copy and paste the accent mark like they do on their Twitter account, bursts out onto the EVN scene with their long awaited debut visual novel, Heart of the Woods. A mix of Ghost Adventurers, fluffy yuri relationships, and a magical elements, Heart of the Woods is an ambitious showcase of talent wrapped up in a tightly woven tale of love and sacrifice.
From the very beginning of this roughly 4-6 hour long VN, Heart of the Woods sets a tense tone that persists throughout the entire run time. Tara and Maddie, the team behind the viral paranormal internet show, Taranormal, are on their way an isolated town located in the woods at the behest of Morgan, a fan of the show who tips them off at paranormal activities within her town. Conflict is bubbling, though, as this is the final episode that Maddie will be working on, and this month long trip to produce the episode has pushed their now strained friendship to the breaking point. What follows is a series of rapidly escalating events where the very lives of the characters hang in the balance.
The story itself is generally solid with a few hiccups due in large part to how the passage of time is handled in this VN. Events progress at a whiplash pace in the VN which leads to the relationships between characters feeling more than a little contrived. This is something many VNs suffer from, however, and might be the most difficult aspect of writing a romance VN without feeling it completely with fluff pieces to flesh out character relationships for the sake of believability. While normally I despise long periods of fluff, Heart of the Woods would have benefited from a padded run time with more light hearted character interactions without the main conflict looming overhead. One half of our main cast, Maddie and Abigail do get far more of this type of treatment when compared to Tara and Morgan who are relegated more towards the advancement of the plot at the expense of a more evenly paced relationship.
The light hearted moments that do exist are tender and well done generally. Tara is a magnificent goofball, Abigail is a not so pure cinnamon roll, Morgan (my personal favorite character) features a great amount of excellent character growth, and Maddie is versatile, able to smoothly interact with every character in an interesting way, even when the interactions are less than amiable. More often than not, the interactions between couples, is incredibly cheesy and I feel that once again, the lack of establishing scenes for the relationships is the main cause of this. With that said, just because they are cheesy does not mean that they are poorly done or bad. Perhaps my inexperience in reading yuri VNs is showing here and the purpose is to create a more light, fluffy feel, in which case, the cheesy love dialogue achieves its goal.
Setting aside the character interactions, the storytelling is an improvement over the standard skeleton that director Josh Kaplan’s previous work, Highway Blossoms, follows. Far more ambitious and fantastical, Heart of the Woods’ story features some unexpected developments that caught me off guard. Aided by a writing style that seamlessly switches from whimsical and comedic to foreboding and brooding the story rarely misses a beat and when it does, its due to the previously mentioned passage of time. Of special note is how the writers successfully pulled off narration perspective changes in seamless fashion. Usually when a VN switches the narration character to tell a different side of the story, I find that one character’s side of the story is far stronger, more engaging than the other character. This is not the case in Heart of the Woods. Each perspective shift is treated with equal amounts of effort and I never found myself wishing I could go back to a different character’s narration/story.
The VN features phenomenal artwork from Adirosa and Rosuuri which establishes the magical world that the reader enters and also gives each character a highly unique appearance to match their personality. For example, just what in the hell are Tara’s hair clips? This question will inevitably lead you to “Why can Tara not even cook toast without nearly burning down an entire ecosystem of magical creatures.” Each character’s look matches perfectly with their personality. Once again, I have to show some love to my favorite character, Morgan, who’s sprite work is downright unsettling at times giving her a very mysterious feel which helps establish the magical strange setting for this VN.
The final piece of the puzzle for establishing this world is the music, which I am pleased to say is top notch. Featuring the talents of Sarah Mancuso and Astartus, the soundtrack is heavy on the use of stringed instruments but never overpowering which gives the reader the same level of comfort, or discomfort as the characters in the VN. When a soundtrack can assist in the world building and storytelling as the soundtrack in this VN does, that is the sign of great composition and direction.
The characters, art, story, and music all come together magnificently in creating the world of Heart of the Woods and therein a major hindrance to the VN comes into play. It is quite literally too fantastic of a world and story to be told in a VN. The limitations of the VN medium are on full display as despite all of the efforts taken to create this magical world, it never really feels like it is used to its full potential. Technically the VN is sound, utilizing clever camera movement, character positioning, and particle effects to bring this world to life, but I still felt it did not quite reach its full potential because it felt too static. This is in no way a knock on the team behind this work, but rather a criticism of the medium as a whole. This story and world would be far better suited in the form of an animated movie to allow the environment to truly come to life. I want Studio Elan to take this as a compliment, rather than a criticism. The work they did was too good to be trapped within the VN medium.
Heart of the Woods is a welcome entry to the EVN scene injecting a strong dose of professionalism into the market. While it does feature a couple of flaws, the overall package is an well polished work that is well worth the time to read if you want to spend a few hours in a world of yuri and magic. This is a fantastic debut work and leaves me excited to see just what Studio Elan has in store for the future.