It's a new year and that means... werewolves? Sure, let's go with that. Forget Jacob Black or the Companions of Skyrim, Werewolf: The Apocalypse - Earthblood is coming to next-gen systems in February 2021 and it's shaping up to be a treat. That being said, there's a two month wait, so it's best we avoid silver and witchers for now. Luckily enough, there's another title based on World of Darkness that we've had a hands-on play with, a visual novel adaptation of the table top game dubbed Heart of the Forest: it's one of the better entries into the medium out there, so be sure to grab your coffee and keep scrolling - we've got some good things to say about this moonlit story-driven gem.
Like any visual novel, Heart of the Forest is all about the clickity clack of dialogue and story options - a natural evolution of the text adventure genre with more going on than a black DOS screen and some white text. However, with it being centred around werewolves – accursed monsters that blossom under a full moon – there are some key additions such as the three main stats. Two are very predictable RPG entries with both willpower and health but, in-line with the theme, there is also the rage stat.
The gameplay and story are entangled as delicately as a tightly-woven ballet performance at Vaganova - the choices made mould Maia until they're a finely-crafted sculpture ready for display at the final ceremony. You can push them onto a more brutal path, have them fall under a more timid umbrella with charm as opposed to fear-mongering, or go so far into rage that Maia is blind to situations, struggling to withhold from acting - that level of choice is a hook that personally kept me going, especially with the map thrown in.
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Something that shakes up the expected read-and-click experience of a title such as Heart of the Forest is the inclusion of a map that allows you to pick various quests in whatever order you saw fit, helping to shape Maia's narrative and journey in your own determined way. What's more is that the length is bitter sweet - on the one hand, it feels short because it left a longing desire for more, but on the other hand, it was the perfect length, a refreshingly bite-sized game that didn't overstuff itself with gimmicks to the point of becoming a bloated mess.
Story / Personality
Werewolves, fantasy, self-fulfilment, the agency of adulthood, heritage: all of these ideas and themes are what ultimately make up Heart of the Forest. It's a heartfelt narrative with a sombre blanket despite the conflict and inner struggles of Maia. Anger issues and anxiety certainly hit a little too close to home for comfort, but the tackling of these ideas resonate in a way that doesn't feel offensive, tacked on, or misrepresented - Mai's struggles are a genuine expression of how rage can overwhelm and the handling of such sensitive topics has clearly been done with the care and thought of a hand-knitted sweater from a grandparent.
However, at its core, what Heart of the Forest truly tells is a story about the dangers of turning a careless eye to the harming of nature, with a heavy political narrative surrounding deforestation. It's a lot to pack into one game, especially one that only lasts around 10 hours, but Different Tales pulled it off spectacularly. Visual novels can often get word-y, repetitive, cliché, tired, and drag: Heart of the Forest may fall into the word-y category, but it does so more as a living, breathing novel rather than a cumbersome headache of text.
That's what the story, at its core, feels like. Ignoring themes, narrative decisions, character development, or whatever else, Heart of the Forest feels like an adventure novel where you pick a choice, flick to a page number to find out the consequence, and continue on a journey you hand-crafted, albeit more fluid, more intuitive, and a lot more visually stimulating.
Graphics / Art Direction
You could leave Heart of the Forest at its text and it would be a worthwhile venture that nets itself a pretty score, a place in the ranks of must-play novels, and a spot in your library. That being said, it's a visual novel, not just an interactive one, so there's the art side of things. What's to say other than it perfectly compliments the story, with as much care put into the artwork as the writing, bringing to life the words of the 'pages' in an unprecedentedly beautiful manner. Heart of the Forest is a grittier story, even if it does have a beating heart at its core, but the artwork is colourful, striking, vibrant, and beguiling in its juxtaposition - a werewolf howling at the bleeding lilac night sky with its gruesome body stretched outwards, fur rough as a bed of nails, is as pretty as a picture, but the text paints a picture of something much darker and much less alluring.
Final Score: 91%
If there's anything that deserves to be the jump-start to your new year of gaming, it's Heart of the Forest. It's one of those games that you can snuggle up in bed with the lights off and get lost for hours in – just like with a real novel. It's novel that way and bridges the gap between gimmick and innovation, much like many of its cohorts.
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