Werewolf: The Apocalypse - Heart of the Forest Review
Starting in a dreamlike state, you move through a forest that calls to you while also pushing you away. It’s dark and unknown, but at the same time feels eerily familiar. You’re immediately thrust into the mystery that’ll follow you throughout Werewolf: The Apocalypse - Heart of the Forest, and it’s that introduction that set it apart from the previously released visual novel-style games in the World of Darkness Series.
Adapting TTRPG’s into digitized computer games is becoming increasingly popular and for a good reason. Regardless of quarantines and social distancing, putting together a group that’s able to run a full TTRPG campaign is difficult, it takes time and not everyone is interested in the roleplay aspects of the games. That being said, table-tops are known for their wordiness and complexity. When set across multiple play sessions, this isn’t a problem, but put into a bite-size game you can run into some issues. Heart of the Forest manages to balance its tabletop origins and visual novel style relatively well.
The game begins with Maia on a bus to Bialowieza, a small Polish village that holds the key to a family history she’s been kept from for 24 years. It’s a story about self-discovery; a story about deciding to take your future into your own hands once you have the freedom and agency to do so. Heart of the Forest is a game about Maia, but it’s also a game with a clear message on environmentalism and the politics that govern it. As soon as Maia arrives in Bialowieza, she’s forced into the center of this conflict as it is directly related to the past she’s desperate to understand. Heart of the Forest tells a relatively simple story and makes it clear what stance it’s taking on deforestation and the destruction of natural landscapes. Regardless of the path taken, the game doesn’t really allow for a devil’s advocate style of play, which is important. Including an examination on a real-world issue in a game and then making it clear where the game stands avoids the kind of tepid centrist narrative that’s common in games that give players a significant degree of choice.
Despite some of the predictability with different game events, the writing really shines in this World of Darkness installment. In my Vampires of New York review, I had a hard time enjoying the game as the writing began to feel as though it was too dependent on being read as prose and that’s an issue I find in a lot of visual novels and narrative-based games. Heart of the Forest is still a wordy game, but it’s at least a well-written wordy game. The scenes that lay out Maia’s dreams and premonitions, the paragraphs dedicated to painting a picture of an alive and grieving forest, even the way the game describes werewolf transformations; it’s all written so simply and descriptive that I was surprisingly engaged throughout most of the game. It wasn’t especially novel, but the dedication to thoroughly setting a scene made all the difference.
There’s a lot to keep track of as you move through the game. It’s 6 chapters long, with a brief prologue and epilogue, and despite being a rather short game, goals constantly change, multiple characters are introduced and relationships change often depending on your choices. Along with those narrative mechanics, stats also play a large role. Balancing rage while also maintaining health and willpower forced me to be more careful with my decision-making throughout the game than I had planned on being. I went into Heart of the Forest expecting to play it as a simple TTRPG inspired visual novel, but I was happy to have to make some choices that, at face-value, went against what I was aiming for in order to maintain some sort of balance.
There eventually came a point where I was clearly gunning for a certain specific endgame, but I still had to fight for it. I’m a simple woman. You give me the option to join a lesbian werewolf’s pack, I’m going to pick it. However, being strategic with where I moved in the story and who I aligned myself with wasn’t as easy as I expected it to be. I do wish that in moments where I chose to give into rage or lose the willpower to continue, the game reacted to those decisions more. I don't really want to say that I wanted a more punishing system, but I wanted a more punishing system. As much as the mechanics of the game relied on common tabletop mechanics, it was a shame that the risky choices I made never came back to haunt me.
Beyond that, it seemed as though boosting stats didn’t necessarily lock me out of choices, but instead added to the ones I could pick ultimately leading to a character change/growth that completely overwrote my previous stats and gave me an entirely new chance to build Maia up as a changed woman. Narratively choices mattered and with a game like this that’s all I can really ask for.
I’ve said it before in reviews and I need to say it again: I appreciate a game that’s able to be beaten in 10 hours or less. Time is still a form of accessibility and Heart of the Forest delivers on that. Unfortunately, right as the story became engaging and the most thorough it had ever been, the tracker was 80% done. With all that happened, it was a shame that the most important and frankly interesting aspects of the game were in the last 20% of it and that 20% went by quicker than any other part of the game. I truly didn’t feel pacing issues until that point. Nothing was outright rushed, but it felt unbalanced and a bit incomplete.
Werewolf: The Apocalypse - Heart of the Forest doesn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel and I wouldn’t say it’s genre-defining, but it still manages to be unique in some aspects. End game pacing issues aside, the game tells a great story and offers enough choices that I never felt slighted. Even the small option of choosing which werewolf form to shift into was nice. Heart of the Forest is a simple and easy to follow addition to the World of Darkness games but still manages to avoid becoming boring or repetitive. It’s a fun, uncomplicated game and honestly, that’s all I want sometimes.