Platform reviewed: PS5
Available on: PS5, Xbox Series, PC, Nintendo Switch
Release date: January 23, 2024
As kids, we were taught to fear what lurks in the forest: strange sounds, silent shadows, and dense trees blocking out the Sun’s warm, illuminating rays. Any manner of horrors could lurk within the thickets. All it takes is the howl of a wild beast to set your mind racing. This fear is capitalized on in Howl, an indie, tactical, turn-based folktale about a girl wandering the woods searching for her lost brother.
The monsters in this folktale are real. Twisted wolf-like beasts lurk within, turning all who hear their howls into monsters. But our protagonist, the Prophet, is deaf, so she’s unaffected by their wailing. This part of her being is a strength, not a weakness. It reflects developer Mi'pu'mi Games’ commitment to diverse characters, as seen in its previous title, The Flower Collectors, which featured a wheelchair-bound protagonist.
Though the woods are dangerous, they’re also beautiful. The “living ink” art style perfectly captures that folktale feeling; it gives Howl the appearance of a children’s pop-up book, one made to warn them about wandering too far from home. It reminds me of the backgrounds in Disney’s animated 101 Dalmatians. There’s also a rich soundscape on offer in Howl; the narrator’s soft voice and the discordant, folksy guitar melody simultaneously soothe and unnerve as the Prophet makes her way through levels, one tile at a time.
Read the room
The Prophet starts with four action points per round. She can walk, attack, wait, or end rounds early, a system well explained by in-game hints and prompts. After each of her actions, the enemies take one; if they land an attack on her, the queue gets cleared, and the round ends. Fortunately, they’re very predictable, always walking toward the Prophet in the most direct route possible, but favoring horizontal moves over vertical. It’s a lot like Into the Breach, especially when you turn on Howl’s assistance mode. It clearly marks out where your foes will go after each of your moves, so you don’t have to keep track of everything in your head.
Each round becomes a series of decisions that have to be painstakingly thought out. The Prophet’s only got two hit points and three arrows, so her options are severely limited—prepare to die, a lot. Fortunately, there’s a rewind ability that lets her redo a round, and restarting the bite-sized levels is quick and easy, meaning the difficulty never gets frustrating.
Planning and executing the perfect strategy to lay waste to a pack of wolves is a thrilling experience. It feels like I genuinely outsmarted them.
Of course, she powers up as Howl progresses. You can spend the skulls you collect by killing monsters to unlock new paths on the overworld map that lead to new abilities. These are powered up with confidence, which is gained by beating levels in a set number of rounds and saving people. This system encourages you to go back and perfect earlier levels that once proved too tough, adding a fair bit of replayability to Howl. I loved giving the beasts a spanking with my overpowered Prophet once I’d gotten an exploding arrow or a smoke bomb that damages and confuses enemies caught in its radius.
Interestingly, you can only use these abilities on certain turns during each round. The stealthy smoke bomb and shawdowstep on turn two, force and vault on turn four, and exploding or piercing arrows on turn six. The Prophet can’t just unleash hell whenever she likes; she sometimes has to bide her time to strike the deadliest blow at the most opportune moment. Or, sometimes, she has to put down her bow and move out of harm’s way rather than going for the kill.
New enemy types are also added, each with different abilities, attack styles, and hit points. New hazards come into the environment, too. There are fires that damage anything still on them at the end of a round, destructible barbs you can blast enemies into, and holes in the floor you can jump over to make a quick escape. Through Howl continuously expanding upon a relatively simple tactical combat system, layers of complexity build alongside your skill, making for a perfect difficulty curve that remains challenging yet rewarding.
A complex journey
As the Prophet ventures deeper into the woods, she stumbles upon ruined towns and eventually the source of the Howl. The narrator paints a nostalgic picture of the idyllic life people lived before this plague, creating an emotional attachment to the strangers that can be saved along the way. Her words also make you feel as though you’re currently living in a folktale being told, perhaps to children listening intently, fretfully pulling their covers tighter around themselves whenever the Prophet gets into danger.
Howl has a narrator and subtitles that cannot be turned off. There’s also an assist mode that displays the moves the enemies will make, but things can get jumbled when there are lots of foes in a small space.
The writing is sparring yet paints a complete picture of old characters and the mythos of the world of Howl. Folklore and spirituality go hand in hand, be it some sort of paganism or more mainstream religions, and there’s an undertone that permeates everything in Howl, from the title of Prophet to the source of the plague itself; something transformative spreading via sound, passed on from person to person, turning them into mindless beasts, can be read as a critique on the way many organized religions preach their views and impose them on others.
What complicates reading Howl as a criticism is the Prophet’s very existence. She’s the hero of the story, saving townsfolk and slaying beasts, ultimately fulfilling the role of savior promised in many religions. While an interesting theme, I can’t help but feel it and the mystery of the plague could have been explored or interrogated more thoroughly—this is exacerbated by the fourth and final chapter being relatively short compared to the first three, making the ending seem abrupt.
Despite concluding a little too rapidly for my liking, Howl is a wonderfully crafted game. There’s no bloating or wasted material; every system compliments another and forms a surprisingly complex series of combat puzzles. That, combined with the gorgeous art, wistful writing, and thought-provoking, if slightly undercooked ideas, make Howl a delightful experience.