There are several ways you can approach a game in an established world. It’s a spectrum, and at one end of it is the Knights of the Old Republic, treating its chosen universe with reverence, and at the other end is Kinect Star Wars. The World of Darkness, which incorporates Vampire: The Masquerade, Mage: The Ascension and – in this case – Werewolf: The Apocalypse, has seen many games, each falling at many different points on that spectrum. Just recently, we were treated to Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Earthblood, which fell towards the Kinect Star Wars end. It was a ramshackle action game, garnished with barely a sprinkle of World of Darkness storytelling. Now, we have Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Heart of the Forest, which zooms far, far up the other end, aiming for Knights of the Old Republic-style reverence to its subject matter. Bizarrely, considering the proximity of the two launches, Heart of the Forest bears no relation or ties to Earthblood. Our first assumption was that this was a Dead Space: Ignition-style release to support Earthblood, and we’re happy to report that it’s both standalone and much better than its predecessor.
Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Heart of the Forest captures the spirit of the World of Darkness so well, mainly because it plays like the table-top roleplaying games that the IP is built on. Screenshots might imply that Heart of the Forest is a visual novel, but there’s more branching and character-sheet construction than that. This is a traditional roleplaying experience, with a DM effectively setting the scene and you making calls on how you approach the situation based on your current stats. It’s reminiscent of the old Choose Your Own Adventure books that you might have played growing up.
You play a young woman called Maia Boroditch, who is travelling to a small Polish town called Bialowieska. This is the hometown of your grandparents, but it’s also the setting for several of your dreams/nightmares, where you have a habit of handling disembodied heads. You’ve arrived with a recently acquired friend called Anya and are due to meet a contact called Bartek, who has information about your family ties in the area. Running parallel to this, Bialowieska is a focal point for activism, as loggers are looking to deforest the local forest, or ‘Puszcza’.
So far, so werewolf-less, but things soon get hairy. The two worlds collide, and it doesn’t take a mastermind to work out why you’re having dreams drenched in blood. Factions appear, as the locals borderline despise you, the activists invite you into their fold, reporters cosy up to you with questions, and the loggers are positioned clearly as the enemy.
As you bounce between these factions, making choices about where to investigate, how to react, and who to spend time with, you will find that your character sheet changes. Heart of the Forest sets you up with very simple stats – Rage, Willpower and Health – and, as you reach milestones that more clearly outline who you are, it introduces more stats to play around with. You soon gain Renown – sub-categorised into Glory, Honour and Wisdom – and it would be somewhat spoilerific to reveal the other stat groupings. These staggered improvements to your avatar are cracking, and create some of the best moments in the game.
Choices become available depending on the current state of your stats. Rage, Willpower and Health can go up and down, so you’ll be treating them like valuable commodities. Want to ask that risky question? It will cost you Willpower, denying you potential future options, but it might lead to an outcome that wouldn’t have been available otherwise. One of Heart of the Forest’s greatest downfalls, actually, is communicating this properly, as the three bars each have slightly different implications. Your Rage will bounce up and down, and it’s perfectly fine to be at either end of it. In fact, if you want to be a headstrong, Molotov-wielding character, then sitting at the top of your Rage meter is positively encouraged. Willpower and Health, however, act differently, and are more of a currency. You will want to keep these high and only spend them when you think it’s going to lead to something juicy (equally, don’t give in to analysis-paralysis and never spend them, as that’s bad form). It took us half a playthrough to understand what the development team at Different Tales was really aiming for here, and separating the stats would have helped.
The choices would all be fruitless if Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Heart of the Forest wasn’t wildly divergent, and luckily it’s a big old messy tree of decisions and outcomes. We’ve played through multiple times, and had contrasting experiences: once playing as a gung-ho activist, the other as a touchy-feely new-age shaman. Both were satisfying, and didn’t feel like they were compromises on a grand vision. There are niggles in playing through multiple times, though: a ‘skip’ function is de facto in most visual novels but, bewilderingly, isn’t included here, so you’re going to be wandering through the same dialogue with each playthrough. For a game that demands to be played multiple times, it’s a waste. The achievements and satisfying outcomes also come from playing the extremes, rather than playing a pragmatist. If you tread softly, then you won’t emerge with much in the way of Gamerscore or satisfying denouements, for example. It’s minor, but it might force you to make unnatural choices.
The design choices made by the creators of Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Heart of the Forest (which include the original designer of The Witcher, Artur Ganszyniec) are worth celebrating. Heart of the Forest is refreshing and unusual: it is based on an actual protest and logging site in Poland, and the developers come from the area, so there’s an authenticity and edge given to proceedings, as well as a non-American backdrop for once. You’re a leading lady in a horror-lite game, but without being a victim or femme fatale. Even more unusually, the themes of Heart of the Forest are very much climate change, eco-terrorism and activism; something that is embraced in Werewolf: The Apocalypse’s broader setting. It’s not a common set of themes.
But while environmentalism is undoubtedly a noble pursuit, it doesn’t always lend itself to strong storytelling, and Heart of the Forest can’t find a solution to its foibles. It’s hard to make a case for why destroying the environment might be a ‘good’ thing, so choices often feel black and white or railroaded. Consequences aren’t always immediate with climate change, and it’s difficult to create a manifest villain other than ‘the greed of capitalism and corporations’. These all damage Heart of the Forest, which can feel simplistic as a result – deforestation bad, activism good. When partnered with a short running time – roughly a couple of hours, and shorter for additional playthroughs – you can stand at the end of the experience, looking back, and think it all hinged on one single moment, and there wasn’t enough else that was substantial. For a game based on werewolves, there is an argument that it feels toothless.
Yet, while you are progressing through Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Heart of the Forest, you’ll find it to be a slick and engaging trip. Different Tales have taken the structure and storytelling craft from their Wanderlust Travel Stories series (unfortunately not on Xbox yet, but worth searching out) and applied that to a Werewolf: The Apocalypse game. It’s definitely a left-turn from ‘relaxing text adventure’, but it’s a snug fit. The writing is well-done and the characters are thoroughly rounded, while the art style will split audiences, but we found the mixed-media of photography and painting to be effective.
Players tumbling out of Werewolf: The Apocalpyse – Earthblood, expecting a spin-off will be disappointed. Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Heart of the Forest on Xbox is laid-back and wordy, instead trying to capture the spirit of the original table-top roleplaying game. Some might bemoan the lack of action, but we got lost in it: Heart of the Forest revels in storytelling and character-building, presenting you with choices to make, adding consequences to those choices, and then growing your character based on those consequences. It could have done with a bit more bite and certainly more Garou-bloodletting, but the tale it tells will leave you over the (full) moon.