At a very quick glance, Howl looks like an intriguing tactics game with a gorgeous, sombre art style. What it is more like is a turn-based Chu Chu Rocket… just not as charming, appealing, or worthwhile.
The protagonist of Howl is a deaf prophet. Your goal is to help navigate her through all kinds of terror-filled spaces to find her lost brother. The world has been beset by some kind of plague that turns everyone it touches into a monster (expect to become thoroughly exhausted by “the world has been overcome by plague” games over the next couple of years), but she is immune.
Unfortunately, those monsters can kill her just fine with their claws and other sharp bits, so the plague is the least of this prophet’s worries. Instead, she needs to use the limited tools she has available to reach the exit for each level.
Things start simply. You can take three actions in a single turn: Move, shove, and fire an arrow. If you come into sight range of a monster, they will respond with one action for each one that you take. You need to figure out a way around these monsters, or a way to eliminate them, but that’s not easy when you only have a few arrows to use. Finally, to make things more complex, you’re tasked with trying to get to the exit within a certain number of turns.
Later on, you unlock additional abilities, from additional moves in a turn (to a maximum of six), to the ability to jump over the heads of enemies, utilise a smoke bomb for deception, and find additional resources in levels to help turn the tide against the overwhelming danger arrayed against you. Of course, the enemies become more numerous and the path to the exit more perilous, too, so you never feel like you’re the one with the aces in the hand.
Because there’s only one real solution to each challenge in the game, Howl is a puzzle game, rather than a tactical one. You’re punished for experimenting, and forced to replay levels over and over again until you’ve found the one pathway that gets you to the exit within the par number of turns.
And then you’ll have to replay levels over and over again until you figure out the one way to kill all the enemies in the stage. For whatever reason the developers decided to lock some progress behind collecting all the “skulls” of the enemies in many levels, but it’s totally impossible to reach the exit in the par number of turns if you focus on defeating the enemies. And so, even if you play perfectly, you’re looking at replaying every level at least twice to totally clear the game.
This is terrible game design and stinks of a desperate effort to pad out playtime arbitrarily. I know why the developers did it – if you don’t you end up with whining hordes about how “short” the game is, but compromising the rhythm of your game is just not the solution to that problem. Especially when, as a puzzle game, providing players with new levels to test their logic skills is critical to engagement. As it is, Howl’s 60 levels (x2) will take about eight hours to work through, and the premise is too stretched for that. Half the length would have made for a far more concise and intense experience.
There was the potential to make things really intense, too. The palpable sense of fairy tale-style horror is real and supported by both the hand-drawn aesthetics and various savage sound effects as enemies close in on your position. The narrative is more backgrounded than it deserves to be, but it’s a good take on proper Grimm-like storytelling. You know, the kind of that saw women cutting toes and heels off their feet to try and get a shoe on in the original Cinderella. The good nightmare stuff.
Howl is an earnest effort with a strong aesthetic and creative vision. It’s easy to imagine that it’s going to find an audience among people who pick it up on a whim – because in screenshots and video, it does stand out – and then find themselves absorbed in the puzzles. Unfortunately, while it does get challenging, Howl outlives its welcome, and the strange decision to deliberately add repetition into something that should have focused on forward momentum really hurts it in the end. If it was half the game it would have been twice as impressive.