Howl is making me feel guilty; due to the self-descriptive “living ink” design, there is immediately a beautiful look to it. It is reminiscent of Pentiment. However, when you are attacked by one of the enemies, your blood is splattered all over the map. It looks gorgeous, firstly spraying everywhere before seeping into the parchment, like ink would. And that’s the guilt I am feeling: I don’t want to be attacked all the time, and yet when it happens…
Howl is a turn-based strategy game with a gorgeous look to it. You play as a deaf heroine who is unable to hear the howling plague that has corrupted many others and turned them into wolf-like creatures. I’m not sure if they officially are werewolves, but they’re a close cousin if nothing else.
The world is presented with a watercolour-like feel to it. The colours bleed and soak into each other and it presents this quite beautiful world that also reacts to how you are playing. Killing an enemy soaks dark red into the world, and destroying obstacles removes any trace of them. The term ‘living art’ wholly describes how the beautiful world reacts to your actions.
Each of the game’s sixty levels will have one of two major objectives: Kill all wolves (or prevent them from turning NPCs into more wolves) and completing the level in a set number of turns. Early on, both objectives may be possible in the same attempt but you’ll quickly have to prioritise one over the other and return later on.
It is woven into the story that your playable character is a bit of a soothsayer, and has crafted a prophecy that will allow her to rid the world of the plague once and for all. That is why you have a target number of moves in each level, and it is also why I would argue against Howl being a true strategy game.
Her abilities also allow you to foresee what enemies will do. Once you enter the line of sight of an enemy you will see their number of moves increase until you take your turn. The wolves will also always follow the same path depending on your moves, so there will be no surprises. It’s that that makes me think of Howl as more of a puzzle game rather than an out-and-out strategy. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely strategy elements, but I found myself having greater success once I was able to work out enemy movement patterns and plan around those. This method involved a bit of trial and error to get there, but the end result was still achieved.
If this is something you are struggling with, there is an Assist Mode you can turn on that will allow you to see enemy movements rather than just the number of moves. But then Howl really does become just a puzzle game as you try and figure out the correct route to the exit.
You also have a healthy arsenal if you want to take the fight to the wolves. You start off with a bow and three arrows per level, plus a push move that is useful when environmental obstacles are around. There is even a wait ability. You are limited to three actions when you start but this can be upgraded to six, along with unlocking new abilities. These can also be upgraded too.
Upgrading is done by spending confidence points. Every time you complete a level or rescue a survivor in Howl, you are awarded these. Complete a level in the recommended number of turns and you are awarded three points. But you can also return at any point if you miss them the first time around.
Your other currency, skulls, are used on the map where you select your next level. These tend to just unlock otherwise inaccessible areas of the map, but there will be more levels on the hidden path to further upgrade your abilities.
Each chapter ending will see you face off against a harder enemy but the exact same rules apply as before. These just might take more than one hit.
New chapters bring new challenges: there may be squares in which you alert the attention of the wolves if stood on, or elements that make things a bit more challenging as you progress. Unfortunately though, these aren’t game-changing enough and so the main game gets a bit tedious after just a short while.
Ultimately, Howl doesn’t really bring anything to the table that we haven’t seen hundreds of times before. It is fun, but not exactly a challenging strategy game; you can brute force your way through a level by simple trial and error. The shorter nature of the levels allow you to approach it as more of a puzzle game than an out-and-out turn-based strategy game. But then, that very nature also brings a fair amount of repetition too.
Howl is, however, gorgeous – and it may be worth the admission price for that alone.