NUTS review

LEAKED! Squirrels caught on secret camera - GONE WILD

One of my favourite aspects of gaming is simulating or gamifying a strangely niche job, and ‘high-stakes squirrel photography’ is a perfect new example of that. NUTS is a nature photography game by Joon, Pol, Muuutsch, Char & Torfi for Apple Arcade, Switch and PC. As a fresh graduate, you’re sent on a research task to track down endangered squirrels and their nests in order to halt a corrupt corporation’s attempt to build over the areas. And this corporation does not give up easily.

I love how NUTS looks. Every act or ‘mission’ has its own two-toned colour palette, one set for day and a darker version for night. The purple, yellow or orange shading gives every forest environment a sense of beauty and surrealism, and sets a distinct tone between different story acts. Going from a grey prologue right into bright teals and oranges enveloped me with the look and feel of the setting, and as I progressed, this turned to more subtle pastel purples and dark blues as the story became more unsettling.

The story, thankfully, is pretty simple. Your mind will jump quickly to Firewatch when playing, not just because of the first-person isolated forest walking, but even the no-face woman feeding you info as the game progresses. My heart dropped when it introduced a softer moment with Nina, your supervising HQ lead, but fortunately NUTS knows what sort of game it is.

A playthrough will take you from 2 to 4 hours, which isn’t much time to fall in love with the characters. NUTS has light mystery and decent voice performances, but mainly involves putting cameras in front of squirrels.

Following the detecting freedom of Paradise Killer last year, I’ve found myself enjoying games that give players more freedom to figure things out on their own. NUTS is a great example, handing you multiple cameras in order to track down, follow and photograph squirrels. Often given a starting point, it was up to me to find out where the furry bastard went next. If it banks left and runs up a rock, it’s up to the player to plant cameras down that route where you think it’ll run, or even take a risk and point it where you think the squirrel may end up. You go back, search through the footage, and see if you did a good job. If your cameras are blank, try again tomorrow.

This step-by-step approach to narrowing an animal’s route using various planted camera angles was very satisfying, and using the bundled retro setup to fast-forward and rewind through 3 monitors at night wasn’t boring or repetitive, it instead felt like real data being collected in a genuine way: with time. While the developers estimated players spent 4 hours in this game, this trial-and-error period may last longer for you. Perhaps I’m just a natural squirrel photographer, and you should take notes.

The advantage of such a tight game is that nothing goes on too long, and every act has its own mood and creative ideas. Great environmental design choices either charmed me, or unsettled me. There’s always a sense of impending corporate doom in NUTS, whether it’s an abandoned boat in the distance or an ancient tree that’s now been cut down. 

The short experience didn’t get me very attached to the nature preservation plot, but the game’s narrative and gameplay design along with the moody soundtrack kept it in the front of my mind. The developers definitely understand what to put in the background and foreground, when to speed up the narrative, and when to turn everything on its head just as we think we’re comfortable. This precise awareness of the player experience along with the visuals are where NUTS shines. 

The final act of the story plants the player in much higher stakes not only for our eye in the sky Nina, but physically for the player. Details mentioned in passing come back in clever ways, and you’re left with one more task to do. Unfortunately, this part had moments that also cropped up throughout the game, where the rules of what I can and can’t do or should and shouldn’t do seem contradictory and confusing. 

The freedom of the maps was a positive, but often it would lead to me spending a game day on something I’m not meant to discover until later, and ending up frustrated at having to wait for the intended game route to catch up. It is a splendid game route mind, but the lack of info on what was and wasn’t available to me felt like a waste of time.

NUTS is self-aware.  Photography indies like Umurangi Generation and isolated nature experiences like Firewatch and Flower have gained success before, and it definitely mines that particular vein. The constantly switching colour palettes conjures memories of The Return of the Obra Dinn, but NUTS sets itself apart with how it’s used to convey story structure. The narrative is loose and didn’t hit the emotional beats it may have wanted, but at such a short playtime it still finishes with heart. Running around with cameras on tripods and waiting with baited breath at 3AM for a flash of a bushy tail was satisfying work, and honing that fluffy path felt worth it. See if you can beat my time. Until then, I’m declaring myself Squirrel Hunter Supreme.

  • Developer

    Joon, Pol, Muutsch, Char & Torfi

  • Platform

    PC, IOS, Mac, Nintendo Switch

  • Release Date

    4th February 2021

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