Despite its turn-based tactical trappings, Howl — which originally caught my eye with its Medieval setting and manuscript-inspired art — actually feels more like a compelling puzzle game. I went hands on with the title’s early stages, saving townsfolk, fighting monsters, and fulfilling prophecies, and now I have another game to add to this year’s watch list.
Like a typical folktale, the story doesn’t waste a lot of time on explanations. I’m playing as a deaf heroine whose world is being threatened by a “howling plague.” The sinister malady causes anyone who hears it to transform into vicious beasts.
Luckily, I have two things going for me. One, I can’t hear the transformative roars. And two, I wield the power to shape the world with ink and prophecy. If I have to be stuck in the middle of a supernatural catastrophe, being immune and having special powers really seems like the way to go.
Things aren’t all roses for me, though. My brother has disappeared in the chaos, and I have to brave the world’s dangers to find him. Hopefully, before he’s killed or turned into a blood-soaked baddie.
My journey takes me across an illustrated map. Its hand-drawn branches and forks offer me the chance to fight enemies, discover upgrades, and help people. Hovering my mouse over a location lets me see its potential rewards and dangers. Confidence — symbolized by star icons — is a kind of currency that lets me improve my skills, unlock slots on my magic scroll, and buy do-over points. While Skulls, which I pick up after killing beasts, are the key to getting more abilities.
Traveling to a dot on the map teleports me to a grid-covered stage. In this early section of the game, the battlefields are ringed with dark fir trees and unusually contain obstacles like squares of fire or thorny brambles. Also sprinkled throughout the chess board-like arena are wolfish enemies with sharpened claws and threatening eyes.
It’s my job to navigate the level, square by square, and complete the given objective. For the first levels, this goal is usually just to leave the area safely by reaching a specific spot. However, to earn Confidence and Skulls, I have to get out in a certain number of turn-based rounds, killing creatures as I go.
This is where the puzzle kicks in. Reaching the finish line in, say, three rounds and killing three monsters at the same time can be difficult. Especially since the wolves have their own movement or attack turns, I can be killed, and I have a limited number of abilities.
To take down my foes, I can shoot my crossbow — though my beginning quiver is limited — or use an ability called Force that pushes threats out of the way. But every action is restricted by the length of my prophetic scroll. Taking a step uses up one scroll slot, as does any attack. And as I begin with only three slots, managing my every action is crucial. Sweeping up rewards sometimes means coming back to a level after earning a few upgrades.
As I gain more resources and grow more powerful, challenges become more demanding. Arenas begin to expand the further I go, and I begin to find innocent people to rescue from either death or becoming a beast –all the while, trying to complete prescribed tasks in my allotted time. Sometimes I happily go over par in a level, accepting the diminished Confidence reward, just to pass through to a new location. However, most of the time, I couldn’t help trying to go back and do everything perfectly.
That’s the key to Howl’s gameplay. It makes me feel like I’m one step ahead of my enemies when my perfectly thought-out plans work just as intended. But the game also pushes me to jump back in for another go when I realize I went way over my limit, asking myself how anyone could possibly do everything in so few rounds. Howl is set to release in the next few months, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for more news.