The film was widely praised among critics, whose "howling protests" were heard at the 1952 Cannes Film Festival where it was not an "official entry of France"; instead, it was "screened on the fringe of the Competition."
The film was entered into competition at the 1952 Venice Film Festival (VFF); festival organizers at first considered the film ineligible because it had been screened at Cannes; it ended up receiving the Golden Lion, the VFF's highest prize.
Upon its release, it was lambasted some, saying it was a "vicious and unfair picture of the peasantry of France"; in France, 4,910,835 theater tickets were sold. Following its December 1952 release in the United States, Bosley Crowther called it a film with "the irony of a Grand Illusion, the authenticity of a Harvest and the finesse of French films at their best"; according to Crowther, the film is a "brilliant and devastating drama of the tragic frailties of men, clear and uncorrupted by sentimentality or dogmatism in its candid view of life."
At the 25th Academy Awards, Forbidden Games won an out-of-competition Special Award as Best Foreign Language Film. In December 1952, at the 24th National Board of Review Awards it was chosen as one of that year's five top foreign films. At the 1952 New York Film Critics Circle Awards, it won for Best Foreign Language Film.
Im 1954, it was BAFTA's Best Film from any Source; in 1955, at the 27th Academy Awards, François Boyer was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story; Philip Yordan won, for his work on Broken Lance.
Decades after its release, David Ehrenstein called it "deeply touching" and wrote: "Fossey's is quite simply one of the most uncanny pieces of acting ever attempted by a youngster. Clément’s sensitivity doubtless accounts for much of what we see here, but the rest is clearly Fossey’s own."