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Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X
Genre: Adventure
Publisher: astragon Software
Developer: Mi'pu'mi Games
Release Date: Nov. 14, 2023


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PC Review - 'Howl'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Dec. 18, 2023 @ 12:00 a.m. PST

Howl is a turn-based tactical folktale set in medieval times where a sinister "howling plague" has ravaged the land, turning all who hear it into feral beasts.

Howl is set in medieval times, and an illness, the Howl, has spread across the land. Any who hear the Howl turn into a rampaging beast that's something between a zombie and werewolf. Players are put in control of a young girl who was born deaf and thus is protected from the dangers of the Howl. She sets out with nothing but a crossbow and her skills to find and protect her brother and the people around her.

Howl's plot is pretty much all atmosphere. The game spends some time in world-building and a tiny bit in the core story, but most of the game is dedicated to setting up the hopelessness of the Howl-stricken world. The result is that it doesn't have a particularly gripping story. I liked the world, but the actual events felt kind of bland, and the ending is just one step above a screen flashing "YOU WIN." Thankfully, the gameplay more than makes up for the somewhat weak story.

Howl is a turn-based strategy game somewhat comparable to something like Into the Breach, since the strategy has a significant puzzle element. You have only one character who has three actions (later upgraded to six). Every action you take, whether it's moving, waiting or using an ability, will also cause enemies to react, and enemies will always react in the same way. The basic stage design is about getting a perfect flow through the stage, and figuring out the "puzzle" means you can win without trouble.

However, you have limited resources to work with. When you start the game, you only have access to two abilities: a short-range "push" that does no damage but can knock enemies backward or into walls, or your arrows, which you can shoot in any direction. You only get three arrows a stage, and otherwise, you're left with only being able to shove an enemy into a wall to do damage. Likewise, you have limited health. You can only survive one hit, and a second hit instantly forces you to reset the stage. Some stages also have strangers that you need to rescue, who can not only be killed by the howling beasts but can also be transformed if a beast is nearby.

As the game progresses, you'll unlock new special skills. These skills are tied to specific even action counts. For example, the second action you take in a given turn offers you the choice of dropping a smoke bomb or using a "shadow step," which temporarily turns you invisible. The fourth lets you do a super-push that can knock enemies way further back and deal more damage, or a Vault that lets you move further and confuse enemies. The sixth gives you the ability to shoot either a fire arrow or a piercing arrow, neither of which reduces the total arrow count. Once a skill is used, there is a one-turn cooldown before it can be used again.

These skills can also be upgraded, which makes them significantly more powerful. For example, the smoke bomb skill goes from merely hiding your character to stunning and damaging enemies. The shadow sneak skill lasts longer, and at its highest rank will make your next arrow deal more damage. You can choose which upgrades to apply, and these upgrades can be brought back to earlier stages. This means if you're having trouble with a stage, you can always finish it and come back later to perfect it.

Your overall goal in any stage in Howl consists of two parts. To complete the stage, all you need to do is reach a flag (occasionally you'll need to kill every enemy on the stage). There are two resources you can earn: Confidence, which is earned by completing stages in under a certain time limit or rescuing survivors; and Skulls, which are earned by killing enemies. These two resources are mutually exclusive, so you can do one run dedicated to finishing quickly and another toward clearing out every enemy on the map. You can do both at once, but it isn't strictly necessary, and some of the time limits are so short that you probably can't do both at once.

Gathering these resources is important because they used to unlock new skills and upgrade skills. Skulls unlock the skills and can also be used to open alternate paths with new levels. Confidence is used to upgrade skills, increase the number of actions you can take a turn (you should upgrade that right away), or boost the number of undo actions you have. There's more than enough resources to upgrade everything, so you don't need to perfect every stage, but the more you do, the earlier you can upgrade.

Howl's core gameplay loop is pretty darn fun. Figuring out the exact right pattern of movements to complete a stage in two turns is pretty addictive, and it makes you feel great once you do. My only complaint is that some stages feel designed for you to come back with later skills to do things optimally. With the game's pacing, it feels like it might have made more sense to give you skills and design the levels around having them. I also will say that the "kill every enemy" challenge tends to lack bite (pun intended), since you can go slow and steady. There are a couple of stages where it gets really spicy, especially once enemies start gaining multiple hit points, but for a lot of them, it isn't as thrilling as trying to figure out the minimum turn count.

Howl's other core problem is that it's a very short game. You can probably finish it in three hours, and you can add another hour or two in cleaning up the stages if you enjoy the gameplay loop. It doesn't overstay its welcome, but since it is a puzzle game at heart, you're also not going to have a ton of reason to go back. It's only $15, so it certainly isn't overpriced, but you need to go in realizing it's probably a one-and-done.

The simple ink art style works really well for what it is. The wolflike monsters and environments are fairly basic, but they have a genuine sense of atmosphere, which helps the game feel distinctive. It won't blow anyone's mind, but the art style works well for what the game is going for. Likewise, the music isn't anything super memorable, but it's nicely atmospheric. The narrator's voice acting does a great job of setting the mood and helps make up for the somewhat thin story.

Overall, Howl is a fun experience. It doesn't exactly break any molds, but it's a solid strategy/puzzle game that is well put together, and it scratches the itch of something like Into the Breach, even if it lacks much replayability. The gameplay loop feels great, and the short stages mean that you don't feel bad having to restart a level multiple times to assure a good score. It's well worth giving a shot, and it's a great example of a charming, low-budget indie title.

Score: 7.5/10

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