Deep in the woods lying hidden are the secrets of your family’s past that you must discover in Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Heart of the Forest, an upcoming visual novel adventure RPG from developers Different Tales. I had the chance to play through a preview demo, and I came away from it both intrigued and a bit let down.
Before playing the demo, I wasn’t familiar with either the Werewolf series or the World of Darkness tabletop RPG that this spins off from. As a big fan of TTRPGs, though, I am always down to try new things, so after a little research into the series, I sat down and started playing.
The demo opens with a prologue dream sequence where you answer situational questions, which begins to define Maia’s personality and how high her Rage is. It’s a much more simplified down version of the character creation process of the tabletop game that Heart of the Forest stems from. After this short sequence, you awake from your dream and are into the story proper.
You step into the role of Maia, a young woman drawn to the remote town of Bialowieza in Poland, surrounded by one of the last primeval forests in all of Europe, Puszcza. Mystery and the supernatural the city as Maia attempts to uncover her family’s history with the area and the reason behind her strange dreams. Anya, Maia’s friend, has tagged along on this trip, with Maia disguising her true motives as merely wanting to visit the Bialowieza National Park. During the 15 to 20 minute demo, your path will cross a few residents of Bialowieza, as you learn more about the area and your family’s history there. You will meet Daniel, a local guide that has a strange air about him, Bartek, Maia’s friend she met online and an influential businessman in Bialowieza who knows much about the area’s history, and Kornel, a German activist who is trying and save Puszcza from logging efforts. Speaking with these individuals and exploring the locations around the city will leave you just enough intrigue to pique your interest and make you want to buy the full game when it releases.
To that end, Heart of the Forest succeeds. This game feels far more at home in the “visual novel” and “interactive fiction” genres than it does in the “RPG” one. The game is presented in text accompanied by paintings. Players pick responses from several different options to deal with the game’s situations. Each response tends to fall into a few archetypes, giving you the possibilities of coming off as brave, inspiring, analytical, cunning, or spiritual.
The problem is you select a response, and it happens. Coming from a TTRPG background, it would have been nice if there were some measure of “dice rolling” checks if you wanted to go for more risky options or get more information out of the cast. One of the prominent aspects of THE TTRPG genre, including Werewolf-The Apocalypse, is rolling dice to see if you succeed in a task or dialogue, or any manner of things; investing points into various stats that round out and create the type of character that you want to play in an adventure. By attaching “RPG” to Heart of the Forest, I went in expecting to be able to do some of that. During the conversations, I kept wishing that I could roll an invisible dice to perhaps try and get more information out of one of the NPCs, or roll to try and avoid the thorny vines that appeared when the forest didn’t like me. To relegate every dialogue choice in the demo to “What is your level of rage?” and “Do you have enough Willpower to say that” felt far removed from the depth and available options that RPG players may go into this game expecting. Especially those that have a history playing the Werewolf TTRPG.
I do appreciate the idea of consumable resources like “Willpower” opening up or locking you out of different responses; I want it to be expanded more. Other resources like “Rage” serve a similar purpose, but whereas “Willpower” is a consumable, “Rage” doesn’t have a limit, instead opting to raise or fall your “Rage” value, depending on your responses. The level of Rage you are at-will open up additional narrative responses. That being said, I’m hoping that developer Different Tales will inject more tabletop-goodness into the game’s DNA for the full release.
The areas I was most impressed by were with the audio and visuals. I loved their decision to hide images within another image, such as the visage of the wolf in the Wolfden area or the pile of skulls at the ruins. It was a smart way to visually hint at there being more to what was going on underneath the surface of what was being said and seen. The skulls, in particular, left a lasting impression as the contrast between the imagery and the lore behind the ruins with the starkly contrasting colors accentuated the uncomfortable scene you were experiencing.
In an almost hypnotic fashion, the audio mixes hums of insects, wind blowing, and native birds calling out in the forest with eerie and discomforting melodies. Long heavy notes from string instruments cut by piercing, heavily-altered brass notes arrive and disappear as fast as they came in, leaving only a ghostly echo behind. Combined with the more intense visuals, there were a few moments that left me with goosebumps, causing me to look around my pitch-black room, lit only by my computer screen, as I played this.
After having gone through the demo a couple of times, I will say that fans of visual novels or “choose your own adventure” style books, Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Heart of the Forest is a game you should keep on your radar. The lore and story setup here is intriguing, but as I am coming into this more from and RPG perspective, the lack of simulated dice rolling or skill checks takes a lot of the appeal away for me. I’m reserving final judgment, though, as the demo is such a short snippet of the full game, it’s possible that features may be more prevalent in the retail release. Until then, I will keep my eye on Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Heart of the Forest.