When it comes to adapting a title from a tabletop game to a video game, a lot of the focus is placed on bringing the action and adventure about in a tangible form. But as anyone who has played a fantasy tabletop RPG will tell you, the action is only a part of the adventure. Storytelling is integral to the experience, and any good game master will use the world to push your characters in ways you might not have expected.
Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Heart of the Forest is based on the best-selling Werewolf: The Apocalypse tabletop role-playing game (TTRPG), where players take on the form of the Garou (werewolves), engaged in a war against rampant urban civilization and supernatural forces bent on bringing about The Apocalypse.
But at the risk of getting too technical, I’m not going to get incredibly detailed in the connections between Heart of the Forest and the source material. As someone who came into this title without any knowledge of the brand history and just an affection for werewolves, I found HotF to be impactful, beautifully written, and an example of how visual novels should handle themselves going forward. Let’s get into it!
STORY – BASED ON REAL EVENTS
All right, not entirely. Werewolves are still works of fiction, but HotF is inspired by the protests against logging in the Białowieża Forest. Straddling the border of Poland and Belarus, this primeval forest has become the focal point of contention between loggers claiming to be combating an invasive species of beetle and environmental activists hoping to protect the forest itself.
Our story puts us in the role of Maia, a young American of Polish ancestry, searching for information about her lineage. She feels called to the Białowieża Forest (or the Puszcza), and after a series of concerning nightmares, she finally makes her way to the village of Białowieża, looking for answers. As she investigates the town and forest, she encounters characters that can help her on her journey or stand in her way.
The writing in HotF was what really captured my attention. Designed by Jacek Brzeziński and Artur Ganszyniec (co-leads of The Witcher), and written by mostly women, the game is set up to be a great example of immersive fantasy and grounded character personalities. The team pulled it off, and I was enthralled the entire time. As Maia explores the town and the stories of the people she encounters, more of her family’s history is revealed, as upsetting as it might be.
We’ll get into the mechanics you use to progress in the gameplay section later on, but let me tell you about how I approached the character. Players have the means to steer the story based on how they choose to portray Maia. I settled on her confusion in regards to the strange dreams she is having and her sudden presence in a foreign country. So when it came to asking questions and speaking with other characters, I consistently chose the option of sarcasm, information gathering, and apprehension. This resulted in a particularly cunning personality that was less likely to (literally) rip someone’s head off.
But, again, there are thousands of ways to portray the character that you may find to be more true to yourself or your interpretation of Maia. I chose to see the good in the people around me, but I sided with the protesters and pushed other werewolves for information once I knew that Maia could handle a physical situation. Once a couple of close characters started sneaking off to hook up at the local hotel, I stopped including them in the narrative and focused my attention on others. There are many different ways to progress, so it’s up to you how your playthrough will be.
The entire game isn’t very long. The average playthrough is around three to five hours, depending on how fast you read, with a completionist playthrough clocking at around fifteen hours to finish all five unique endings.
GAMEPLAY – WHERE THERE’S A WILL…
Let’s talk about what makes this game more than a pretty looking book. As you progress through the game, depending on how you react to different situations, you will gain (or lose) Rage and Willpower points. These are used (much like in a tabletop game) to determine what steps you can take through a conversation. If your Rage is low due to some pacifist choices you’ve made, you won’t be able to suddenly go on the offensive to get answers. Likewise, if you’ve been taking the approach of striking first and asking questions later, you can’t suddenly take on a calm demeanor and charm your way through a situation.
Willpower works in a similar way; it holds your Rage in check and allows you to experience more through your actions. If your Willpower drops, fewer options of action will be available. There are plenty of opportunities to raise or lower your Rage and Willpower if things start to get out of hand. It’s all based on how you decide to approach a situation.
This gameplay mechanic was something I really enjoyed and hope to see more of in future visual novels. Rather than giving me a nice story to look at, HotF actually incorporated elements of the TTRPG it was based on. I liked that there was a task given to me, to keep track of these Rage and Willpower meters. It felt like it included me more into the journey as opposed to treating me like an audience. This is definitely something that visual novels should try and emulate more, as the most impactful stories are the ones that you have a connection to.
Like any good tabletop RPG, there’s always a handy character sheet available to access at any time to keep track of who you’ve encountered and how they feel about you. It’s also an easy way to keep an eye on your goals and your relationship with the forest itself. If a character were to dislike you, they’d be less likely to suddenly help you out. Your journey is based on your actions.
GRAPHICS/AUDIO – CHAOTIC COLLAGE
The soundtrack of the game really sets the scene the whole way. I’m not usually very interested in (or pay attention to) the audio in games. I play a lot when my kids are napping or asleep, so game music is as low on my priority list as it is at a low volume. But in Heart of the Forest, the sounds really helped underscore the suspense of the title.
Throughout the game, there’s an ominous feeling that seems to sit just behind your neck. It’s not scary, and there aren’t (that I could find) any jump scares. That’s not the vibe of the game. But the music creates an atmosphere that, combined with the writing, urges you to learn more and more with earnest.
An unfortunate weak point of this visual novel, however, is the visual aspect. The team was going for an art style that would be unique and combine with the writing and audio to submerge the player in emotion, fully experiencing the game world. There’s a case to be made in both directions. I found the visuals to be lackluster, boring, and at times, off-putting. But we’re also talking about a narrative game set in a small Polish village, largely at night, featuring werewolves. In a sense, the art style did exactly what it intended to do; I was apprehensive, emotional, and tied into what I was experiencing.
I simply would have preferred some less Marilyn Manson-esque visuals and a larger variety of scene-setting. Many of the visual elements were recycled throughout the game, resulting in the same images showing up over and over. Towards the end of the story, this became repetitive and frustrating. It makes me wonder if the title would have benefited more from being a text-adventure with pretty menus.
I must also note that towards the end of the game, the pacing kind of fell apart. Everything seemed a bit more rushed, and my choices became more limited than they had been thus far. The strength of the writing kept me on track through the end and knowing that I have four more endings to experience, I’m ready to dive back in and try again.
Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Heart of the Forest was reviewed for PC. A key was provided by Walkabout Games.