I’m in a forest, drawn with stark lines against a soft yellow background. The trees are different shades of blue, the camera I carry stands out in bright orange. The view is a colour-blocking marvel, but I don’t have the calmness of mind to properly appreciate the tableau. I’ve just stumbled down an underpass and now can’t remember if I’ve been here before or not. I’m on the hunt for a squirrel, and I’ve just lost its trail.
The experience at the heart of NUTS is quickly explained – you’re a grad student who takes a job in squirrel surveillance for a research project. That’s literally the whole task – watching squirrels from a caravan out in the woods. At first, you’re simply confirming the rodents’ existence: you place a camera at a particular spot, then go back to the trailer to press the recording button on your equipment. If a squirrel appears on your recorded footage, you press pause, print the picture, and fax it to your boss, a researcher called Dr.
Nina Scholz, who then gives you a call. It’s all pretty low-tech and easy enough to do: you’re a student, after all. Each task takes you to a new location within the forest, where the parameters of your job change slightly. The subject you’re tracking might change, or you’re asked to catch a squirrel at a particular time. There are six assignments in total, and while the effort to offer variety is palpable, NUTS is really just this: you set your camera down, you witness a squirrel run in and out of frame, then jog into the woods to put your cameras further along what hopefully was the critter’s path, and rinse and repeat until you find a squirrel’s nest or its stash.
Exactly two types of people are reading this review right now – those to whom this sounds relaxing and satisfying, and those who are thinking, “No, thank you”. Maybe you enjoy bird-watching, or taking a lot of care to frame and rearrange your photos. In that case, NUTS is for you. But everyone turned off by the main in-game loop won’t find much else here, as the mystery at the heart of NUTS remains a mystery to the very end. The setup is promising – from a shadowy corporation to a squirrel population exhibiting some very un-squirrel-like behaviour, there’s a lot that could’ve happened – but NUTS ends without telling me what, or if anything, ever did happen. Instead, I have to spend large swathes of my playtime in silence, left alone in a forest, in a game where everything feels like work.
The biggest highlight in NUTS isn’t a nocturnal animal – sound designer and composer Almut Schwacke provides many of the best elements in the game. She not only wrote the soundtrack, including her own performance of the ending theme, but she also voices your boss. Most importantly, the sound engineer and multi-instrumentalist is an accomplished Foley artist, which explains the life-like atmosphere in NUTS’ virtual forest.
NUTS is an artistic accomplishment, but the conceptually intriguing idea doesn’t make for engaging gameplay.
Genre: Adventure Format: Switch (tested) / PC / Apple Arcade | Developer: Joon, Pol, Muutsch, Char & Torfi | Publisher: Noodlecake | Price: £15.49 | Release: Out now