Howl review: Dark whimsy and calculating cunning
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Featured Image Credit: astragon Entertainment
Tactical games never used to interest me, perhaps because I favoured button-mashing and acting without thinking instead of planning ahead. But as I’ve learnt to branch out over the years, I’ve discovered a fondness for tactical thinking, and with it a new-found love of strategy games. Consequently, when the opportunity to play Howl presented itself, I was eager to test my skills.
Painted across your screen is a dark and dangerous world, though one that enchants all the same; hidden in the shadows of trees are howling monsters, but your character is strong of heart, their deafness offering them a unique advantage over the Howling Plague. Our nameless heroine, known only as The Prophet, is attempting to find any advantages they can wield over the horrors that face those caught in the plague's path.
Watch the Howl launch trailer to see if you can handle the challenges that await!
It’s a rich narrative, told beautifully through the inky illustrations of the game; it evokes images of pages from a fairytale book, the map you make your way through reminiscent of those you might find in a fantasy novel. Even if you’re not one for strategy, Howl’s looks alone can tempt you to broaden your horizons. But to stay within its story, to help it unfold, takes more than visually tempting imagery, which Howl also has in abundance.
This isn’t a fast-paced title. Even during moments of “action” when monsters are attacking, its pace is still relaxed despite the horrors lurking around the corner. Yet, you’ll feel the threat of the monsters bearing down on you all the same.
Movement-wise, you can move up to six spaces at a time, with the first level a simple case of walking from one side of the forest to the other. However, as you progress, challenges are thrown your way, with you needing to decide whether you move, wait, or attack. A crossbow is how you protect yourself against the hordes waiting to pounce, with your character able to shoot vertically or horizontally. Arguably, this is where your skills as a tactician come into play, with you needing to think like the monsters to outwit them.
It may sound easy, but to achieve perfect execution within the “Prophecy round value” is surprisingly hard. This is due to the monsters almost mimicking your movements, their presence as NPCs not wasted or limited to being just a glorified roadblock; they’re a genuine threat. Should you get struck by their claws, it won’t kill you, but it will hurt. The value for each stage you enter will vary, however, it’s simple enough to understand: if you complete the stage within the desirable number of turns, you’ll gain Confidence (an in-game resource). If you don’t manage this, your Confidence intake will decrease.
Upon killing an enemy, you gain Skulls, a trophy that reminds you of the monsters you’ve slain. As the game tells you during its tutorial stages, it’s “not always possible” to obtain all the Confidence and Skulls in a “single attempt”. As a result, replaying levels becomes another integral part of the game, especially for perfectionists who want 100 per cent. If you leave an area and it’s marked with a yellow circle with a tick, you’ve achieved all the goals, with anything less a sign that you need to improve.
As well as enemies to vanquish, there are also villagers to save, with their chances of survival completely in your hands – thank goodness for the ability to replay a level, right? As frustrating as it can sometimes be when you can’t catch a break no matter how hard you plan, Howl has me coming back for more. I want to be the very best at it. Howl forces me to use my brain, sometimes straining it, so I can win the day in spite of all the obstacles facing The Prophet. Just because I said I have a soft spot for tactical games doesn’t mean I’m good at them.
My main criticism of this stunning-looking game is how repetitive it becomes. Granted, the monsters adapt, new ones appear, and the landscape changes as you progress, but everything still feels fundamentally the same. It lacks variation. That fact doesn’t take away from the charm this title exudes, but it certainly makes it difficult to play for long periods; although I want to be the best at it, I also want to feel like I’m making good headway. This is something not easily found within the stages of Howl.
Reviewers who’ve condemned this gameplay decision have, in my opinion, come down too harshly on the developers, with them seemingly missing the point that The Prophet’s mission is a harrowing one. Such struggles translate through our own, with us forced to adapt, endure, and repeat to see it through to the end. It’s not for everyone, but partnered with the story, it suits Howl well.
I can’t say with certainty that I’ll keep returning to Howl, for me it feels like a one complete playthrough title. That being said, I implore anyone whose curiosity has been piqued by its trailer to try it out; with a demo available on both Steam and the Nintendo Switch, there’s no reason not to open your hearts to the dark whimsy of such a cunning game.
Pros: Stunning aesthetic, strategically challenging, and easy to learn
Cons: Becomes repetitive, its slow pace sometimes adds to the tedium
For Fans Of: Wildfrost, How to Say Goodbye, Portal 1 and 2, Inscryption
7/10: Very Good
Howl is available on Steam and Nintendo Switch. Nintendo Switch review copy provided by the publisher. Read a guide to our review scores here.