Elevated by skillful writing an atmospheric soundtrack, and a system where your decisions truly have weight, Werewolf: The Apocalypse — Heart of the Forest is an intriguing adventure that is worthy of investigation.
Platform: Switch, previously on PC
Developer: Different Tales
Publisher: Walkabout Games
Release date: January 7th, 2021
Price: $14.99 via Nintendo eShop, $13.49 launch price
As a medium, visual novels have matured across the last few years. Once dominated by works of prose adorned with a few static images, recent efforts have been far more ambitious. From Necrobarista’s sinuous camera and existential exposition to Jiangshi x Daoshi’s delivery, which captured the high-spirited energy of animated shonen, both storytelling and visuals have grown in sophistication.
Although the recent Switch release of Werewolf: The Apocalypse — Heart of the Forest isn’t as flashy as the two aforementioned titles, achievement is rooted in the game’s blend of evocative visual novel-style with role-playing elements. Unlike many novels where branches and conclusions hinge on a key decision or two, there’s far more choices here, extending a satisfying feeling of autonomy. As you journey through Heart of the Forest, you’ll witness the effect that choices have on your Rage, Willpower, and Health stats, all of which are displayed on-screen.
Breadcrumbs Through the Forest
But smartly, there are safeguards to keep the game’s trajectory from being too obvious. Dialog and action choice have a powerful influence on plotline, affecting everything from the trajectory of the story to how other characters will interact with you. Treat a person with compassion or empathy, and they’re more likely to open up, potentially revealing a facet of Heart of the Forest’s larger mystery. Of course, trying to befriend everyone is impossible. Occasionally, your personal goals will clash with the motivations of another character. Slyly, Heart of the Forest doesn’t tell you everything and there’s enough ambiguity to make multiple plays-through stimulating. Make decisions grounded by your own beliefs, and the game can become a litmus test. One of the title’s fundamental questions is whether violence can be justified, and seeing your ideologies reflected onscreen can be gratifying.
But a system like this is only as good as the storytelling that uses it. Fortunately, Heart of the Forest’s prose is talented. For the majority of the game, there’s an aura of intrigue as you follow protagonist Maia Boroditch and her college friend to Białowieża, a quaint Polish village that hosts one of the world’s last primordial forests. Maia’s motivations are clear: she longs to know about her family, who migrated from the town.
Midway through the game, there’s an expositional shift that brings the game stats to the foreground. While these resources where influential before, they’ll become imperative, with Willpower used to resolve critical situations. Although you can regain the resource by meeting goals, you’ll need to use the resource sparingly, or else you might run into a situation where your hand in tragically forced. It’s here that Heart of the Forest seems most ‘game-like’. There will be some dilemmas where your hand is forced, and while it doesn’t break the sense of immersion, these moments can be a bit dispiriting after enjoying a more free-form path through the game.
Five Endings, But Closure isn’t Always Achieved
Pleasingly, there’s sophistication with the writing, with a gradual reveal of events as you choose what part of the village to explore next. Depending on dialog choices, Maia’s internal provocations might not be shared with other characters. But after watching one of the lead’s dreams at the start of the game, players will know that the forest plays a key role in Maia’s consciousness and the game at large. Of course, revealing any more of the plot would be a disservice.
That said, there are a few blemishes with delivery. As indicated by the title, it’s evident that lycanthropy plays a key role in the tale. But a significant portion of the early game dances around the obvious. Sure, there’s plenty of interesting world-building, but as readers we’re habitually five paces ahead of Maia, which can be a bit vexing.
Although the midsection heats up to a rollicking boil, some might find the game’s conclusion a bit too concise. Given all of the events leading up to that point, closure across the five endings can seem rushed. Likely, you’ll long to spend more time with Maia, as well as some of the characters who are pushed into the backdrop. Leaving room for sequels has undermined storytelling in other mediums, and it appears that developer Different Tales is guilty of the same misstep. One last warning: those with little interest in environmentalism might not connect with the story.
Delightfully Ambiguous Visuals and Suggestive Sounds
Despite being confined to the Switch’s diminutive screen, Werewolf: The Apocalypse — Heart of the Forest makes an impact. The left side of the screen is used for text, while the other half is filled with evocative, abstract imagery. Occasionally, it’s a bit heavy-handed, with the faces of wolves a bit too apparent in the background. But almost often, it’s makes for a remarkable visual complement to the writing, giving characters an obscured representation. What’s especially effective is the game’s soundtrack. Instead of a constant steam of music to set the tone, Heart of the Forest favors ambient sounds. A such, it’s highly recommended to play with a set of headphones. The one omission from the PC version is the ability to mouse over words to learn their definition and proper pronunciation.
While a single-playthrough will only take about three hours, you’ll undoubtedly want to trek through Heart of the Forest more than once. Besides uncovering previously unseen passages of plot, it’s worth re-experiencing to see the myriad of branches and digressions that will be witnessed. Seemingly cordial characters might turn into vicious killers on the next playthrough, showing the versatility of the game’s programming.
Typically, table-top adaptions focus on preserving the mechanics of their source material. Werewolf: The Apocalypse — Heart of the Forest’s emphasis is on immersive, decision-dependent storytelling, which endows the game with distinction. While the end result has a few imperfections, it’s hard not to be dazzled by the developer’s ambitions and accomplishments.
Werewolf: The Apocalypse — Heart of the Forest was played
on Switch with review code provided by the publisher.