Different Tale's Werewolf: The Apocalypse - Heart of the Forest is a visual novel set in the long-running World of Darkness tabletop RPG universe, a universe most video game players will likely know best from 2004's Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines. Swapping blood-suckers for lycanthropes, this is a tale that gets off to a strong start, presenting a richly detailed and atmospheric setting, a strong cast of initial core characters and plenty of meaningful choices to be made along the way. However, as things progress, it all begins to feel rather rushed. As the narrative here plays out, choices begin to feel less crucial, new characters are hurriedly introduced and, in the end, the whole thing winds up feeling as though it's finished just as it was getting started.
There's certainly an intriguing premise at the heart of this story with players assuming the role of Maia Boroditch, a Polish-American girl who's been besieged by terrifying recurring visions of an ancient forest that's somehow linked to her mysterious family history. Maia travels to her ancestral home of Bialowieza in order to piece together her past and investigate the nearby primaeval forest which she is convinced is the very same place that has haunted her dreams. Of course, once she arrives at her destination there's far more going on than Maia could ever have anticipated, and she's soon drawn into a narrative that shifts to focus on an aeons-old battle between the various lycanthropic sects who protect nature and humans who seem hellbent on destroying it for their own ends.
The opening hour or so here is a wonderfully creepy, well-written introduction to Maia's journey that's full of suspicious locals, mysterious strangers, upsetting visions and street cats who take a bizarre interest in our troubled central protagonist. Anya, Bartek and Daniel – the initial companions you meet on arrival in Poland – are well-drawn characters who you get to spend a decent amount of time getting to know and, as a result, choices that you make early on really do feel meaningful and important to your relationships.
The game also has a neat layer of light RPG mechanics that mimic its tabletop origins and add nicely to the genre's usual narrative choices, allowing you to make extra decisions or take actions dependant on three gauges – rage, willpower and health. Each of these gauges can be fully depleted; make too many angry decisions, for example, and your rage meter will run dry, cutting you off from certain violent actions. However, they can also be replenished by furthering the story, completing objectives and making important discoveries.
Alongside these gauge mechanics, Maia also has to consider how her actions affect relationships with the people and groups that she meets, as well as how they reflect on various core stats that can be observed in her character sheet – an ever-changing representation of where she's at with regards to her relationships and emotional/physical state that that can be pulled up at any time with a press of the X button.
All of these mechanics certainly add plenty to the level of engagement and interaction you'd expect to find in a visual novel of this type; they blend well with the narrative and we absolutely sweated over some of our early actions. However, as things progress, the initial intrigue and sense of needing to take your time with decisions begins to slip away as the story decides to rush headlong to its conclusion, throwing lots of loosely-drawn characters and scenarios at you and even introducing a handful of completely new mechanical elements deep into its final third before ending somewhat abruptly.
Indeed, a single playthrough here will likely only take you in the region of around two or three hours, which is short, but not necessarily a huge problem in and of itself. There are still five different endings in total to discover, lots of variety in how you approach individual situations and the game has been well-priced so it doesn't feel like a brief running time is necessarily a negative – it's just that it really does feel as though it was meant to be longer, like it's been compromised by some developmental constraint or other, cutting off just as the story was getting interesting. The six chapters here present a properly intriguing premise and some strong characters but they end so suddenly that it all winds up feeling like a prologue more than a full game.
There's still plenty to like about Werewolf: The Apocalypse - Heart of the Forest, with lots of little touches in the choices you make during your journey – a journey we won't ruin here – that really do make it feel as though you're directly influencing the kind of character Maia ends up becoming on an impressively micro-level. The art-style, although it certainly won't appeal to everyone, does a decent job of presenting the world and its characters, and it's all accompanied by sound design that nails the uneasiness and paranoia of early forays around the town of Bialowieza as well as the straight-up terror of some of the more blood-curdling goings-on deep in the game's primaeval forest setting.
If only the whole thing had lasted a little longer, if only we'd got to spend more time as the Maia we eventually chose to become, we'd have a really strong recommendation on our hands here; however, as things stand, this is still a decent visual novel that's certainly worth a look, especially for fans of the World of Darkness universe, and a premise and story that we'd love to see continued further.
Werewolf: The Apocalypse - Heart of the Forest is a decent visual novel that starts out strong but loses some of its appeal due to how rushed it all ends up feeling. There's a fantastic premise here with an atmospheric setting, some strong characters and plenty of decisions to be made that feel genuinely important to how your character develops. However, the speed at which it begins to introduce new situations, characters and mechanics in its final chapters before coming to a surprisingly premature end takes some of the shine off what otherwise could have been a properly top-notch effort.