I can hear a faint, repetitive thud as the ambient sounds of the forest at night surround me. Specks of light that look like stars dance across the crimson red sky, framed by silhouetted trees spiking up from the earth. Words appear and the story begins, and within moments the first prompt is before me. I'm told that this is a game about rage, and how it can both help us do the things we need to do, as well as things we'll come to later regret. So, how do I feel about that? After giving my answer to this question, a big, bright, full moon comes into view, and from that moment on, every decision I make starts to shape the narrative of Werewolf: The Apocalypse - Heart of the Forest, a darkly atmospheric interactive visual novel coming to PC from developer Different Tales.
Based on the classic systems of the '90s RPG Werewolf: The Apocalypse, Heart of the Forest is set in the World of Darkness universe, which is enjoying a bit of a revival of late with the likes of other upcoming releases like Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines 2 and Werewolf: The Apocalypse - Earthblood. Heart of the Forest though puts you in the shoes of Maia, a 24-year-old American woman who sets out to Bialowieza in Poland to uncover the secrets of her mysterious Polish ancestry and learn the truth about her own origin. Plagued by strange dreams that always seem to take place in the same forest, Maia has some kind of innate connection to the setting that pulls her to investigate.
"No right path"
I get the chance to try out the prologue and first chapter of Heart of the Forest, and right from the get-go, it's clear that I'm about to set out on a journey that's moulded by every choice I make. All of the decisions I make are reflected in Maia's personality, which also changes the direction of the story, and affects the reactions and approaches I can take to different events and situations.
Rage and Willpower are resources in the game that enable you to perform certain actions as the story unfolds. Having high Rage, for example, means you can be brazen, direct, and more willing to take action. But it also means you might be less open or empathetic. Some choices can be hard to make, and therefore drain your willpower if you select them, so you have to be mindful of how much willpower you have to ensure you use it when you truly need to. Helpfully, in the top right corner of the screen, I'm able to access my character sheet to keep track of Maia's stats, from her personality assessment to the condition of her mind and body.
With every choice, different facets of Maia's personality start to come together and also determine her overall goal. Sometimes my responses might increase my spiritual side, while others might make me more cunning. My reactions can also change the way a character I encounter feels about me. So someone might be friendly, while another becomes hostile. As the game informs me, "There's no right path here, just your decisions and their consequences." I play through the first chapter twice to see just how much my decisions alter the outcome and Maia's perception, and it really did turn out to be entirely different the second time around.
As it is an interactive visual novel, you'll be reading a lot of text, but the writing paints a very visceral picture of the events that unfold, so it never feels overly dense. The sound design really adds to the immersive experience and does well to really put you in the moment. While the story is in part left up to your imagination, each section is also accompanied by illustrations with a unique, stylised aesthetic, made up of bold colours and a mixture of drawing and photography that really pops.
Through the writing, ambient sounds, and illustrations, the story that begins to unfold before me is as atmospheric as it is intriguing. After arriving in Bialowieza, Maia meets Daniel, a man well acquainted with the forest who acts as my guide. I'm presented with a map, and have to set out to three different locations in a bid to uncover more about Maia's connection to this place, and hopefully get one step closer to finding out the reason she's been having these strange dreams.
From a wolf den to the barrows, and later to a place of power, each location you visit in the game is based on real-world areas and legends. Bialowieza Forest itself sets the scene for Maia's adventure because it's said to be one of the few remaining primeval forests in Europe, with many myths and stories bred from the area. Maia feels some mysterious pull that draws her to find the hidden secrets of these locations, and I try to gear my responses to advance Maia's goal, which in this instance is to learn about her family history.
Like Maia, it seems that many feel deeply connected to this setting, which poses plenty of intrigue about where the story will go. Interestingly, as well as its ties to the supernatural, Heart of the Forest also manages to touch on environmental issues too, including deforestation.
At the end of the chapter, I discover that my choices have led Maia to fall under one of the five auspices available in the game - New Moon, Crescent Moon, Half Moon, Gibbous Moon, and Full Moon - which shape the kind of person she is under the werewolf society known as Garou. Someone born under the New Moon is said to be destined to be masters of stealth, trickery, and guile, while those born under the Crescent Moon are more spiritualistic.
A werewolf born under the Half Moon are known as judges and balancers who can make wise decisions, while the Gibbous Moon auspice is for someone who's destined to be a storyteller and lore keeper. Finally, Garou born under a Full Moon are spirit warriors and the most vicious of their kind. The first time around, the Maia I play turns out to be a Seer born under the Crescent Moon based on my low rage and high spiritual personality. The second time, I end up taking a more rage-fueled, brash approach, leading me to be a warrior born under the Full Moon.
As someone who's a big fan of the visual novel genre, the systems and amount of weight your choices have left me eager to play more. With its immersive storytelling, eye-grabbing art style, and mysterious narrative, I can't help but wonder where Maia's story will go next.
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