I adore puzzle games, even if I’m not particularly good at them. There’s something incredibly satisfying about finally cracking the last move in a complex level. Howl takes that same feeling of puzzle games and adds tactical RPG elements to create a more flexible and creative gameplay loop, all without simplifying the experience.
Howl is light on plot, but what it has of it is delightful. The player steps into the shoes of the Prophet, a deaf woman and the latest in a line of people with the ability to fight back against the titular Howl, a terrible curse that turns anyone that hears its call into a feral wolf-like monster. The Prophet embarks on a quest to find her lost brother, trying to save any innocent that is being threatened by the werewolves.
The fable-like premise of the game is perfectly complimented by its presentation. Parchment, ink, and watercolors make up the main visuals, and beautiful hand-drawn 2D still images are used to portray characters and enemies. Traversing each level clears fog arounds tiles ahead of the Prophet, showing the way. Attacking enemies leaves a blood-red ink stain on the parchment that forms the maps for each level. Visually, Howl is simply beautiful. The soundtrack and light narration of the Prophet in each level only serves to enhance the feeling of jumping inside a fable. In particular, the use of string instruments to accentuate actions and motion is flawless.
Similar to the Prophet’s narration, each level is short and to the point. Most require players to reach a flag that marks the goal, but some require eliminating all enemies. However, to progress through each chapter of the game, players will need to complete some side-objectives to clear roadblocks. Completing each level under a certain number of turns will grant Confidence, a resource used to acquire new skills or upgrade them. Meanwhile, Skulls are obtained for each enemy eliminated. Skulls can be used to access new levels or find shortcuts to more advanced levels. Most of these are optional and only some are required, but it’s never bad to aim for completion to have better options in the late-game. Furthermore, clearing these objectives cannot be done in a single run through a level. The fast pace of each level encourages replayability, and reaching 100% completion doesn’t take too long, depending on your patience with each level.
The action in each level is divided by rounds. Players start with three actions per round, and can upgrade their “deck” of actions spending Confidence, to a max of six actions per round. Enemies will have one turn per action taken in each round, and they react to your actions. The internal logic of each type of enemy is important to properly predict the course of action in each level, and complete them unscathed. Receiving damage will stop the Prophet in her tracks, and she only has two hit points, so planning for perfection is the plan here. Fortunately, the Prophet has a few cards up her sleeve. Players start only being able to shoot three arrows and use an unlimited force-push ability. Arrows are shot in a straight line in four directions, and the force-push can kill enemies when they impact other enemies, or pushed against a wall or damaging obstacle. The push ability is one of the most useful in the game, and will be used a lot to adequately position enemies and control the map.
In the default difficulty of the game, players cannot see which action the enemies will take, but can see how many actions they will take. Actions can be difficult to track as the difficulty ramps up and more enemies appear in each level. To counteract this, the developers added an Assist Mode that shows the direction and actions each enemy will take. This makes the puzzle aspect of the game more accessible, and shifts the focus of the gameplay into something closer to a tactical RPG. However, this mode doesn’t make the game easier, as enemies will still be deployed in tricky patterns. It’s really nice to have the option to have a bit of help in predicting enemy behavior, as some levels can be really overwhelming.
Further into the game, players can use Confidence to unlock new abilities, such as a more powerful push that reaches further and interrupt enemy turns, a useful somersault, a smoke bomb, and an explosive arrow, among others. These abilities are absolutely required in order to complete later levels, and to reach 100% completion in previous maps. Upgrading them will make these abilities more powerful. However, the trick of the abilities is that they can only be used on certain turns of the Prophet. For example, the somersault can only be used during the second turn of each round, while the explosive arrow can only be used on the sixth turn. Calculating your route and when to use which ability will be crucial to achieve success. After using an ability, they will go on cooldown for that round, and will be available on the next one.
Howl is not a long game, and that works in its favor. There are four chapters in total, and each one has approximately 15 or 20 levels. There is a small amount of enemy variety, but it works well for the type of game it is. The combination of enemy types and terrain can make for very interesting puzzles. Among some of the enemies players can expect to encounter there are regular werewolves. These can use their Howl to turn innocent humans into monsters if the Prophet doesn’t act fast enough. They only have one HP and are easy to kill, but they are vast in number. There are also hunter-like wolves that move twice as fast, making them relentless threats. Enemies also have silver variants that have more HP and are harder to kill, and feral variants that act twice per turn. Finally, there are strangers. These are allied units that can listen to the Howl and turn, but will be safe if the Prophet touches them before the end of each round. Saving them will grant Confidence.
Howl is a simple blend of genres that offers a lot of fun. It is fast and easy to pick up, but can be pretty hard to master. The game can be on the shorter side, taking approximately 5 hours to reach 100% completion. And while I loved what I played, I still feel like there were a lot of really cool ideas that could be explored further, or enemy variety to improve. In the end, I think that Howl leaving me wanting more and making me think about it far after I finished it speaks more about the quality of the game than about what the game might be lacking. Fans of the puzzle genre and light tactics RPG are sure to have a great time with this one.
Howl is now available for the Nintendo Switch and PC via Steam. It will appear on the PS5 and Xbox Series X on January 23, 2024.