Joe Dever's Lone Wolf is a seasoned veteran with an intriguing back story and an unorthodox style. It's already a bit of a legend in smartphone gaming circles, but can it live up to the hype here on Nintendo's Switch console in the cold light of 2018?
The game has its roots in a highly regarded series of physical adventure game books of the same name. When this digital version initially launched on iOS and Android back in 2013, however, it won a wider fan base by adding meaty turn-based combat and other RPG tropes to a gripping choose-your-own-adventure narrative. It might seem like a strangely anachronistic addition to the Switch eShop, but really, there's nothing else quite like Joe Dever's Lone Wolf on the platform. What's more, it remains a uniquely compelling story-driven adventure to this day.
You play the part of a typical fantasy adventurer, the titular Lone Wolf. Part feudal lord, part warrior monk, Lone Wolf is the last of his kind and the protector of a small portion of the fantasy world Magnamund. You could think of him as a combination of Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings and Geralt from The Witcher. The game's story sees you setting out across a land ravaged by Giaks (essentially orcs) and Drakkarim (evil humans) in a bid to protect and avenge your people. It plays out in classic game book style, which means plenty of descriptive text written in the second person, with the occasional junction point where you get to make a decision and steer the narrative.
This might be as simple as deciding whether to take a stealthy approach to an encounter or to run in weapons drawn. It might also be a tricky moral conundrum, like whether to release a starving prisoner who stands accused of murder. Whatever you choose, the consequences will be woven into the fabric of your own personalised story. The late Dever was a highly regarded fantasy author, and the writing in Lone Wolf is suitably sharp. There's nothing particularly surprising or clever about this typical fantasy tale, but Dever really manages to paint a picture with language. You can almost smell the mud and feel the biting cold from his descriptions alone.
The prose is subtly enhanced by some wonderful hand-drawn artwork, which is only partially animated so as to sell that feeling that you're delving into a book. There aren't many games that manage to make reading text a genuinely enjoyable part of the experience rather than an expositional necessity, but Lone Wolf certainly does. Of course, the game's narrative is only half the story here. At frequent points throughout your travels you'll engage in battle with gangs of assorted enemies. Rather than simply giving you a set of digital dice to roll, these play out like fully fleshed-out RPG scraps, complete with a full 3D engine.
These are surprisingly urgent, tactile affairs, as you strive to work in as many distinct attacks and defensive measures as your limited time, stamina, and magical energy allow. Many of your actions also require you to engage in some light quick time event prompts, whether that's pounding a button for a few seconds or rotating the left Joy-Con stick. These bits aren't particularly smart, and they do somewhat betray the age of the underlying game (everyone was doing QTEs in 2013), but they do serve to connect you to the experience like few digital game books have managed before or since.
So far so positive, but Joe Dever's Lone Wolf hasn't made the long journey to Switch completely unscathed. In particular, the game doesn't feel like it's been fully optimised for the the new platform. Given that this was originally designed with touchscreens in mind, it's a shame that there's no such option to use the Switch's own direct input system; instead, we get a rather unwieldy set of physical controls. These work fine in the battle sections, as you might expect, but they're found a little wanting when it comes to navigating through the game's inventory menus.
Turning the page to the next portion of story can be done using the L and R buttons, which is a welcome provision, but navigating the inventory screens involves far to much fiddly scrolling using the overworked left Joy-Con stick. Why weren't the ZL and ZR buttons brought into play to quickly flick between these screens? These menus also seem to take a split second too long to move through their various animated sections. Indeed, loading times are long in general. Joe Dever's Lone Wolf perhaps isn't the ideal version of this fine game, but it remains just that: a fine game. Its mix of engrossing choose-your-own-adventure storytelling and satisfying RPG combat proves to be a timelessly winning combination.
A unique combination of interactive fiction and involving RPG mechanics, Joe Dever's Lone Wolf is quite unlike anything else on the Switch eShop. Some occasionally fiddly controls betray the game's provenance, but those after a fresh adventure with a rich fantasy story will find a lot to like here.