We begin in a nightmare. Even before we know who we are, we're thrown into a dark, disorienting vision. The moon looms blue and massive in a purple sky, framed by the silhouettes of barren trees, and we're hunting some unseen enemy. We wake up from that dream into another, this time face to face with a severed head. And when we wake up from that, we're on a bus, traveling to a small village in Poland that, we hear, has seen its share of neo-Nazi activity in recent years. Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Heart of the Forest is not a game to ease you into its horror, fantastical or otherwise.
But if you're Maia, that's ok. You've traveled halfway around the world to find out why you're having these nightmares, to assign a face to the voice you hear in your dreams, and to finally confront the history your family has hidden from you. Plus, although you don't know it yet, you're a werewolf. Horror's where you belong.
If Werewolf's horror isn't as visceral as it might be in, say, Amnesia, well, we can chalk that up to a difference of presentation. Heart of the Forest is a visual novel and RPG, with each scene or development bringing a new illustration to give it life. The writing is strong and occasionally impressive, but the art is what makes Heart of the Forest unique. It draws heavily from the work of illustrator Dave McKean, painting angular and impressionistic forests and figures. You have not played a video game that looks like this, and with Heart of the Forest you have a good chance to remedy that.
Maia comes to this unnamed village for many reasons, but she quickly becomes embroiled in the ecological controversy that's taken over the town. Loggers are cutting into the Puszcza Białowieska, an ancient and one-of-a-kind forest. They say they're saving the forest from a beetle infestation that threatens to destroy it, but they're also profiting from the logging, and protestors aren't buying it. Maia finds some like-minded folks among the protestors, a diverse set of characters that includes a nonbinary German punk, a Belarusian immigrant, her violent girlfriend, and more. These characters are drawn in fairly broad strokes, but they work in such an abbreviated story, and they work for Maia. With them at her side, she adopts saving the Puszcza as a new goal.
As things move along, the player makes frequent choices about how Maia reacts to the world. These choices shape her personality and prompt different responses from the world itself. Is she cunning and manipulative? Spiritual and intuitive? But perhaps more importantly: is she mad as hell? As a werewolf, Maia's connection to rage is foundational, changing how she sees things and of what she's capable. It's one of three resources in the game, the other two being willpower and health. If, for example, Maia wakes up from her dream angry, she can ride that anger and snap at her friend, or she can will herself to calm down to avoid hurting feelings.
Managing rage is the game's central mechanic. Maia's anger opens and closes many of the game's narrative doors — of which developer Different Tales says there are 200,000 of varying size — on the way to one of five possible endings. The game's narration passes no explicit judgments on rage, describing it as a useful, if dangerous, tool. Maia needs some spark of rage to stand up to bullying politicians, but the feeling can also overwhelm her. Always seeing red has a tendency to flatten the world, and the logging situation is more complicated than at first it seems. The locals, the activists, the scientists, the loggers, the press — each has their own understanding of the situation, and Different Tales does well to legitimize them. Heart of the Forest rides a very fine line, condemning what absolutely must be condemned — remember that Nazism I mentioned earlier? — and allowing the morally gray to spin itself out convincingly. It's refreshing to play a game without the kind of mealy-mouthed, so-called apolitical drivel that defines triple A gaming.
What's less refreshing is the game's pacing. Things seem to be ramping up appropriately until about halfway through, when suddenly the narrative explodes with a major twist. I felt directionless and confused in the post-twist world, and I don't think I'll be alone there. That strange pacing came up again in the endgame of my first run. Negotiations between the activists and government authorities proceeded smoothly until I clicked one prompt and we skipped ahead to the entire forest up in flames for no reason I could understand.
Heart of the Forest also lacks save functionality, forcing you to play all the way through again to see anything you missed. This is unambiguously annoying, especially as someone who rarely finds enough in this kind of narrative game to play through it a second time. But there may be no stronger testament to Heart of the Forest's quality than this: I happily played through it three times. I chose wildly divergent paths each run, and truth be told I'd have run through a fourth if I didn't badly need to hand in this review. I hear the Puszcza's call. You should too.
Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Heart of the Forest is available now on PC. It is developed by Different Tales and published by Walkabout Games.