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An adorable, hilarious existential crisis on the edge of ruin: You should be playing Night in the Woods

What is it?

An honest, refreshing, and genuinely funny look at life growing up in the American Rust Belt, wrapped in a chilling ghost story

Play it if you like…

Telltale adventure games, coming of age stories with a spooky backdrop, smashing capitalism

  • Format: PC/PS4
  • Price: $19.99/£14.99
  • Release date: Out now

Night in the Woods begins with failure. Mae is a naive twenty-year-old anthropomorphic cat returning back home to the sleepy factory town of Possum Springs after dropping out of college for reasons she has difficulty articulating. She arrives at the bus station late at night, her parents are nowhere to be found. Turns out, they thought she was coming tomorrow. Great.

Mae takes it all in stride, though, cracking ironic jokes at her situation, hopping from power lines and trees to make her way home. She draws a picture in her journal - Mae in a pirate outfit captaining a boat while a cartoon squid swims underneath the water declaring 'Your parents forgot you!' with a heart to dot the exclamation point. This is the first moment Night in the Woods finds humor in potential darkness. It won't be the last. 

You settle into routine quickly in Night in the Woods, growing comfortable with waking up and meeting with friends, moving Mae around this small town that seems to be getting smaller by the year as jobs disappear, businesses close down, and people eventually move out. The local grocery store shuttered when the big Wal-mart-esque chain Ham Panther showed up; your favorite Italian food restaurant Pastabilities closes a few days after you move in. 

This all sounds unbelievably bleak - and make no mistake, there's an undercurrent in Night in the Woods that's real as hell, unafraid to explore the realities of what living in a small, increasingly impoverished town in the 21st century is actually like for millions of Americans. But it's also warm, funny, inviting, beautifully animated, and every line of dialog has a nugget of truth, even when things are at their silliest - or darkest.

Take Gregg, for instance. He's your best bro. To quote Mae's journal, "Gregg rulz, ok?" You guys have been through thick and thin together for years. He acts without a care in the world, bailing on his job at the Snack Falcon on a whim just for a chance to hang out with you again. You bust up fluorescent lights in a parking lot or steal an old battery out of an abandoned car with a tree growing out of it to repair an old animatronic grocery store mascot. But you also learn that he's been working really hard to find a way out - just like you had before you came crashing back into town - and for the first time, you're not the center of his universe any more.

Or, you could spend time with Bea, your goth friend who has a lit cigarette permanently affixed to her lower lip. You two have a complicated history together, and I don't want to get to far into it for fear of spoiling it, but their arc is one of the most honest and real friendships I've seen in a video game.

Of course, there's something much more sinister lurking under the surface of this sincere examination of working class angst. On your first day back in town, you spot a severed arm lying on the pavement next to the local diner. You poke at it with a stick until your police officer aunt shoos you away. Your dreams are becoming more vivid, more… disturbing. Your reasons for leaving college and your own dark past come back to haunt you in chilling ways. In between band practice with your friends and shopping at the husk of your local mall, you'll investigate these mysterious shenanigans, looking for clues that could bring to light one of your town's darkest secrets. 

Or it could all be in your head. Either way, your friends will be there to back you up, to help you and grow with you, through both good and trying times. And that's what makes Night in the Woods special, like the ways that the best parts of the Persona games are special. It provides an examination of a section of American life and culture often ignored and lets you live in its spaces, memorize its streets, and get to know every single one of its people. It's the kind of game where a single line of dialog can change your whole perception of a character's motivations. It's the kind of game where, even when things are at their lowest point, even when the most destructive person around is you, your virtual friends will be there to pick you back up and put the pieces together. 

Night in the Woods is, more than any game I've played in recent memory, of this exact moment in time and history in American life, and it's saying the things that needs to be said. I want to share images of every moment I've seen, every line of dialog I've read, but I want you to experience it for yourself. Night in the Woods is special. You should play it.

You Should Be Playing celebrates innovative, unexpected games that belong on your radar, with a new game every Monday at 0900 PST / 1700 GMT. Follow @gamesradar (opens in new tab) on Twitter for updates.

David Roberts lives in Everett, WA with his wife and two kids. He once had to sell his full copy of EarthBound (complete with box and guide) to some dude in Austria for rent money. And no, he doesn't have an amiibo 'problem', thank you very much.