Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Heart of the Forest combines visual novel, RPG, and comic book influences for a fascinating exploration of environmentalism and Polish werewolf folklore.
In 2016, the Polish government announced plans to triple the logging limit for Bialowieza Forest, one of the largest remaining primeval forests in Europe and a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was, unsurprisingly, an unpopular move, sparking mass protests and public condemnation. Though the government claimed it was being done to protect the forest from an outbreak of bark beetle, conservation experts found no evidence that this would help, and that increased logging would put the whole ecosystem at risk. The government ignored the possibility of the forest losing World Heritage status and the finding that the logging was in breach of EU law, and it wasn’t until the threat of being fined €100,000 per day that the plan was finally halted. There’s still a fear that the logging could start up again.
This may not sound like the backdrop for a typical werewolf story, but then Werewolf: The Apocalypse—a White Wolf tabletop RPG from the same line as Vampire: The Masquerade—is anything but typical. Its world is a reflection of our own, but where global apocalypse is always on the horizon due to rampant hopelessness, corruption, violence, and apathy. Werewolves, or Garou, live in secret among humans, protecting the world from the shadows and fighting to prevent this apocalypse by whatever means necessary.
Within that sort of setting, it’s easy to imagine a version of the Bialowieza logging story in which Garou stand shoulder to shoulder with environmental activists to protect an untamed piece of nature from the maws of human greed. That’s the premise for Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Heart of the Forest, a riveting blend of visual novel, interactive comic, and role-playing game from developer Different Tales.
At the centre of Heart of the Forest is Maia Boroditch, an American woman of Polish descent who’s haunted by nightmares involving forests and wolves (you can probably guess why). When she decides to travel to Bialowieza to better understand her roots, she inevitably gets caught up in the anti-logging protests, driven in part by a growing understanding of her ancestors’ connection to the forest.
It’s a story that manages to delve into a lot of ideas, even in the relatively short space of a couple of hours for a single playthrough. The environmental impact of intensive logging is obviously central to everything that happens, but Heart of the Forest also uses that as a basis to explore the ethics of different forms of protest, to criticise heavy-handed police response, and to look at the cultural importance of a place like Bialowieza Forest as much as its significance in terms of environment and conservation.
The werewolf element adds an extra layer to all those things. It makes the environmental theme more immediate and personal, framed through the eyes of a group of creatures for whom the forest is home in a very literal sense. It raises the stakes of the question of violent versus nonviolent protest in a dramatic way, and the consequences of either approach with it. It draws on Polish werewolf folklore to underscore the cultural themes, and to make Maia’s exploration of her family history into something much more primal.
All of this unfolds through a game that mostly functions like a visual novel, but with a light touch of pen and paper RPG elements over the top. Heart of the Forest delivers its story through written prose accompanied by illustrations, with regular opportunities for players to make choices that affect the direction of the plot or Maia’s development as a character. But as well as affecting the direction of the plot itself, those choices also frequently alter a few core stats for Maia—her rage, her willpower, her physical health, various personality traits, and her relationships with other characters. These in turn affect how scenes play out, as well as the narrative options that are available at each branching point.
Stat management has been a part of visual novels as long as they’ve been around—think relationship values that determine who you wind up falling for in an otome game. Where Heart of the Forest adds a unique twists, and draws most on its RPG roots, is in the use of certain stats as a finite resource that’s spent when you take certain actions. While the choices that rely on willpower or health are often more beneficial or appealing than the alternatives that don’t, you have a limited pool of each—and when it runs out, you’ll lose the ability to make any such choices again until you find a way to restore them. It’s one thing to have a character act coldly towards you because you didn’t make decisions that earned their favour; it’s quite another to find yourself in a life or death situation with the obvious survival choice greyed out because you overexerted yourself earlier.
The other effect of this is a wide variety of choices and different ways for the story to play out. While a single playthrough will take a couple of hours at most (which isn’t a bad thing, anyway), Heart of the Forest is a game that benefits a lot from repeat playthroughs. There are five main endings, but thousands of different paths leading to those, and those paths can be wildly different even when they result in the same ultimate conclusion. In so many ways, Heart of the Forest is a game about exploring different perspectives, and its system of choices lends itself to that beautifully.
The trade-off to that is uneven pacing. The early chapters of Heart of the Forest are a relatively slow build, doing a great job of setting the scene and laying the groundwork for the more dramatic moments to come. But those moments themselves often come across as undercooked, over before they can ever reach the sort of intensity they should. This is particularly true of the endings—conclusions that seem, on paper, like they should be edge-of-your-seat stuff instead feel anticlimactic. This isn’t to say that Heart of the Forest doesn’t have a captivating story to tell, because it certainly does, but some of its most exciting moments are undersold.
The same can’t be said about the game’s arresting art style, which is consistently impressive from start to finish. It uses a mix of posterised photography, digital painting, and abstract visual effects to create a compelling, atmospheric visual style. Individual scenes typically use a limited pool of colours, sticking too cool or warm palettes as the moment needs to emphasise the mood of the scene—and to make those rare moments where a scene uses a broader range of hues for dramatic effect all the more impactful. The imagery is mostly static, but there are the odd moments of limited animation, digital comic style, again for dramatic effect.
There’s a comic book influence in Heart of the Forest‘s lettering, too. Though it’s written in prose rather than speech bubbles, the game often uses bold text to emphasise individual words, control reading pace, and convey the tone and flow of the narration in much the same way as you often see in comics. Coupled with sharp writing full of vivid imagery, these lettering effects make for a compelling read.
Some pacing issues aside, Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Heart of the Forest is gripping adventure. It uses the setting of the Werewolf: The Apocalypse tabletop RPG and relatively recent real-world events for a fascinating exploration of environmentalism, activism, and Polish culture, backed by a clever mix of visual novel storytelling, RPG systems, and comic book influence.
Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Heart of the Forest is developed by Different Tales and published by Walkabout Games. It’s available now for Nintendo Switch (reviewed) and PC.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.