I live near a place called Aberdare Park that is most commonly known for two things: the annual motorcycle race that takes place there and the abundance of squirrels that are constantly scavenging across its huge array of trees. I take my daughter for a walk there every weekend and you can guarantee that we’ll see plenty of squirrels on the way. We always make sure to take some nuts with us to grab the little fuzzballs’ attention, so our squirrel-count will easily hit double-figures by the time we head home. It’s lovely.
The point I’m trying to make is that I’m very fond of squirrels, with that fondness seeing my interest in NUTS, the narrative-driven puzzler that sees you tracking squirrels through a tranquil forest, pique quite a bit. I haven’t played anything quite like it before and, despite the unconventionality of the premise, I’m glad to say that it makes for a memorable gameplay experience too.
NUTS puts players into the role of a researcher that is tasked with tracking the activity of the squirrels of Melmoth Forest. Guided along by Nina, an expert in the field who had previously spent time doing the same role in her younger years (and who has left some tapes behind that keep record of her experience doing so), players are expected to monitor camera footage to see what the squirrels are doing, find out where they make their nests, and learn more about the relationship that they share with one another.
There is a reason for all of this: a corporation known as Panorama are looking to start a building project within Melmoth Forest, so you’ve got to prove that it would ruin the habitat of the local wildlife. What starts as a simple job soon becomes more complicated though, especially when you notice that the squirrels are acting a little… strangely.
Believe it or not, it was the story of NUTS that kept me most invested in the game. Nina constantly fills you in on what’s going on behind the scenes in regards to Panorama’s interference with your work, whilst the sights you encounter across Melmoth Forest can certainly be a little odd. It feels like it could easily fall into the horror genre on occasions, though it never develops further than a few eerie undertones. Either way, the narrative will hook players in, whilst the peculiar payoff was satisfying enough to make the journey worthwhile.
As far as gameplay is concerned, most of your time will be spent setting up video cameras across the forest to track each squirrel’s movements. Once you’ve set them all up, you can then move into the night-time hours and follow the recordings they make across three computer monitors in the comfort of your caravan, with the player able to fast-forward, rewind, pause, zoom-in and out, and print images from the video they capture in order to complete the objectives that Nina has assigned.
It’s a simple concept really, though that doesn’t mean it will necessarily be easy. See, you’re only given the squirrel’s starting point for their nightly routine, meaning you have to configure your video cameras carefully to track their movements through the night. Nina might ask you to see where they end up at the end of their routine, she might ask you to grab pictures of them at specific time points, whilst other times she might ask you to work backwards to find out where exactly additional squirrels have come from. Whatever the objective, it always feels puzzle-like in design and will take a few nights of trial-and-error as you move your video cameras around each day to perfectly track each squirrel’s routine. It might sound a little daunting, but their routine never changes so it’s easy to keep on top of if you position your video cameras carefully.
Want to know the best feeling of all? When you manage to set up your video cameras in the PERFECT place from the get-go, giving you an ideal view of the forest and of the squirrel’s activity. Sometimes, it’s possible to predict where they might end up anyway if you explore your surroundings a bit, especially since most of their nests consist of a big bundle of nuts (and sometimes a bit of dynamite… I told you it can get odd). Be warned though: it’s easy for players to try and be TOO clever, forcing them to have to start the whole tracking process all over again when they accidentally lose track of a squirrel’s location because they didn’t act as predictably as the player thought they would. This happened to me when additional squirrels were wandering the forest, with Nina scolding me slightly after sending her images of the wrong squirrel. My bad.
The process itself might sound like it would get repetitive over time, and yeah, simply placing video cameras around to follow squirrels’ movements isn’t always the most exciting experience to have. Fortunately, NUTS introduces a few additional ideas to spice the experience up a little, whether that’s by making the player track squirrels without the use of a video camera (which was more difficult than I thought it would be), by having the player do a bit of investigative work with their traditional camera, or by trying to find a way to restore older equipment into a working condition. Don’t get me wrong, it’s hardly the most varied experience you’re going to play, but it did enough to ensure that players won’t tire of the squirrel-tracking formula during the game’s roughly two-to-three-hour runtime.
I know I certainly didn’t; in fact, between the intriguing story and the charming gameplay, I had an absolutely delightful time playing through NUTS’ unique experience. I haven’t played anything quite like it before and I can’t imagine I’ll be tracking squirrels in any other video games anytime soon…
Whilst fun though, it did have some flaws that crept in during my experience. For example, there were a couple of occasions where I could no longer move my video cameras because I accidentally placed them out of bounds, forcing me to re-load the game to access them again. These were one-off issues that I’m partly to blame for, but it was still a bit of a pain that they occurred in the first place.
The frame rate could be a little iffy in places too, especially in one of the more action-orientated sequences where it became incredibly choppy. Add to that a few instances where the controls didn’t feel all that responsive and it becomes clear that NUTS’ performance isn’t always perfect on the Nintendo Switch.
Still, it never feels unplayable by any means and there’s no denying that it’s an absolutely gorgeous looking game. Keeping its visuals simple with hard edges and a small selection of colours, its minimalistic aesthetic helps build a wonderful atmosphere within Melmoth Forest that feels befitting of the peaceful vibe of the game. Just check out the screenshots to see what I mean… it’s very pretty. Add to that some sound design that always sets the mood perfectly and you’ll quickly find that NUTS’ presentation is top notch throughout.
NUTS offers a unique and memorable experience that kept me completely hooked in from the get-go – who would have thought that tracking squirrels would be so fun?
Whilst I have no doubt that its peculiar gameplay premise and slow pace probably won’t be for everyone, those who like to play something a little DIFFERENT really ought to give it a try. With its intriguing story, impressive visuals, and cute squirrel-tracking antics, it’s clear that NUTS is a special little game.
I’m… uh-hum… ‘nuts’ about this game. I did it. I did the nuts pun…
Developer: Joon, Pol, Muutsch, Char and Torfi
Publisher: Noodlecake Games
Platform(s): Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PC